The mullah looked me over with sceptical eyes. “This man cannot get up the mountain,” he said to my friend. “He is far too old.” This was the year 2000; I was only 48, with a bald pate and silver temples. But I took umbrage.
“I’ve been on mountains higher than your piddling little hill,” I said fighting the urge to finish with an apt invective or two. The man wanted to know how high I had been. I said 5,700 metres (18,700 feet) and he floored me with, “Been Gah is a full one thousand feet higher!” In fact, he added, this was the tallest mountain in the world.
It was the name Been Gah that had drawn me into the heart of the Suleman Mountains in Dera Ghazi Khan. Balochi being a derivative of ancient Persian, I presumed the name meant ‘vantage point’ and imagined there would be some wonderful vistas from its 2,138 metre (7,013 feet) summit. The good mullah was the head of the seminary of remote Patra and having been warned of my arrival had been asked to host our team overnight. He had also been requested to prepare a vegetarian meal rather than the stock Baloch offering of roast lamb.
Before I could tell our host he was rude, my friend Khurram Khosa forestalled me by engaging the man in conversation. On the morrow we walked with a camel carrying our camping gear because we wanted to remain on the summit overnight. But we were there in about four hours’ time and having spent a couple of hours exploring about the narrow crest, we thought an overnight halt was out of order. Moreover, even in early December, Been Gah was still crowded with shepherds. That’s global warming for you.
After a tea session and some snacks that we had carried along, we started back; Khurram on horseback following the camel while I raced ahead on foot. By early afternoon, well before sundown, I was back in Patra. Mullah sahib was sunning himself outside his guestroom. Seeing him I made a long, sad face and clomped up to him with exaggerated weariness.
Throwing myself on the charpoy, I said I had not been able to make it to the top. There began this gloating ‘I told you so’ harangue as I sat with my head down nodding miserably. Only the Baloch could climb it, said the man. Then I told him he was right about Been Gah being the tallest mountain in the world. Only, he had got the height wrong. The hill was, I said, 70,000 feet high.
Mullah sahib looked at me askance. This gross fabrication was too much even for this man of the mountains. No, he said. It could not be as high as that. I scratched my head and corrected myself: the hill was 70,000 feet from the sea; from Patra it was exactly 20,000 feet as he knew. The mullah nodded, glee writ all over his beaming face, which, I admit, was very good-looking. Then he sat back and ordered tea for the tired and defeated hill walker from Lahore.
Meanwhile, Khurram arrived with the rest of the convoy. The mullah began his gleeful ‘See, I told him’ story. Khurram and our guide were nonplussed for they did not know what yarn I had woven in the meanwhile. They looked confusedly at our host and before I could even warn him, Khurram blurted out, “But he made it to the top in a song”.
Now it was the mullah’s turn to be mortified. How could I have done it? The good man took a long hard look at me and declared that I was either lying about my age or I had indulged in some terrible practices in my youth to have gone so gray and completely bald at such a young age. Then, in order to overcome his embarrassment, he said I had to be lying either about my age or my parentage. I could not be any older than thirty, he declared. If not, then I had to be born of Baloch parents.
I let that pass, because mullah sahib was a kind and generous host who, despite being a Baloch, served us vegetarian meals.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2012.