Saturday, 22 November 2014

'Chinar House' Abbottabad --'And the piano played on'

by Salman Rashid *

My friend Omer Salim Khan Tarin, historian and researcher, led me up the timber stairs. Nearly 130 years after the seasoned pine (or could it be teak?) had been cut and shaped for the stairs, it was as robust as on the first day. The landing at the top was littered with some old stuff and the door to the attic converted into a parlour was on the right. I looked in through the broken glass of the door and called out, ‘Miss Fitzhugh?’
Sitting amid spreading grounds, forever in dappled sunlight for the many trees around, 3 Club Road also known as Chinar House in Abbottabad, is a right beautiful English country house with a pitched roof, skylights and gables. Unlike an English house, where it would be an unnecessary adjunct, a veranda runs along the east side. Behind the house, detached from the main building, is a row of followers’ quarters and a high roofed ruinous byre shaded by a handsome old cedar.
The earthquake of October 2005 caused some damage to the attics on the top and since then the house has largely been unoccupied. By Omer’s research, whose family owns the property, the house was built in 1884 by Colonel Alfred Fitzhugh when he commanded the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles. He does not seem to have enjoyed this lovely property for long because he left the battalion and presumably Abbottabad in September 1885.
The man retired from service as a major general, and he and his wife Cecilia Jane went back to live in England. In March 1911, following a surgery, Cecilia Jane went into depression. While convalescing in Folkstone on the sea, she managed to strangle herself with the curtain cord inside her locked room. Upon entry by window, she was found ‘quite dead’ in the words of the South Eastern Gazette of 21 March that year.
Fitzhugh lived on to the very ripe age of 92. He was buried in the Sussex village of Streat in February 1929. Incidentally, he was also born in the same village. Omer’s research does not reveal the names of any children.
But Alfred Fitzhugh left behind an abiding yarn at 3 Club Road.
It is said that in the converted parlour the Fitzhughs’ daughter, whose name is unknown, practiced the piano. Now, this bright young thing was wooed by two army officers. One served with a British regiment while the other, O’Brien, was in a Sikh regiment. The girl, more inclined to O’Brien was nevertheless of two minds. As for the colonel, he would much rather have the man from the British regiment as his son in law.
In the parlour, the two suitors, each in his own time, routinely met Miss Fitzhugh. One day, a violent event occurred. Following a loud and heated argument, so it is said, O’Brien and the girl were shot and killed. Now there are two versions of events. One has it that the pair was found in an intimate situation and the enraged colonel shot them. The other says that while O’Brien was shot by the colonel, the girl killed herself. Evidently, much to her father’s displeasure, she was more inclined to the dead young officer.
After the brutal deaths and Fitzhugh’s departure, the house reportedly remained deserted for a decade. Thereafter it passed through a number of occupants, the last pre-Partition owner being Sardar Sojan Singh of Rawalpindi who enlarged the house,  until  after independence the Tarin family acquired it .
We will never know if it was ever told by earlier occupants, but Omer recalls it being said that on a certain evening, the house was filled with piano melodies wafting out of the parlour. In fact, he adds, his father claimed to have heard the music during the 1950s. In 1957 or thereabouts, Omer’s grandmother, wearying of the music and sundry noises, took notice and organised an Islamic exorcism and the hauntings thereafter ceased.
Unsurprisingly, there was no swish of the unseen satin dress or the lingering fragrance of her perfume when I called out to Miss Fitzhugh from the landing in front of her parlour. Omer pushed the door open and we entered the low-roofed cubby hole of a room. But for layers of dust, it was empty and I felt no icy hand creeping down the nape of my neck and into my shirt. Even if she died violently, she and O’Brien now seem to rest in peace.
One day, 3 Club Road, Abbottabad will bite the dust even though earthquake damage can be repaired and the house restored to its original glory. In 1969, the property passed to a relative, Mrs Rehana Farrakh, who lives in Hasan Abdal, Punjab, and is not keen on preserving this old gem of a house. The premises were shown to a renowned conservation architect who said the building can be saved. But we do not know if that will happen. If the house goes, another bit of our built heritage will be lost forever.

(Salman Rashid is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of 9 travel books)
This article appeared in daily 'Dawn' , Pakistan, on Sunday, 23rd November 2014, it is being adapted and abbreviated here.

                     The reputedly haunted attic stairs, Chinar House, Abbottabad (Salman Rashid 2014) 

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