Friday, 20 April 2012

The deadly Sphinx

[…] In the year 1802, the emblem of the "Sphinx" was conferred upon the regiments “that helped to defeat Napoleon’s Army in Egypt in the previous year” as a battle honour. […]

Around the same time in a part of the world far removed from the Napoleonic wars a very different drama was unfolding. Both the nomadic and settled populations of Balochistan were experiencing a horrific predicament. It began with stray goats and cattle going missing.

Then, people began to disappear with no apparent cause or explanation. The young, the old, men and women, lonely travellers and shepherds alike fell prey to this unknown scourge. Even the newly dead were not safe and their bodies were dug up and seemingly devoured. Sometimes, mauled and mutilated bodies and crushed bones were discovered, at other times there was no trace at all. Clearly a beast, nay, a monster was preying on the living and dead alike. Some claimed to have seen it, they said that it walked on two legs and sometimes even ran on all four. It was huge and menacing and had a roar that would stop a heart from beating. The locals gave it a name that, in retrospect, doesn’t sound very menacing.

They called it the “mum” and despite its somewhat cuddly name, bone chilling stories of its boundless hunger kept circulating and still exist in oral traditions. Even as recently as the 1980s, as a child I remember my own mum threatening me with the possible arrival of this other “mum” whenever I used to be mischievous. Oblivious to the details of the Balochi version, I used to brush aside the possibility of another mum being more frightening than my own mum, when  she really wanted to be.

Here’s where these two tales intersect…

Back in the days of the British Raj, Quetta, the current capital of Balochistan, was a beautiful little town. It was the western most cantonment of British India and provided easy access to Afghanistan as the border was much closer as compared to that of today. In fact, the border kept shifting until the boundary commission fixed one permanently, in the shape of the Durand Line. The beautifully constructed colonial buildings, the cherry blossoms and the snowfalls of Quetta earned it the nickname of ‘Little London’. With the high-stakes geopolitical drama, known as “the Great Game” going on, both the Russian and the British empires had their eyes set on Afghanistan. More and more British regiments were being allocated to the Anglo-Afghan wars, among them the elite soldiers who had beaten ol’ Boney back in Egypt. They marched proudly into Afghanistan carrying the Sphinx insignia, but sadly for them, this was no Egypt. The Anglo-Afghan wars proved to be very costly for the British and their men were being slaughtered by the hundreds. Some of the dead from Afghanistan were eventually brought to Quetta for burial and a memorial was erected to honour them. And what else to guard the monument, than the insignia of their parent regiment — a relic of their past glory to crown their fall. The Sphinx! With the construction of this stone lion with the head of a human, the locals could finally put a face to their hitherto faceless terror. The Egyptian sphinx was now the Baloch Mum.

Interestingly, the legend and the statue jelled together very well. Legend had it that the Quetta Mum was a female of the variety that had been left behind when others of her species moved on due to increasing human encroachments.

It was said that she came to life during the nights and hunted for prey, which she used to take up to a cave on the Murdar Ghar peak in the hills behind the cantonment area. This fit perfectly with the fact that the graveyard sphinx sat as still as, well, a statue during the day. Who knew what it got up to during the night? Such was it’s notoriety that even in post-partition Quetta, much of the local population avoided passing alone at night along the Baleli Road where the “Gora” qabrastan (Christian Cemetery) is situated.

However, it was this very notoriety that spelled its unfortunate demise. In the 1990s, the statue was smashed during a protest against the destruction of the Babri Masjid. An enraged mob decided to take revenge on the poor Mum for preying on their ancestors for all those centuries. […]