Portrait by Paraffin Lamp
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) - 06 - UPDATED
I wish I'd found this shot a month ago, because it would have been 40 years more or less to the day when I took it. I don't know where it is, exactly. I mean the name of the hamlet where the old man pictured lived. Just the general area.
But where to start this story?
It was early November, 1980. Perhaps two days earlier I had met Bernd, a 19-year old German traveller, on a train. Bernd was on his way round the world. We got on and found a hotel room to share. He needed a visa for a neighbouring country. Next day, he went off to the embassy and I did some photography. We agreed to meet up at a certain teahouse around noon.
In the tea house at the appointed time, and a man, let's call him Malik, struck up conversation – it was the norm in this part of the world. After ten minutes of chit chat, Malik said: “I'd like to invite you to my home. Please be my guest.”
Well, that was very hospitable of him, but I had no real desire at that time to drift off to some random home to pass the time away.
I don't know if my face gave away my lack of enthusiasm, but then Malik said: “Actually, it's in a forbidden zone. It's military, foreigners aren't allowed in, but I can fix that. I have good connections with the police.”
I don't know if Malik had a degree in psychology, but of course, this news changed everything. Yes, I was interested. But I also had Bernd to think about, who, as it happened, conveniently arrived a few minutes later. Malik insisted we were both invited, so we promptly got down to planning our trip. We had to meet at 04.00 the next morrning, at some bus station.
I'll say no more for now. This photo is not of Malik; it is far more random. It was on the return trip from Malik's home. He'd somehow found a bus or lorry to get us back to the city, but after a few miles, the driver had decided he'd had enough. He wasn't going any further and we'd have to walk.
And it was dusk. Out of the gloom, a man appeared – the one in the photo – and invited us into his home, across the road. This was becoming something of a habit! He said he'd sort out transport to the city.
It was in the home that they lit up the lamps, and I decided to try a family portrait – well, of the male side of the family anyway. I can't even remember if we saw any of the women.
In case you can't spot it, the man in the photo – I can't remember if he was the father or grandfather – hasn't got a rifle in his hands, nor even a hookah pipe. It's a set of bagpipes.
For those that remember the days of real film, this shot was taken on Kodak Tri-X, the 'speed' of which was nominally 400 ASA. But I decided – and it may have been this shot that pushed me to do it – to rate it at twice this speed, that is at 1600 ASA. (You could do this by increasing the developing time when in the can – but at the cost of larger grain.)
Still, the light was so poor – you can see one lamp, but I arranged another behind my right shoulder to give a little bit on the right side of the faces – that I needed to expose this shot for ¼ or possibly ½ of a second (on a tripod, of course). It was all guesswork, no lightmeter could measure this.
I explained to my 'models' that they had to stay still, but you can see the little boy at the front simply couldn't manage that, so he's a bit blurred.
I suspect things are much, much tighter in this part of the world today. I certainly don't think any white skinned westerner would get into this area like we did, not unless they had connections at the highest level - certainly higher than Malik (more about that anon), We were lucky – there hadn't been much shooting at the cease-fire line for some months, I'd guess.
I'd love these people to see their pic, but I doubt they ever will. The boy who couldn't keep still will be in his early 40s, by now, and the old man is probably dead. As I remember, they did find us transport to 'civilisation' in the city. That same night I woke up vomiting and with my body exploding. I'd caught malaria, but that's another story.
So, where were we for this pic? I know it's not much, but I can't give any more clues or it would be too obvious. You have a day to guess, and I'll update with the rest of the story.
Well, this piccie drew a wide variety of suggestions and guesses. I suppose the default intelligent guess was Afghanistan, and indeed, this was not too far out. Except, while I think it's true to say that Kabul does not officially accept the Durand line (forming the border with today's Pakistan) drawn up in 1893 between Kabul and British India, and I don't think China officially recognises parts of the borders either, still, as far as I know there is no cease-fire* line as such in or around the country, neither in 1980, nor today.
So if it wasn't Afghanistan, but that's not far out, where could it be? The answer lies in yet another one-time princely statelet-cum-fiefdom that made up many parts of former British India. It has a bizarrely complicated history that would make for a wonderful soap opera, except that I suspect it would involve so much intrigue and death that it would cause political ructions in an area that doesn't really need any more.
Oh dear, to refresh myself on exactly what constitutes what, I went to Wikipedia and found that what I called the cease-fire line is normally called the “line of control”. Apologies, I didn't mean to set a false clue.
But let's return to the story: Bernd and I arrived at the bus station at the appointed hour to find Malik, but no bus. I should saw we were in Rawalpindi, referred to by locals as just 'Pindi' – which is adjacent to Islamabad, the newly built (at least then) capital of Pakistan. I think we found a bus after an hour or so, and jumped aboard, along with 30 or so others, plus, if I remember correctly, some chickens.
All went well – at least according to local driving standards – for half an hour or so, but then Malik started to get edgy. Next thing, Bernd and myself were given blankets, told to put them around ourselves and over our heads, and move to the back of the bus. We were approaching 'the border' and it seemed Malik's 'good connections' with the police weren't that good at all.
In fact, they were non-existent, as we realised when he came back to us and said: “If the police ask, you don't know me.”
Great. Minutes later, we stopped at a bridge over a river, and four police-cum-soldiers got on to inspect things. It was a ridiculous situation – I mean, here we were, two alarmingly white, Caucasian faces wrapped up in blankets among 30 or so dark, swarthy, very definitely local visages and half a dozens cackling chickens.
It wasn't a passport or ID check as such, but as two of the guards came down the bus, it was obvious we were to be taken off and, if we were lucky, sent packing. The alternative would be some hours, or even days, in a police cell while the authorities deliberated if we were agents of the evil ones, ie in the pay of New Delhi.
Now half way down the bus, the guards stopped, surveyed the remaining passengers, including us, turned round and got off.
The bus re-started its journey, Malik re-invited us to our former seats, and all was well: we were the best of friends and any idea of him leaving us to our fate in a Pakistani police cell was pure fantasy. He surely had 'good relations', and he'd proved it, hadn't he?
(Note to any New Delhi intelligence chiefs reading this - I'm sure it's tighter these days, so don't try it.)
We were now in Azad Jammu and Kashmir – that's Free Jammu and Kashmir according to Pakistan – and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir according to India. I won't go into the history here, suffice to say both states claim sovereignty, and while they squabbled, China got in on the act and claimed a bit too.
We must have reached Malik's home by mid-morning, and we were treated to traditional hospitality. His home was in a sort of spread-out village, with houses scattered every 100 metres or so around us. I honestly forget how we occupied ourselves, except that I took a fair few photos of the very peaceful, lush, green surroundings. From memory, we were told the line of control was about 5 miles away, over some nearby hills.
The problem with such spontaneous Muslim hospitality is that, unless your hosts are educated folk and able to engage in sensible conversation, after tea and a meal or sometimes three, you run out of things to say, and they don't know what to do with you.
In most 'normal' cases, you can take your leave, but we had no real idea where we were, and we couldn't wander around in case we ran into an army patrol, which might have had serious consequences for everyone.
I think we stayed a night and left the next afternoon, Malik finding us a truck that was supposedly heading for Rawalpindi. Which takes us back to the beginning of the story, and the photo, because, of course it didn't.
In this part of the world, people seem to feel they have to say yes to any request – certainly if it involves a foreigner - only for you to find out twenty minutes later that they really meant no. There is really no point in getting angry – it's all very friendly confusion, but confusion it is.
In fact, I should be grateful to Malik for delaying my journey: without this side trip into “Free Kashmir”, I might have gone down with malaria out in the sticks of North West Frontier province and alone, which would have been rather frightening and possibly dangerous.
As it was, I got some doctor to prescribe some quinine and I spent a couple of days recuperating.
But there was another, intriguing coda to this stay in Pindi. On the second day, news of the American presidential elections was due, forcing me into the street to find out the result.
“President Carter did not win,” said the first shopkeeper I asked. But knowing the somewhat elastic local interpretation of what a westerner would call the truth, I moved along a bit and asked another middle-class looking chappie, just to be sure.
“Oh, President Carter did not win,” came the reply. Fascinated by hearing exactly the same worded answer, I shuffled along the street by the length of a cricket pitch, and asked a third.
“President Carter did not win,” said the head, gently rocking from side to side.
Faced with such precise consistency, I felt confident that a former actor named Ronald Reagan was to be the new man in the Whitehouse, and went back to the hotel.
If you'd like to find out about Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir here's the wikipedia page.
Pakistan-administered Azad Jammu and Kashmir is here