Going Hunting in Pakistan
How does a hunting trip in Pakistan provide a glimpse into the country’s feudal past — and its dangerous present?
- One feature of the boar hunt was the bodyguards with their Kalashnikovs — not because they will be needed, but as an insurance policy, and also of course as a source of prestige.
- As was the case for millennia in Europe, hunting is an important means of maintaining connections and forging new bonds among the landowner-politicians in Sindh.
- The ancestral home in Mirpur Bhutto is one of the most magnificent in rural Pakistan. It is also an example of how far local architecture has fallen since the days of the British.
Like fox-hunting in Britain, wild-boar hunting in Pakistan is a matter of pure sport, since in a Muslim country the animals cannot be eaten by the hunters. The carcasses are thrown to the dogs or given to one of the remaining groups of low-caste, formerly tribal Hindus who live along the Indus.
I was offered one myself, but declined — because driving around interior Sindh with an enormous putrefying pig tied to the roof of my car, while it would undoubtedly have attracted attention, would probably not have contributed to my prestige.
I had wanted to go on a boar hunt for a long time. Sardar Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, uncle of the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto and hereditary chief of the Bhutto tribe, had invited me to a hunt for wild boar, organized in a patch of jungle on the banks of the Indus by a landowning family called Khoshk, waderos of a village of that name.
Mumtaz Ali Bhutto was providing most of the dogs (he is a famous breeder) and the huntsmen. As was the case for millennia in Europe, hunting is an important means of maintaining connections and forging new bonds among the landowner-politicians in Sindh.
My joy at being invited to this absolutely quintessential “feudal” event was rapidly overtaken by the comical mental image of myself holding a spear, and the less comical one of my doing so while facing a large and understandably irritated boar.
However, I needn’t have worried. Only one huntsman carried a spear, to deliver the coup de grace after the boar had been brought down by the hounds. The rest of us were spectators, with a very slight chance of becoming participants if the boar charged us directly.
As perhaps in hunting for sport everywhere, the quarry on this occasion seemed in part an excuse for getting up early in the morning to see the countryside at its best — and the countryside of Sindh in early summer is definitely at its best at dawn and not at midday. The sun popped up through the mist as a pale disk, looking much more like the moon, and for a while it was blissfully impossible to imagine the dreadful heat of a few hours later.
The dogs, so I was told, were a cross between greyhounds and bull terriers, with ugly, formidable heads but graceful bodies. Each couple of hounds was held in leash by a huntsman, all three of the group looking with raised heads and fixed attention into the jungle, the huntsmen seeming to quiver with eagerness along with the dogs.
The huntsmen, mostly young, looked intensely proud at being responsible for such splendid animals, and in the service of so splendid a lord as Sardar Mumtaz Ali Bhutto. They also looked markedly better fed than the ragged peasantry who provided the beaters.
And indeed there was no pretense of egalitarianism about this hunt. As the guest of honor and provider of the dogs and huntsmen, Mumtaz Ali Bhutto sat directly facing the jungle. His younger son Ali and I sat some distance behind. Everyone else was firmly to one side.
However, in the subcontinent hierarchical organization is always only a step or so away from anarchy, whether cheerful or malignant, and it was certainly no proof against the mass excitement when the boar broke cover. This was especially so when one enterprising beast plunged into the Indus, pursued to the bank — and nearly over it — by a mob of yelling huntsmen and spectators, stirring the powdery dust into a maelstrom.
Halfway over, a fishing boat tried to head it off, and a fisherman, whether overcome by excitement or in hope of a reward, actually dived into the river, grasped the boar round its neck and guided it back to shore — a sight to remember. On reaching land, it shook him off indifferently along with the water and disappeared into the jungle.
Four more boars succeeded in outrunning the dogs and knocking over or shaking off those that came close. In the end the entire bag for some five hours of hunting was one medium-sized female — which shows that the boar had a sporting chance.
The patches of jungle like the one in which we hunted are the remains of the great shikargahs (noble hunting reserves) of the past. They consist of low scrub and tall grasses, fertilized annually by the water and silt brought down by the melting of the Himalayan snows, and by the monsoon.
This is the original natural cover of the Indus valley before human cultivation. In the past — and very likely in the future too — the ferocity of the floods and the frequently changing course of the river meant that the riverine areas themselves could not be cultivated, and so were never registered for ownership and taxation.
Canals and dams have to a large extent reduced this threat, and landowners in recent decades have illegally encroached on the riverine areas, greatly increasing their wealth in the process — but still paying no tax.
However, some patches of jungle still remain, used as hunting reserves for boar and deer — and as the favorite hideouts of bandits, though whether with the knowledge and protection of the waderos, as is universally believed, I cannot say.
One feature of the boar hunt, which I hardly noticed at the time (because it is so much a feature of the life of the rural nobility that you forget about it), was the bodyguards with their Kalashnikovs — not because most of the time there is any expectation that they will be needed, but as an insurance policy, and also of course as a source of prestige.
Not that Mumtaz Ali Bhutto apparently needed much to boost his prestige. The ancestral home in Mirpur Bhutto is one of the most magnificent that I have visited in rural Pakistan. More than 150 years old, it is also an example of how far local architecture has fallen since the days of the British, let alone the days of the Mughals.
The old aristocratic architecture is not just beautiful, but efficient. The tall ceilings and ventilation windows make it habitable even during electricity cuts, when modern rooms become unendurable without fans or air-conditioning.
The drawing-room contains a throne-like silver chair on which the Sardar’s grandfather was inaugurated, and a family tree which shows only male members — thereby omitting Benazir Bhutto!
Beside the front gate is the exquisite 18th century mausoleum of a family saint. In front of the house, facing a garden with the inevitable lawn for political meetings, an open hall between columns provides a space where the Sardar holds court, with his two sons sitting on either side of him and his steward standing respectfully to one side.
Before him, a variety of petitioners appear to touch his feet and wait with hands clasped, as if in prayer, to receive an order or a judgment. Having received it, most sit to one side for a longer or shorter period to show respect, and by their presence and numbers help boost their lord’s prestige.
The morning that I was a witness seemed fairly typical — and was almost identical to an audience by Mumtaz Ali Bhutto on the same spot when I had visited him 20 years before.
Sharecroppers and local “incharges” received orders for planting crops, participants in a land dispute were told to stop work on the land pending a decision, and two sheepish-looking peasants received a sharp response, tried to argue and were sent packing by one of the gunmen.
When the circumstances are right, such discussions are often the prelude to a change of allegiance, or to new bargaining based on the threat of it. All over rural Sindh, and much of the rest of Pakistan as well, such scenes happen every day — the basic stuff of Pakistani politics, though rarely played against such a magnificent background.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from PAKISTAN: A HARD COUNTRY by Anatol Lieven. Published by PublicAffairs in 2011. Reproduced with the permission of the author.