A Week in Lahore (6)

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 19 January 1886


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/1, p. 49

The Sultan Serai and Afzul reappear, transformed, as the Kashmir Serai and Mahbub Ali in Kim.

The Article

[ . . . ] After all, it is the country cousin on a three weeks’ visit who gets to know more of London than his Cockney relative of ten years’ residence. And, in the same manner, it is the out-station visitor who really understands the curiosities of Lahore. Rumours of small-pox in the City deter him not, nor does the fact of farcy (a dangerous disease of horses) having declared itself in the Serai (caravanserai, a resting place for travellers and their horses and camels), prevent him from riding there and there spending a happy day — by preference a Sunday. Decidedly, to know one’s own station thoroughly, one must always live elsewhere, or follow in the wake of some enthusiastic excursionist — the man who ‘wants to see y’see’ and ‘know y’know’. Under his guidance it is possible to penetrate into the very heart of the country of the Houyhnhnms (a race of intelligent horses, in Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift) which, as everybody ought to know, is the property of the Maharaja of Kashmir, and is kept in a disgraceful condition. Not long ago there were six hundred Houyhnhnms tended by about three hundred Yahoos (degenerate humans in the same novel) — and the Pathan horse boy in his frank brutality could almost give points to Swift’s creation — in and about the evil-smelling enclosures known collectively as the Sultan Serai; and thither an Enthusiastic Excursionist betook himself one day — before the present rain spoilt everything and converted the Maharajah’s unsavoury possession into a dank muck-heap.

He did not want to buy a horse — albeit few dealers believed him when he said so — but his soul yearned for information of a vague and general kind; and the inmates of the Sultan Serai do not take kindly to interviewing. Even an attempt to sketch one of the jetty-locked (black-haired), red-cheeked, swaggering, breezy, greasy blackguards was foiled by the sketchee dodging behind the nearest picketed pony, or averting his rugged face like a bashful child. They may be estimable men of course, these hirsute outlanders, but why does each one of them look so guiltily conscious of undigested murders? This was very nearly the first question which the Enthusiastic Excursionist asked as he entered the Serai; and he kept on putting it mentally to himself throughout the greater part of the visit. Those who know the manners and customs of the keepers of the Houyhnhnms are aware that the small fry of the dealers swarm round an Englishman at once; while the bigger fish — there are three or four — wait in the dignified seclusion of their own private serais until they are interviewed.

Staying only then to translate a telegram to a huge Pathan (who handed the red envelope as if it had been a bomb and required several assurances that no judgment would overtake him for opening a ‘tar’ addressed to himself) the Enthusiastic Excursionist threaded his way through roped horses, unroped camels, picturesque scraps of carpets, brazen samovars, woolly Turkomen sheep dogs, a Persian cat and much dirt, to that secluded court, reached by a cool arched passage, where Afzul hides the pick of his purchases from the profane gaze.

(The question here raises itself, whether the selection of Afzul’s name for the honour and dignity of print is not calculated to do that estimable Afghan a lot of harm. However he does not read English and has — sold so many horses to so many men, that he is in a measure a public character. His name shall be written therefore.) The Enthusiastic Excursionist was received affably. He did not wish to buy a horse (Afzul guessed as much by the look of his eye but was far too polite to say so). He wanted to know about things generally; and in the meantime, till conversation flowed naturally, would like to inspect the six or seven beasts which were stalled in a side stable.

‘All by Government stallions and zemindari mares’ quoth Afzul pithily. ‘Except the one in the corner; he is a Gulf Arab, and of him I have never before seen the like in this country. That is — bay, fourteen three a half (fourteen hands plus three and a half inches: at four inches to a ‘hand’, the pony was 59.5 inches high, just under five feet – 152 cm – at the ‘withers’, the back just in front of the saddle):
four (years old); six hundred (rupees: there were some 15 rupees to the £, thus the price of this one was £40: at that time the silver rupee had fallen in value from some ten to the £). That is — grey horse; fifteen a half; four; five hundred. That over there is — chestnut, four; fifteen; seven hundred; and that one next him is seven hundred also — fifteen one. All country-bred by Government stallion except the Gulf Arab. Ah! such an Arab (here Afzul raised his eyes piously to Heaven for a moment). I have never seen his like. I will ride him.’ ‘But Afzul,’ interrupted the Enthusiastic Excursionist, ‘I don’t want to buy. I have come to see only.’ ‘It is well. You shall see — see how that Gulf Arab can go. Boy, bring a saddle.’ In good truth so far as an extremely limited knowledge of horseflesh enabled one bystander to judge, the beast in question was a noble one. He was blessed with more bone below the knee than the generality of ‘Gulfers’; his shoulder was a thing of beauty and his quarters a revelation. So was his price — eight hundred depreciated rupees. ‘But who will give that now, Afzul? There is a new takkus (tax) abroad, and we are all poor.’ ‘What matter?’ returned Afzul swinging himself into the saddle; ‘I will take that horse — Ah! such a horse — to Simla and perhaps he may be sold to some lady there. Beyond doubt he will be sold. Such horses are not seen every day. Look here!’

The grey shot out under the archway in a hurry; was dextrously directed through lines of his picketed friends: safely steered between two broken-down dog carts, over an affrighted hen or so and a few hundred yards of drain-channelled uneven soil; brought round with a jerk; sent flying full tilt back again at the dark archway — turned again and, simply to show his handiness, wheeled in and out at a gallop between the trees that stud the outskirts of the further Serai. ‘Ah! such a horse!’ ejaculated Afzul as he handed the grey over to the charge of a small boy whom it attempted to dance upon. ‘That is a grand horse. You did not want to buy. But I wanted to show you. One does not see horses like that every day. And now we will talk — How many horses have I! About one fifty, all for cavalry remounts just now. Country-breds, except the Gulf Arab and another. They average over 14.2. Perhaps two thousand horses of all kinds come into the Serai in one year and are sold. All are sold or nearly all; and one with the other they bring about Rs. 200 each. Yes! Even with the polo ponies for which the young sahibs pay so much. There are many bad ones of course — very many cheap and bad ones.’

‘And have you regular customers?’ ‘The Calcutta Tramway Company buys perhaps three hundred horses in the year — Badakshani horses — from out of the Serai. The Bombay Tramways Company also took a good many not long ago — pucca horses not ponies you understand. They know about horses the Bombay Company.’
(Here followed a digression on the many merits of the Company and the exceeding wisdom and acuteness of its agents; coupled with the information that it was not possible to train inferior horses to Bombay.)

‘And where do these two thousand beasts come from?’ ‘My horses?’ ‘No, you egoist, all the horses that are not bred south of Peshawar.’ ‘Oh those! Those come from Turkistan.’ ‘Can’t you tell where? Turkistan is a big word.’ ‘Eastern Turkistan over there.’
(Afzul knows more of horseflesh than he does of geography. He was certain they came from all over Turkistan — Balkh — and elsewhere. They were collected by agents in those mysterious regions and brought down south by ‘these men’, — the population in the Serai who for the greater part are Suleman Khels and from the neighbourhood of Ghuzni.)

‘I don’t go with the horses myself. I am always in India,’ continued Afzul. ‘The horses are collected in Turkestan and then the loot begins. Alum Sher, Cabuli, will be able to tell you. He goes with the horses.’ He was not much over six foot high — wore a jet black beard, clean postheen (coast or robe), fancifully embroidered Bokhara belt and pouches, looked like a hero of medieval romance, and was a courteous Afghan horse-dealer. (I don’t want to say in so many words that Alum Sher, Cabuli, was six feet six, because I am convinced that no one would believe me. Anyhow he was something near it.) He spoke an unknown tongue which Afzul translated and the gist of his speech was this: — It takes between twelve and fourteen days to bring the horses down from Cabul to Peshawar. Between Cabul and Peshawur His Highness Abdur Rahman, C.G.S.I., levies these trifling tolls per horse: —

Mares pay Rs. 7 less. This according to Alum Sher, Cabuli, is absolute fact. He objects to the payment; holds it excessive, but pays because it is impossible to avoid the octroi (tax) posts. In Turkistan itself is exacted an ad valorem duty (a proportion of the value) on each beast of ____. but this, like Alum Sher’s height, would never be believed. It is enough to say that the duty is not a light one. ‘This is solemn truth and there is yet more loot,’ said Alum Sher, ‘the Amir’s Naib (deputy) in Turkistan takes the pick of the horses first — and at Cabul the Amir.’ ‘But he pays of course.’ ‘Oh, yes, he pays. He sees a fine horse and asks the price. We are poor men and afraid. What have we to do with the Amir? Can we ask the full price — no! If it is a four hundred rupee beast we say two hundred and so on. It is so with the Naib in Turkestan.’

The tale of course is as old as the beginning of empire all the world over, but it did not become more hacknied as told by the hirsute Alum Sher, standing among the picketed horses in the Sultan Serai, in gruff, harsh gutturals. Later on, he told the Enthusiastic Excursionist of horses ‘over there in Turkistan’ that neither love nor money could buy. He had been in those regions and knew. So ended the interview.