There was a time, when amongst other good things, being good neighbors was considered to be an essential virtue. It did not extend only to next door homes, but the entire community referred to as the ‘mohalla’ was a brotherhood that spanned religion, caste or color. The system provided social and emotional support, whenever it was needed. It generated collective security and mutual respect that proved invaluable in times of crisis. In Lahore for example, a classic ‘mohalla’ was a group of homes along a common street or enclosing a large open courtyard called a ‘maidan’. Access to these interwoven communities was open, while in Multan’s old quarter, many had only one access secured by an iron gate that was usually shut at night. While the social standing of the residents was evident by the respect they were accorded and the size of their houses, there was common thread that bonded them together as ‘equals’ – this bond was known as ‘mohalla dari’ and the families forming the network, ‘mohalla dars’. There were many factors that helped evolve this system and strengthen it. The cities of old were enclosed by a wall, crisscrossed by a maze of streets and ‘maidans’ with multistoried houses joined together in dense masses. Everyone knew everyone else and it was difficult to keep ‘secrets’. Modern society would rate this as invasion of privacy, but then life was simple and transparent in those days. Surprisingly enough, crimes such as housebreaking and burglaries were almost nonexistence because attempts to do so or even the presence of strangers (especially suspicious ones) was immediately detected and investigated by neighbors – something called ‘neighborhood watch’ in the West. Many of these ‘mohallas’ were inhabited by families practicing a common profession, which gave them a common ‘thread’ for interaction. The advent of the so called ‘social revolution’ or modernization, affected lifestyles in a big manner, motivating people with means to leave the old city quarters and move to suburbs, where it became impractical (read unfashionable) to use the term ‘mohalla’ or ‘mohalla dar’, let alone practice it. Mercifully, this traditional notion has survived the modernization ‘onslaught’ and still exists inside old cities, such as Lahore, in a rather diluted form.

Our ancestral home was located in a locality known as ‘Maidan Bhaiyan’ inside ‘Bhaati’ Gate and was a typical example of the classic ‘mohalla’. The ‘maidan’ was a large 300 x 300 feet open square shaped courtyard, paved with small bricks that one sees in old Mughal era structures. Surrounded on two sides by homes, the third side was flanked by a high walled structure known as the ‘Shwala’, with a temple in the center. The fourth side of this square was covered by what is now a heritage building – the Haveli Naunehal Singh built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s grandson and later converted by the British into Victoria Girls High School (the alma mater of almost all females from the maternal side of my family).

I am humbled by the memory of unforgettable respect shown to our family members as they came and went from their homes in the ‘maidan’. My late mother often narrated an incident, where two residents and great family friends – Dr. Shanti Lal and his assistant Beli Ram along with their families were given asylum by my grandfather, as a mob threatened to take their lives during the blood bath in 1947. Standing on the front steps his home, along with his younger brother, shotgun in hand, he told the mob leaders in no uncertain words that the targeted families were now under their protection. Without more ado, the crowd dispersed and days later, the good doctor and his colleague were safely dispatched to their intended destination across the border.

One of our chronically bachelor ‘mohalladars’ had taken to excessive drinking with consequent effects. While we heard reports of his rowdy behavior elsewhere, he was always respectful and sober in the ‘maidan’. These then were the values that made up a ‘mohalla’ community, mutual respect, readiness to help no matter what the cost, collective security and regard. This interactive style of neighborliness did not invade privacy since everyone drew a line that was strictly observed, yet its benefits far outweighed any disadvantages.