Legend has it that King Arthur Pendragon pulled out the sword that had been magically thrust into a rock. He did so with ease, where others had failed, since he was pure of heart. He was then gifted by the ‘Lady of the Lake’, with an invincible sword - ‘Excaliber’.

In one corner of the central gallery in our old house on Lahore’s Queen’s Road, stood a three foot tall, antique Chinese porcelain cylinder, with exquisitely painted flowers and birds. We were told that this was an umbrella and walking stick stand, but our childish curiosity was always aroused, whenever we went past the spot (which was very frequently) because of a pair of items that had no relationship with either walking sticks or umbrellas. These were two old swords in brown leather scabbards and full metal hand guards. Undeterred by strict instructions never to touch these weapons, we would look (and find) opportunities to draw the curved blades and wave them in mock battle. We discovered much later that the weapons belonged to the Sikh Era. I often regret our inability to realize their antique value and ultimate loss, when we adopted careers and scattered to the four corners of the compass.

I remember another gleaming ceremonial sword with some Persian engravings and an ivory grip. My late father once told us that this blade had been presented by Lord Lake, somewhere in the very early 1800s to his great grandfather, adding that serving colonial masters had never been a matter of pride to his generation. Perhaps this was the reason that this item of great antique value was given away by my Dad and we saw nothing of it thereafter.

I have a dim memory of visiting an old ‘haveli’ inside Sheranwala Gate with my grandfather, somewhere in the vicinity of the school, where he had once been a student in the 1890s. I remember passing under the gate with two lions depicted on the arch and the almost undistinguishable remains of two pedestal-like niches on the sides, where according to legend, a pair of caged lions were kept by one of the rulers (many attribute the practice to Maharaja Ranjit Singh). I cannot recall the labyrinth like route that we must have adopted to reach our destination, but I can vaguely see a very old man wearing a turban, sitting in a dimly lit room, showing something that looked like an old bow to his guest. Decades later, sitting by the fire place at our summer home in the hills, something appeared to generate nostalgia in my grandfather, who began talking about old memories. Suddenly, he looked at me and asked if I remembered the trip to Sheranwala Gate. It must have been my tentative response that triggered the magical story out of him – a story made eerie by the dancing flames in the grate.

The old man with the bow was a ‘shikari’ and an old friend of my maternal grandparent’s side of the family. Nobody knew his age and some said that he was more than a hundred years old. His fame had spread far, because of which he was often hired by British Officials and native nobility to act as guide in hunting expeditions. It was during one such event, probably in the hills somewhere between what is now Islamabad and Khanpur, he outpaced the rest of the Party and found himself in a heavily wooded area devoid of any sound (believe it or not, but there is such a zone at a spot along the chairlift route from Pindi Point to Bansra Gali). A trickle of water fell soundlessly from the rock in front of him, overshadowed by a huge Banyan Tree with multiple aerial roots forming majestic pillars. Under this tree sat a sadhu, naked, but for a skimpy loin cloth. What transpired between the Sadhu and the ‘shikari’ was never disclosed even to my grandfather, only this much that when he rejoined his Party he was carrying a gift from the mysterious ascetic under the tree – a bow. The ‘shikari’ swore that an arrow fired from the weapon never missed its mark no matter how impossible the shot. He also claimed that the bow would continue to manifest its power till the time he (the ‘shikari’) was alive. He also believed that his longevity was perhaps due to this magic.

I distinctly remembered the total silence that prevailed for several minutes after the fireside narrative had ended. I can feel the hair at the nape of my neck tingle even now, as I write this piece and somehow, the legend of ‘Excaliber’ keeps appearing in my thoughts. Who knows - if the tale of the old man inside Sheranwala Gate was true, maybe the Lady of the Lake did exist - as did ‘Excaliber’.