A long time ago I wrote a series of columns titled ‘Lahore – The Golden Years’, following it up by the ongoing series ‘Lahore and Beyond’. The aim of the old thread was to introduce the city of my birth to readers, who have never had the opportunity to become one with the soul of this great metropolis. A metropolis that is not just a network of homes, businesses and asphalt strips crammed with traffic, but a living, pulsating entity showcasing a unique character. My writings assumed importance from a perspective that Lahore cannot be experienced nor its beating heart heard sitting in the plush sitting rooms of modern, elitist suburban housing, but by the sights, sounds and smells of what lies behind its ancient walls – bastions that are witness to momentous triumphs and tragedies across time. It is thus that I frequently turn back from ‘beyond’ to the city that (no matter where I am settled) I shall always call home. It is also for this reason that I often raise my pen to condemn the mutilation of what was once known as ‘The City of Gardens’.

My ‘City of Gardens’ has mournfully fallen prey to unbridled commercialization and the demon of development. I have travelled the world extensively and found that administrations and planners work as partners with the private sector to produce modern infrastructure without destroying heritage or life giving vegetation. Living proof of this is on the ‘Nevsky Prospekt’ in St. Petersburg, where I stood for a long time watching tree surgeons lovingly trim trees into shape after washing the dust and grime off them. The opposite appears to have been perpetrated in the Punjab Capital where ‘rape’ has been committed by turning the once green city into a concrete jungle.

I remember the roads of Lahore as tree lined and shady. Take for example Queen’s Road (now renamed Shahrah e Fatima Jinnah), the place where I was born, bred and wedded, before the cancer of commercialization destroyed its peace and privacy. We knew almost everyone from the first residential home (belonging to the celebrated Dr. Khan Sahib) to the last, next to Mozang Chungi (home to my mentor and teacher Mrs. Anna Molka Ahmed). Tall trees overshadowed the road making it an ideal promenade for families during evenings. Almost everyone living here owned a car, but some also possessed horse drawn carriages. Pir Taj Din lived opposite our gate and had tea with my grandfather on a daily basis, where other members of the group including Agha Ahmed Hassan Khan (Imran Khan’s maternal grandfather) and Nawab Mamdot joined them. Nawab Sahib was then either governor or chief minister, but drove his black Bentley, without a single escort or protocol. It was Pir Taj Din however, who arrived (from just across the road) in his carriage, immaculately dressed in a starched snow white kurta shalwar, a black waist coat and a monocle in one eye.

It was not only Queen’s Road, but other roads such as Lawrence Road, Davis Road, Fane Road, a section of Mozang Road, Temple Road, Panj Mahal Road, Warris Road etc. that were heavily lined and shaded with trees. While Lawrence Gardens was the central green spot of Lahore, the cities suburbs were profusely dotted with parks and gardens, some of which dated back to Mughal times such as the Shalimar Bagh. While the two mentioned above are in a state of maintenance, perhaps out of political necessity as their demise will raise an unprecedented outcry, their smaller siblings are in a sorry state - some having altogether disappeared.

Gol Bagh was (and still is) located between the Town Hall and Government College carrying a new name Nasir Bagh (what prompted the change of name was never questioned by heritage protection organizations). There were remnants of a garden behind the Chauburji entrance that has vanished, as has Bagh Gul Begum, which was once located between Minai Sahib Graveyard and what is now Samanabad.

The walled city itself was ringed with a moat that was later filled in and turned into a garden. A small canal irrigated this area, which became a popular recreation spot for residents. The ‘ring garden’ also became a favorite spot for wrestling ‘akharas’, story tellers, masseuses, jugglers and magicians and off course tricksters. Much of this green strip is now gone along with a cultural showcase of the walled city.

Although new parks have appeared at different places in Lahore, they cannot match the creativity, beauty, romance or history linked to the old gardens that gave the city its name. Entering them, one entered a magic world, where one expected to meet a ghostly figure clad in a costume of times gone by or hear the strains of some old spectral melody being played on invisible strings in an old marble pavilion.