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Silk Road Books Literary Review

April 2014 


  • Great read
  • Thought provoking
  • Good
  • Could be better
  • Utter rubbish

Books Reviewed:                                                                                          

Frogs in the Well by Leslie Mallam and Diana Day

Librario publishers 2010, pages 271.                                                 


Rating: Great Read

Mallam served in the Third Anglo-Afghan war and was a political agent in the North West Frontier in the 1920s and worked as a judge. Mallam's book oozes respect for the Pathans of the region and provides an insight into what life was like under British rule.

One night out in the tribal area, luck appeared to desert Mallam when his scooter broke down, "It was now pitch dark with no moon, but our (scooter) lights revealed a straight stretch of road, at the end of which was a culvert and a grove of palms: a notorious spot for highway robbers to lurk. At that very moment a group of men appeared, walking towards us. As they came nearer we could see they were tribesmen. Everyone was armed with a rifle.

"This is it!" I groaned to Gastrell. The ruffianly looking party dazzled by our beams, taking up the whole width of the road.
One of them put his hands on my handlebars, bending forward till his face was close to mine. "May you never grow tired. Are you well?"( The usual Pathan salutation) he cried, seizing my hand and shaking it warmly .
My face must have shown some surprise. "You know me don't you?" he asked.
"I'm not quite sure. Who are you?"
"This morning we were all in your court, accused of murder. You gave us justice and let us off."
Starting to laugh and joke, as Pathans love to do their leader asked: "What are you doing here? This is a dangerous place at night".
I explained what had happened, adding  "We want to put our motorbicycles on the train".
Delighted to do anything they could for us they escorted us to the station in royal style ."

However not everything would go to British plans, "The military authorities had unwisely allowed tall sugar cane crop to be grown close to the barbed wire. One night a gang, taking cover in the cane, watched for the approach of a patrol. At the crucial moment, they threw a charpoy over the wire, crossed it, and attacked the defenders, knifing most of them, and seizing their rifles, decamped across the fence and made off. "

A British officer foolishly sought to entice a beautiful Pathan nomad girl away from her caravan, " The officer was driving the car himself, with a chauffeur beside him on the front seat. Inevitably the vehicle had to slow down, and eventually to stop, in order to let the caravan go by. The Englishman was in a hurry. He soon got impatient and bored by the long wait. Suddenly his eye spotted a young Powindah girl walking towards him, her black skirt and baggy trousers billowing gracefully as she moved. She was quite breath takingly beautiful with silver ornaments glistening on  her forehead on her nose and at her throat...he waited until the maiden came alongside the car , then catching her eye, he leaned back from the driver's seat and opened the car door a just an inch. Instantly he found himself looking down the barrel of a rifle behind which was a fierce pair of black eyes. Gifted with a superb command of Pushtoo  equal to the situation. "What do you expect me to do in the presence of such dazzling beauty?" he asked, "Sit and twiddle my thumbs?"".

You may think the book has an odd title and the author explains his choice admirably, he was being promoted and leaving his faithful clerks behind in their office, "All the clerks lined up in a row, when I went to my office in the Malakand, to say goodbye. Before I shook hands with them. They were very pleased, he said, that I had been promoted to Chief Secretary, and they wished me luck. He ended with these words, which have always stuck in my memory: "Sir you are leaving us on appointment to a high office, but we are remaining here like frogs in a well, please do not forget us."

"The words seemed to emphasise the chasm that lay between us. While I belonged to the tiny circle of Englishmen who could move from one highly paid post to another, they were lost in the vast anonymity of five hundred million Indians to whom life offered hardly more chance of individual achievement than a frog had of leaping out of a well. Of course one had known clerks, particularly stenographers who had risen to posts of great responsibility in Government office, and the army provided means of promotion from sepoy to high commissioned rank, but these were few and far between. For all but one or two exceptionally fortunate men the head clerk's words were true. I was determined to do what I could to improve their lot."

Mallam set about devising a five year development plan for the frontier with improved pay scales for Indian clerks and integration of the border tribes with the areas already controlled by the Government. However, leading British officials, including the last two Governors of the frontier Province Caroe and Cunningham opposed development in the tribal regions and thought the tribesmen only understood war. They saw themselves as Great Frontiersmen holding back the barbaric tribal hordes.

Mallam saw no objective basis for the intransigence of such Governors and asks, "Could it be argued then by the Governor or by the military that development in tribal areas presented a threat to the safety of India? In reply it could be said that the Frontier reputation for insecurity was largely British manufactured."

"After the Third Afghan war of 1919 the threat of the invasion of India through Afghanistan, which had for years been rapidly fading , almost entirely disappeared. The problem facing the British was much less a frontier, than a purely tribal one. If the British could reach an understanding with their own tribes east of the Durand Line, based on mutual confidence and respect, the fabled insecurity would vanish overnight. Pathans ...seldom 'caused trouble', unless provoked, when they instinctively turned to arms. And they were provoked, specifically both in the Province and in Waziristan."


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