It is often said that ‘he who hasn’t seen Lahore, has not been born’. I have the privilege of being a thoroughbred son of what was once the ‘City of Gardens’. With the maternal side of my family hailing from inside the old walled quarter, I was born, educated and married in the city that continues to have a lingering hold upon me, drawing me back again and again to the once familiar streets. I should by all measures return from these trips happy and refreshed, but it is not so, for every visit leaves me sad and angry at people, who have turned my beautiful birthplace into a polluted, steamy concrete jungle. Unable to do anything to stop the process, I can only relive the old Lahore in pleasant memories.

The ‘Bhati Gate’ area of the old city is often referred to as the Chelsea of Lahore due to the fact that it was home to a concentration of celebrated men of letters, artists, melody makers and names connected to the silver screen. The Lahore that lay outside the ancient walls and generally referred to as the civil lines also had a fair share of extraordinary residents and landmarks. Lawrence Road, named after one of the legendary Lawrence brothers laid claim to the celebrated Urdu novelist A. R. Khatoon, while Queen’s Road boasted W. Z. Ahmed (one of the pioneers of the Pakistani film industry) at the Charing Cross end and Anna Molka Ahmed (the renowned artist and architect of the Fine Arts Department in Punjab University) at the ‘Mozang Chungi’ extremity. Somewhere in the middle and standing well away from the road, was a palace like structure made of red brick and extensive grounds. This was ‘Zarafshan’, residence of Zulfiqar Ali Khan, the former ruler of Maler Kotla state. The premises was guarded by a flock of large white geese that performed their duties in a more than admirable manner.

Linking Queens Road with Jail Road was a quiet strip of asphalt known as Waris Road. Most of my school friends lived here making it my favorite afternoon haunt accessible by only a few minutes of brisk pedaling. The Queens Road entrance to this reclusive street was marked by a large open masonry tank with steps leading down to the water and a pavilion at one end. The tank was built in the 17th century by Lakhpat Rai, who served as ‘Diwan’ under two viceroys - Zakariya Khan and Yahya Khan during the waning years of the Mughal Empire. Somewhere in the 1960s, the spot was taken over by the fisheries department. A tube-well was sunk and fish were released in the tank, turning it into a popular fishing and picnic spot for people from surrounding localities. In the early 1980s, commercialization effectively destroyed the site turning it into a dumping spot. There was a ground next to the tank, where a cricket club carried out its daily practice. I have a dim memory of someone telling me that this club was none other than the celebrated ‘Eaglets’.

Almost halfway down and on the left of Waris Road was a red colored gate resembling the entrance to a fort and guarded by Army personnel. This was mini cantonment called Birdwood Barracks or in common parlance - ‘Lal Qila’. My daily destination, the Zaidi house, was directly across the ‘fort’. The senior Mr. Zaidi ran a very successful photography establishment on the Mall opposite the High Court and his two sons Shahid and Hamid studied in the same school as mine. Shahid was senior to me by many years, while Hamid and I were class mates since kindergarten. We were continuously getting involved in escapades such as the one, where we became rocketeers, using empty cigar tubes filled with our very own propellant recipe. Things were okay, until one of our missiles went off course landing in the neighbor’s house.

The house next to the Zaidis belonged to the Al Makky family – a great name in the printing and publishing business. There sons were also in our school. Then there was Dr. Phailbus, a close friend of my grandfather, who in afterthought, always reminded me of Lurgan Sahib from Rudyard Kipling’s bestselling work ‘Kim’. A little further along the road, lived three brothers Sikandar, Jamshed and Saqib. Sikander achieved fame in the world of television, while Jamshed and Saqib joined the Army.

A number of lanes led off right and left of the road. Mirza Azam (Beg) lived in one of these lanes with his family. He was related to my aunt by marriage and his two sons were my friends. Sisters Beryl and Esme Khanna, lived at the end of another lane on the right of Waris Road. Beryl’s daughter Ira was one year senior to me in school and went on to become the Principal of Kinnaird College, while Esme’s daughter Rashmi was my class fellow. They had a lovely old fashioned house where excellent tea and cookies were served.

So this was my Lahore of old – green, leafy, happy and tolerant. Today it appears to be in the fiendish grip of progress and callous commercialisation, endangering and destroying heritage sites and life giving trees. Many of the characters in this week’s piece have moved to safer havens, clinging desperately to memories of a city that was once their home.

 

n             The writer is a historian.