Lord Sahib and the Great Railway Dream

King of the Khyber Rifles - quad 550 s

King of the Khyber Rifles is a novel by British writer Talbot Mundy. Captain Athelstan King is a secret agent for the British Raj at the beginning of the First World War. Published in book form in November 1916.

“The two Lord Sahibs sat silently on the heights above the Michino Kandao. Three thousand feet below them the map of the world appeared to be spread out. Behind them lay the Khyber Pass through which they had driven and ridden that day. At that time, a generation ago, the motorcar had not yet come to vex this strange land. In front of them the horizon was bounded by the snow-covered Hindu Kush. Between the two watchers and the white ranges lay perhaps two hundred miles of tumbled broken country, unmapped and unexplored. In the middle distance the Kabul River could be seen winding up a long wide valley to Jellalabad and Kabul.”

Thus opens the book Adventures Through Khyber, a roughly 300 page personal memoir of the British Executive Engineer posted in Peshawar in 1920 in-charge of building a portion of the Khyber Railway.

Bayley, like the rest of the‘British Sahibs’ is awed by the region– where the terrain is as rugged as the manner of people unknown to the rulers. It is post World War 1 and a year after the third Anglo Afghan war, termed a ‘minor tactical victory’ for the British and they mark their victory by beginning construction of a heavily engineered railway that will reach from Peshawar to the Afghan border near Landi Kotal by 1925 when it is completed.

The British are very much in charge of India, although 1947 is around the corner, and so things cannot be all that rosy at this point. But this was outside of British India, and the politics of the British and the affairs of the inhabitants were quite different. Also, the British had dropped bombs on the area just a year ago so tribes must not be too friendly either.

Bayley’s book is divided into twelve chapter, all of which pretty much deal with the work of laying the railways, except a couple of chapters that talk about women visiting the Frontier and another one on dark spirits that haunt Bayley.

Bayley describes himself as a ‘green outsider’ and he is more or less precisely that. Things don’t look very promising when Bayley arrives in Peshawar on a cold winter morning. Signs at his hotel ”In case of Burglary ring up No. 743 and “In case of Raid ring up No. 492” immediately set him on edge. He is a father with a son and a five year old daughter and worries about his and his family’s safety. His family is unable to stay with him in any case as he is posted in Landi Kotal, at the summit of the Khyber pass, where women were not allowed to live.

Perhaps that explains a separate chapter dedicated to women. Except of course the local women are never seen or heard from other than a possessed ten year old girl and another a picchal pairi churail (translation: witch with feet pointing backwards.)

Bayley comes across as a hardworking engineer. The local agent refers to him as ‘devil’ he relates, “He said I was going much too fast and running the tribesmen off their feet, but he said this also with a grin.” There are a number of chapters that end with ‘work goes on’ and Bayley even locks horns with Colonel Hearn, the chief architect of the railways through Khyber. There is an entire chapter where he takes a Catholic padre on a visit around the construction site and explains in detail about the railways. Bayley goes into a lot of detail of the ground and the engineering of the tracks, tunnels and bridges and the padre is duly impressed. As will the reader with a deep interest in railway engineering. Everyone else will skip through quickly.

Taming the terrain of the Khyber remains a formidable challenge for Bayley throughout. There is a sense throughout his descriptions of the harshness of his surroundings. “Looking from Jamrud towards the hills, there is a forbidding-looking rampart of barren mountains some two miles distant. The effect is very fine, but very threatening. There is no sign of habitation anywhere on the hills which stand stark and grim under the brilliant winter sunshine…”

Where there is habitation he describes the villages as forts. The food rations for the servicemen are transported from Peshawar. Only the eggs are bought from the Shinwari tribe, who are less hostile towards the British. The climate is not too friendly either and there is a somewhat humorous exchange between Bayley and the colleague W. R. Horn. “The climate is not too bad,” says Horn. “Below freezing in winter and about one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade in summer, only, of course, there is no shade. There is no real monsoon, but now and again in July or August a terrific storm blows up and the floods are tremendous. Still, people keep very fit, though sand-fly fever is bad in the summer.”

The two major tribes of the region are the Afridis and the Shinwaris. The tribes are first mentioned when the British Viceroy speaks to them about building the railways and the men call it forbidden. Everything changes after World War 1 and the British victory of the third Afghan war and the railways get underway eventually with the locals working as contract employees on the tracks. But there are no real friendships formed, at least none Bayley mentions in the book. The tribes are described as “restive and hostile”  and  as a “wild crowd.” “They stand callously round and watch you writhe” a colleague says after describing their methods of torture. Then there is the language they speak “They all talk Pushtu,” says Bayleys political agent,” which is like nothing on earth.”  The locals are always at a distance from the servicemen. There is a scene where Bayley asks his political agent about them.

“What are they like?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Never see anything of them except at a distance. Pretty poisonous blighters, I should think…”


The only real contact he has with the locals is when he goes for ‘shikar’ (hunting) An expedition to climb to the top of Lakar Sar “a high limestone peak which dominated the surrounding hills” is organized accompanied by two hundred men from the Afridi tribe.  At the summit the British and the pathans sit together. A sheep was killed and skinned and placed over the fire and a bread from coarse flour is prepared.

Bayley offers to sing a British song for the tribe in exchange for a song of theirs. “The words are not suitable for the Sahib’s ears,” says a tribesman. ”They are all about the great victories of our people, and how the nullahs run with the blood of the English.”

“I know,” says Bayley. “But we shall perhaps not understand the words. I would hear the music.”

The men oblige.

“A flute sounded and silence fell as the plaintive music of a love song echoed gently among the harsh crags. Then a voice from somewhere took it up, and sang sweetly with strange modulations unfamiliar to Western ears. At last I understood their music, now that I heard it in such a perfect setting among these quiet hawk-eyed men. The stars twinkled, the red fire waxed and waned and all around lurked danger, while the gentle voice and the flute told the age-old tale.”

One cannot help but wonder if Bayley would have been so complimentary had he understood the words.

Then it’s the Brits turn. They sing “Old Leather Jacket” and “Down among the Dead Men” which was “greeted with loud applause,”  writes Bayley.