Abbottabad, Osamabad

From Himal Southasian, Volume 24, Number 6 (JUN 2011)

Poor Abbottabad, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, now notorious as the last hiding place of Osama bin Laden. It is harder for me to imagine that this person, so intently watching his own past exploits on video with the help of a remote control, was managing a world network of terror at the time of his death, than that the Pakistani military and intelligence had no knowledge of his presence in Abbottabad.

Major James Abbot never achieved the notoriety of Osama, but to him goes the credit of having founded a township that the fugitive leader thought was nice enough to spend his last days. Hardly was Osama hanging out in a ‘lair’ in the Tora Bora mountains, nor in the heat of the teeming plains of Pakistan; instead, he was settled in the salubrious setting of Abbottabad with his wives, children and helpers – waiting for the inevitable.

Thwarting memories: James Abbot dressed as a noble, in a painting by Baldwin (1841), Photo: Sultan Dogar

It was in the mid-1800s that Major Abbott selected this tract in the Sarban hills, after the British had annexed Punjab. The Gurkhas arrived from Nepal to set up cantonments here, using the place as a staging ground for the Afghan War of 1919. The -bad suffix to denote a settlement is taken from the Farsi abadi. Aurangzeb built Aurangabad, and Abbott established Abbottabad.

Of course, Abbottabad could well have been another kind of compound name, with another suffix taken from Farsi – Abbottganj. As in Daryaganj (in old Delhi), Maharajganj (Kathmandu locality), Hazratganj (downtown Lucknow) or McLeodganj (Dharamshala precinct). Or it could have taken the -pur or -nagar from Sanskrit – Abbottpur or Abbottnagar, as in Lalitpur (Himal’s home town, also known as Patan or Yala), Muzaffarpur in Bihar and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, Mahendranagar (western Nepal Tarai) or Chandannagar in West Bengal (see Chandernagore after the French, whose enclave it was in colonial Bengal), Tatanagar (see Jamshedpur), or Jahangirnagar (the name given to Dhaka in the early 1600s, which never really caught on).

Cities that have developed historically through the confluence of trade and geography tend to have evolved names, while those that are invented and established in the desert of the jungle by a conqueror, dictator or moneybag will more often than not have the name of the founder foisted on it, whether Aurangazeb, Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata or King Mahendra. All they need to do to make a city happen, beyond the actual action of town planning and construction, is to add a bad, ganj, pur or nagar at the tail.

It is not that cities crave notoriety and fame. Abbottabad was doing perfectly well, thank you, until Osama came along. With a nice climate, hills to boot, as a starting point of the Karakoram Highway and guarding the entry to Pakistani’s Northern Areas as well as Azad Kashmir, there was enough excitement in the lazy township for it not to want to wake up to helicopter flights and gunfire in the middle of the night.

The world’s ‘discovery’ of Abbottabad following the US incursion and attack of 2 May was bad enough. But a worse fate lay in store in the form of the Oxford poet Stephen Moss, who Googled ‘Abbottabad’ and discovered a poem by that name, and wrote a column in The Guardian, titled, ‘Abbottabad – pretty Himalayan town, pity about the poem’. And so Abbottabad is now known the world over for having provided the name, and been the subject of, ‘probably the worst poem in the world’. Who needs fame like this – first Osama bin Laden, and then the ghost of Major James Abbot revived by Stephen Moss?

I have willed myself to try and like the poem ‘Abbottabad’ – to spite Mr Moss, perhaps, but more for the sake of a city that has been so badly mauled, between the Pentagon and al-Qaeda. Sadly, even as an ignoramus when it comes to poetry appreciation, I cannot bring myself to like the poem, a sampling of whose stanzas I place before you. Can anything be good, whether poetry or prose, when it ends with ‘thwart’?

I remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air…
I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right…
I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never from my mind will your memories thwart

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