Thursday, April 7, 2011

May 1934 (The Road To Oxiana)

Robert Byron's passport

          At this juncture a bearded gentleman wearing a blue turban and mounted on a long bodied black horse, trotted round the corner of the downs.  He was followed by two attendants carrying rifles on their saddle-bows.  One had a beard also.  The other’s face was veiled.

        “Who are you?” asked the leader.

        “I know who this gentleman is,” interrupted the unveiled follower, pointing at me.  “He came to Kala Nao in the winter and fell ill there.  Your health is better now, aga, by the grace of God?”


Robert Byron (1905-1941)

        “By the grace of God it is.  I remember you too.  You are in the employ of His Excellency the Governor of Kala Nao, and brought me food when I was ill. “

        Reassured by this mutual recognition, the two parties became more confiding.  Christopher explained our predicament.

Kabul Bagh Mosque, 1526, Built by Babur

        “My name,” announced the man in the blue turban,  “is Haji Lal Mohammed.  I am a pistachio merchant, who had business in Murghab and am now returning to India.  This is a bad stretch of road to be out on after dark; a man had his throat cut here not long ago.  The nearest robat is only one farsakh off.   If you will mount these gentlemen’s horses, we will ride on there, and tell the people to send out other horses for your chauffeur and luggage.”

 Afghanistan by camel, 1930s

        We mounted, and the guards with their rifles hopped up behind us.  The veiled enigma clasped his hands around my stomach.

        “What do you think of him?”, Haji Lal asked me.

        “I don’t  know what to think of a man when I can’t see his face.”

Banochi Afghan folding Lohar , "an up-close and personal" fighting weapon

         “Ha, ha, he is very young, but a great killer.  He already has killed five men.  Too young for so many, don’t you think?”

        The enigma giggled coyly under his draperies and tickled me in the ribs.

        “I presume you are followers of Jesus,” remarked Christopher’s pillion-mate.


        “And were in Herat three days ago?” broke in Haji Lal.  “Therefore, you can tell me what the exchange rate is between Kabuli and Indian rupees.  Also, the price of Karakulis?”  By these he meant lambskins.

One of the Bamiyan Buddhas photographed in situ by Robert Byron.  Byron, incidentally, did not care for the Bamiyan statuary and had some interesting things to say on the subject.


        “Are you married?”, he continued.  “How many children have you and how much money?  I sometimes think of visiting London.  How much does it cost to spend the night there?”

Reconstruction of Ptolemy's map of Central Asia, 2d century AD

        “That depends”,  said Christopher, “on what sort of night you want to spend.”

         That reminded Haji Lal of a more pressing matter. “Have you any medicines in your luggage?”


Royal residence, Kabul

        “Will you give me one?  I want the kind that will make me please the ladies in Herat.”

        “I’m not sure we have that kind.”

Monument, Kabul

Tomb of King Kabus (1007) 

        We jogged along in silence for a little.

        “That car of yours, “ said Haji Lal suddenly.  “What’s wrong with it?”

         “I don’t know.”

        “Will it ever go again?

        “I don’t know.”

        “What will you do if it doesn’t?”

        “Go on by horse.”

2009, Cockfighter, Kabul  

        There was a further silence.

        “Will you sell it?”  asked Haji Lal.

        The words fell like music.  But Christopher was careful not to show it.

Edition of The Road To Oxiana bound in Nigerian goatskin with gold hand tooling and French marbled end-papers 

Contemporary commercial building in Herat

Excerpt from: Robert Byron, The Road To Oxiana, London, Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1937.

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