‘A boy across the river’ – a couplet falsely attributed to Khushal Khan Khattak

Chasing a boy across the river

By Dr.Nafees Ur Rehman

Last summer, I was reading the memoirs of Major Maurice Patrick O’Connor Tandy, who had worked for the British-Raj and was posted Assistant Commissioner Kohat through1940-41. In this book THIM DAYS IS GONE, I came across a love-song Zakhmi Sandara which he says was being played endlessly on loudspeakers in Peshawar. The alleged translation by the British, according to him, of a couplet of which go like this.

There is a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach
But alas! I cannot swim

I was really surprised that such an explicit (rather obscene) song could have been played at Peshawar that too in public and on loudspeakers. We know that in those times even loud-speaker was termed as a tool of devil and religious fanatics had issues fatwas against its usage. However, I kind of believed that this love-song might have existed owing to the deplorable practice of Shahid Bazi /Bacha Bazi in this part of the world. I went on and posted this excerpt on Twitter. There Barmazid, a Pashtun history enthusiast and blogger responded to it saying that he had seen mention of this love-song in the works of the novelist John Master. John Master is the same novelist who invented the Execution By Golden Shower theory where he fancies that the tribal Pashtun women would kill captured British soldiers by urinating into their mouths.

What I didn’t know that William Dalrymple, a celebrated historian from Scotland based in India, had also mentioned this couplet in his book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan on page 17. He had posted it on Twitter in 2013, as attached below.

Khushal Khan Khattak

It strucked me when I saw that these couplets were attributed to Khushal Khan Khattak, a celebrated Pashto poet whose poetry was first translated into English in 1880s for that it talks of courage, bravery, character and love. Elphinstone remarks on Khushal Khan Khattak in his History of India as “Khushhal Khan, the Khan of the Khataks, who was a voluminous author and has left several poems written at this time for the purpose of exciting the national enthusiasm of his countrymen. They are remarkable for their high and ardent tone, and for their spirit of patriotism and independence, so unlike the usual character of Asiatics.”

د افغان په نـنګ می وتړله توره
نـنګیالی د زمانی خوشال خټک یم

It is for the Afghan honour that my sword I have bound beside me,
I Khushhal Khatak am the only proud Afghan of the day!

So it was troubling to accept that a chieftain of Khattaks, a warrior and poet could have written such obscene couplet. Upon inquiry of the source of this couplet, William Dalrymple pointed to Soldier Sahib by Charles Allen. However, there is no mention of the love-song, let alone any primitive source for this couplet. This left us confused.

The confusion, however, served as motivation to trace the origin or any earlier mentions of the couplet in Pashto and in the colonial literature. I came across multiple mentions of this love-song in the colonial-literature some calling it Zakhmi Sandara (Wounded Song), others Zakhmi Dil (Wounded Heart) but, unfortunately, none in Pashto. Fortunately, enough, it is now possible to solve the riddle of the love-song, from the colonial literature alone.

This love-song appears in the book on secret patrol in high Asia by Latham Valentine Stewart Blacker, published in 1922. I quote the lyrics and the musical tune from this book below.

Khushal Khan Khattak

There’s a girl across the river,
And her cheeks are like a peach,
But, alas ! I cannot swim,
Though we all know what would happen
If a Pathan hove in sight,
And if he could only reach.

So now we have part of the answer i.e, the original lyrics do not talk of boys neither of bottoms; but of girls and cheeks. This also confirms that the later usage of the couplet was, surely, result of corruption or modification. Now read with me the following excerpt from The Pathan Borderland by James W. Spain, published under auspices of Near and Middle East Institute of Columbia University in 1965.

“Many of the songs and stories which are repeated in Pathan villages are reminiscent of the versatility of the folk literature of medieval Europe. One of the best known is the Kabuli love song, Zakhmi Dil, “Bleeding heart”, which in altered cadence and with revised (and very obscene) words was a favorite marching tune among Pathan soldiers of the British [Raj].”

Based on the above excerpt, we can confidently say that the original lyrics were modified. I came across two other mentions that the British-Indian soldiers would march to this tune during World War I, which means that the original love-song was there before the World War I and the modifications to it took place either before or during the war period.

The last and important question is, when was the modified couplet attributed to Khushal Khan Khattak. As mentioned above, William Dalrymple has quoted Soldier Sahib by Charles Allen published 2000 as source of the couplet but as I have said earlier, the book does not mention it at all. However, Charles Allen had talks about it in one place in his earlier work Plain tales from the Raj: images of British India in the twentieth century published in 1986. He talks just in one place of the love-song as shown in the following excerpt.

Khushal Khan Khattak

But gives no detail of the poet. I have not [yet] found any mention of the original or of the modified lyrics that attributes it to Khushal Khan Khattak except that of William Dalrymple’s. in Return of the King.

I can confidently say that it is because of the absence of any reference that when Barmazid asked him again the other day, William Dalrymple tweeted that the attribution of the couplet to Khushal Khan Khattak is an error and, that this error will be corrected in the future editions of the book.

Khushal Khan Khattak

On a last note, I thank Barmazid for pointing out this error and for standing to correct it. I also thank William Dalrymple for his friendly yet professional interaction with us on this topic and for having agreed to correct the error.  Originally published on Qissa Khwani blog


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