by Khadim Durrani
Author: Robert Jackson
Book Title: Thirty Seconds at Quetta
Date Published: 1960
Publisher: Evans Brothers Limited. London.
Number of Pages: 248
Thirty seconds at Quetta is a book for anyone who is from Quetta or is interested in its history; most importantly it’s about the aftermath of the deadly earthquake of May 31st 1935 that razed Quetta and other earthquake stricken areas to the ground, killing between 30 and 60 thousand people and injuring thousands more. Never has this devastation been more vividly told than in this riveting, movingly fascinating book. It is also about a sub-chapter in the history of British colonial rule – a time when a large community of Indian migrants were living in Quetta! Furthermore, it highlights the historical setting of British military and civilian bureaucracy that was running the affairs of the region from its administrative seat in Quetta.
Coming from Quetta myself I can say the material presented in the book, with a few exceptions, seems to have been well researched and in this regard Mr Jackson gives a detailed list of documents and the names of officials that he consulted before writing the book. Besides describing at length how the rescue operations were conducted, the author focuses on the individual cases of courage, dedication and heroism of doctors and nurses, of rescuing soldiers and survivors, and on the courage of victims’ families; the author also recounts in some detail how the agent to the Governor-General Sir Norman Cater (the head of the Government administration) and General Karslake had to deal with a very difficult task of organizing the rescue operations in the wee hours of the morning – on the Residency lawn (now Governor House). Another interesting character that emerges in the story is that of Harkbir Tharpa (see Chapter 6, The Gurkhas). Tharpa was skinny but a strong Rifleman from Gurkha Rifles; he was gifted with possessing a range of hearing beyond the normal and could hear cries so faint that they were inaudible to others. On several occasions, he helped save people who were trapped in the rubble/debris. Later on, he was awarded the Albert Medal for his services during the earthquake.
In order to make it worth reading the author has beautifully blended the core facts with the touch of fiction, humour and in places with sarcasm. Given that he has never been to that part of the world, I would say he has definitely managed to weave a remarkable story – a story that becomes surreal when it starts sinking in that those who helped build Quetta (even called it Quetta) were not native people but foreigners and that they are no longer living amongst us! Only this book can give you that feeling, provided you are from Quetta.
The danger however for presenting the cocktail of facts and fiction is that people who do not have an in-depth knowledge of the region, about its history, traditions and its people, will believe blindly certain sweeping statements that the author has repeatedly made, on purpose, to exaggerate the situation and make the book worth reading. Perhaps his stereotypical perceptions are based on what he was told by the British Army Officers who were stationed in Quetta at the time. For example, a few odd cases of robbery or theft doesn’t mean the whole communities of ethnic Pashtoons, Baloch (or Baluch) and Brahui (or Brohi) should be labelled as thieves or robbers as has been alleged by the author. This kind of uninformed generalisation is very misleading and the author, in my opinion, has not been fair to the people of the region. I am sure the locals, as they are called these days, will find those derogatory passages very offensive and insulting; in my opinion this is where this marvellous narrative gets spoilt and tainted.
Perhaps the author was not mindful to the fact that at the time the British Imperial Forces were considered as the occupying forces in the region (that is the way they are now rightly perceived in Afghanistan and Iraq) and the attacks on them or any random acts of looting/robberies, if ever took place, could and should only have been explained in that context, and not by portraying the whole communities as bad people! Moreover, it is difficult to say whether Mr Jackson intended to use such a negative language against the tribesmen as part of his writing strategy to attract more readers by means of exaggeration or was he simply presenting the information that was communicated to him by the British Forces stationed in the region.
Furthermore, except for a few passing remarks about the native Pashtun and Baloch tribes of Quetta region and their location in Quetta (e.g., Kassi & Shahwanis) it is very ironic to find almost nothing about them in this book or what role did they play in the rescue operations, if at all! On the contrary, wherever the indigenous people were mentioned, they were presented in a bad way. The absence of material about the natives therefore renders this narrative a biased one. Had the author done a little bit more of a research to find out more about the lives of the local ethnic tribes who were unlike Indian migrants not part and parcel of the British colonial caravan but who strongly felt they were under occupation, the book would have done justice to the natives of Quetta and the region, and, would have acclaimed equal appreciation by them. Interestingly in a recent BBC Radio 4 programme that aired[i] the comments of the British survivors of the 1935 Quetta earthquake, a caller (an old lady) – who was in Quetta at the time of earthquake – was singing the same mantra about ‘Pathans’ that the author Robert Jackson mentions in the book. This shows clearly the extent to which people can get influenced by false propaganda.
In the end, despite its shortcomings, I would highly recommend this book[ii] to Quetta lovers and say this book is worth reading; it presents the most remarkable understanding of Quetta of 1930s. For controversial and provocative statements regarding tribesmen the author can be forgiven for being ignorant. It would equally be unfair, on our part, if we do not acknowledge the contribution of the author in preserving part of Quetta’s history that our elders so proudly called as ‘little London’.
- Khadim Durrani has Ph.D in Geology from France; he is currently residing in the UK and tweets under @KhadimDurrani.
Notes:[i] The programme was broadcast in 2007 I happened to listen to it in May 2008 when I was searching for some historical material to write an article about Quetta earthquake of 1935. Had I listened to it on the day (I don’t know whether it was live or a pre-recorded programme) I would have definitely phoned in and communicated my concern about the sweeping generalisation that the old lady was making about ‘Pathans’.
[ii]By reading the book and other literature about Quetta one gets the impression as if the local – the indigenous Pashtoon and Baloch tribes – did not play any role during the rescue operations that followed the earthquake. It seems as if we the locals did not contribute much to the development of our city. The British Raj not only designed the city to meet the needs of their troops but they also brought in the skilled labour from various parts of Indian sub-continent: masons, carpenters, craftsmen, iron smith, mechanics etc. Most of these men and women chose to stay in Quetta even after the partition. A significant number of the migrated Indians were non-Muslims, of Hindu, Sikh and Christian creed. Though majority of Hindus and Sikhs left Quetta after the partition but many Christian families remained behind. Important thing to note is that they were free to practice their respective religions under the British Raj and they continue to enjoy the same religious freedom even today when unfortunately the Pakistani society has become less tolerant towards not only non-Muslim religious minorities but also towards one another!
The flipside of the story is the book did not and does not benefit a large section of Quetta residents as a) it is in the English language; b) because of that not known to the general public, hence, c) inaccessible to the general public. A good translation of this book would be indispensable and a great service to the people of Quetta, even 49 years after its publication.