Our home on Lahore’s Queens Road was located on a strip of asphalt that offered many adventures to our band of ‘little rogues’. The three of us, the other two being Awais (who passed away before he could see the world as an adult) and Yusuf (whose elder brother was my senior in school), had bicycles and these machines had been mastered to the extent that we could go anywhere, cross any obstacle without fear. There was one spot however on Warris Road, which we were always careful to respectfully pass. This place was known as ‘Lal Qilla’ because of the red coloured fort like entrance, but its actual name was ‘Bird Wood Barracks’ and our respect (almost bordering on reverence) lay in the fact that it was the home to an infantry battalion of the Army.

Next to our house and separated from it by a low hedge, was the Young Women’s Christian Association or YWCA, run with the iron hand of Miss Suba Khan. We would often jump over this boundary as the green painted truck from the Government Public Relations Department arrived every fortnight and took our places on steel chairs to watch, what we now know as documentaries and news reels. The YWCA was also my first school, where I was one of the two initial students to enroll. This distinction created the notion that I had certain unique propriety rights over the premises, such as watching the New Year celebrations through windows, without being shooed away, having a general run of the place and being one of the few tolerated fondly by Ms. Khan. Somewhere in the late nineteen fifties, the hedge was replaced by a brick wall, which my mother (rather impishly) explained was designed to keep ‘rascals’ like me, out.

A few hundred meters from Ganga Ram Hospital towards Mozang Chungi at Number 17, stood the red brick palace of the Nawab of Malerkotla. We often visited the place since my father’s first cousin lived there. The premises provided unending thrills, so much so that once I was rash enough to entice my ‘gang’ into its vast grounds. My first rush of adrenaline came, when I deliberately baited the flock of great white geese that ‘protected the house’ outrunning them, as with necks outstretched and issuing war cries, they attempted to get me. I gave up this senseless activity, when on one occasion I miscued my timing and found myself at the receiving end of painful bites from the angry birds – bites so powerful that they drew blood and took several days to heal. Another favourite activity was to explore the labyrinth of galleries and rooms that made up the ‘palace’, which was like a time capsule from the 19th Century, where every nook and cranny generated unlimited fantasies.

Further along the road there was a house that had a huge cage-like structure full of cats. We called it ‘Billion Waali Kothi’, I remember the lady, who had this passionate love of felines, since she and my mother often got together at social events. She had bobbed grey hair, dressed in elegant saris and carried herself in a most distinguished manner. We would often, during our forays, stop for a few minutes at the gate and watch the inmates of the cage as they gamboled about playfully.

The Fire Station was located more than half way between Charing Cross (the point where Queens Road began) and Mozang Chungi (where it ended) overshadowed by an artificial ‘Pahari’, where people could walk, rest and relax. There was an ‘Akhara’ or wrestling pit next to the Fire Station and traffic always slowed down to see the local ‘pehelwans’ do whatever athletes of this ilk do. The old open Water Tank dating back to the Mughal period stood across the road opposite the ‘Pahari’. It teemed with fish, which could be caught with a rod and line after obtaining a license.

Moving towards Charing Cross, two buildings stood across from one another. One was the Plaza Cinema, which screened only Hollywood Blockbusters. As one climbed the steps to the balcony, the staircase bifurcated, short of the first floor foyer on the right. The few steps to the left led to a dance school run by a Chinese lady and had some very pretty students. We would often linger at this bifurcation, to get a glimpse of the dance school patrons, but were mostly disappointed in the endeavour.

Then came the winds of change and a wave of commercialisation swept across this beautiful avenue. The residents sold their homes and left, the Water Tank turned into a trash dump and the Queens Road of my childhood days turned into a concrete jungle. Each time I visit the city of my birth, I do not have the courage to drive along the road, where I once rode my bike with my two friends, for to me the place is a now a graveyard of memories.

 

The writer is a historian.