When this piece is published, Muslims all across the world would be commemorating the tragedy of Karbala according to their respective traditions. Rituals handed down from generation to generation in a manner that nothing has changed except an atmosphere riddled with apprehension, fear and stress – both for the mourners and those assigned to protect them.

There was however a time, when this fear and stress were ‘almost’ nonexistent – ‘almost’, because sporadic cases of violence erupted even then, but these were confined to a brick thrown here or a scuffle there. Elders from both sides were quick to intervene and peace soon prevailed as if nothing had happened. It was a time, when ‘Alams’ or large pennants were made by Sunnis, who also set up ‘Sabeels’ or water points along the routes that the Muharram procession was supposed to take and even tended to those, who passed out because of fatigue or (in cases of the flayers) loss of blood.

My mother used to take us to her cousin’s home overlooking the route of the main procession that emerged from Haveli Nawab Sahib. We would stand on the old balcony, as the procession came into sight escorted by my uncle (who had a rather notorious reputation), nattily attired in shalwar kurta topped by a rakishly angled Jinnah Cap and a highly polished tan cartridge belt complete with a holstered handgun draped across the chest. This escort was composed entirely of Sunnis.

Sometimes, my father took the entire family to watch the entry of the procession into Karbala Gamay Shah, located next to Central Model School. We would park the car inside the police station across the road and stroll across the barbed wire compound in the company of a close family friend, smartly attired in the uniform of a police officer. I would be lifted up on the canvas roof of a jeep, to get an unobstructed view of the procession, while the rest of the family watched the proceedings standing beside the vehicle without an iota of concern. This blue eyed, devilishly handsome officer was none other than the legendary Pakistani bowler Fazal Mehmood, whose deadly ‘leg cutters’ were responsible for the demise of many a renowned batsman.

We also looked forward to Muharram because of the vast quantities of Haleem that arrived at our home, courtesy of friends and acquaintances. The taste of this classic traditional product cooked and manually blended for over twelve hours, still lingers on my palate after almost six decades, since the stuff that goes around by the same name today comes nowhere close to the original in flavour and ‘after-taste’. My ‘haleem’ was dark in color and had a smoky charred flavour that is nowhere to be found. The fruitless search for this fabulous food can best be described by playing with ‘Hatim Tai’s’ proverbial lines, “I have seen it once and yearn to see it again”, to “I have eaten it as a child and yearn for it – finding none”.

The nineteen fifties was a golden era, when we had not been made hostage to fear. There were no terrorists nor such deep religious divisions as one sees now. It was a time when people with diverse beliefs coexisted peacefully without hate and rancor. I remember walking into Parsi homes of the Setna sisters and Bai Jee Karanjia as if they were my own or the Billimorias of Multan, who always welcomed me with open arms. The Nadkarni family on the Mall were family friends spanning every age group within our respective households.

Then came a time when tolerance vanished, leaving behind anger, violence and hate. Many of Lahore’s non-muslim families migrated abroad effectively destroying this great city’s core nature – diversity. We began to rename roads and buildings, driven by a foolish notion that doing so would change history. Even the educated amongst us conveniently ignored the rule that nations, who tamper with their past cannot prosper. Perhaps that is one of the viruses that have made us what we are today.

 

The writer is a historian.