Chauburji Outside it is freezing cold and a gusty breeze is pulling the wind chill factor even lower. Inside my house near Islamabad, I am sitting before a roaring log fire that is making me dreamy and nostalgic for old times in the city of my birth. Lahore was perhaps colder then, because it was not the concrete jungle it has now become. There were more trees, parks and open spaces and the city had not devoured the villages and fields that surrounded it. Yes, there used to be foggy days in winter, but it was fog and not smog. Many of the old houses were warmed by fireplaces, but that has already been described in one of my earlier columns titled Winter Tales. As chill gripped the city, it generated a new vigour in its dwellers, almost as if they were challenging the elements to test the limits of the Lahori spirit. Foremost amongst these individuals were those that could be spotted sitting under public taps in the old city dowsing themselves unconcernedly with lotas of ice cold water with a garam hamam only meters away. A garam hamam establishment was perhaps as old as Lahore itself. It is said that originally it offered a place where one could, for a small price, enjoy a hot bath only, but with time and the advent of hot running water in houses, this facility added a barber shop to itself, where one could have a hair cut, followed by a head massage with sarson ka tel and then step into a hot shower. The garam hamam of yore was not only a place where one could wash away the days grime, but also a social meeting point where gossip and the days news were shared. The early hamams consisted of cubicles equipped with potbellied metal containers that had a hollow metal tube running down the centre. Lighted coal was put into this tube, while the container was filled with water. Heated water could then be regulated and used through a tap-like contraption at the base of this container. Later days, garam hamams continued to have cubicles, but began heating water in a central boiler that supplied taps, and in some cases, overhead showers installed therein. Today, while cubicles remain, some of these establishments boast gas operated geysers. Now since barbers or nais and hot public baths are linked, therefore, let us tarry a while on the institution of the former. In the days of my childhood and earlier into times unknown, the nai and his better half, the nain were an essential and respected part of the inner city culture. Our family nai wore a turki topi and was always dressed immaculately in a white kurta and spotless dhoti. He was not only an artist with the scissors and the razor, which he wielded with great aplomb for trimming hair, shaving and circumcisions, but also cooked at all large family weddings. His wife, who I remember as an imposing woman with a perpetual frown, was the familys official matchmaker, with the duty of acting as a bridge cum message carrier between the two families intending to wed their offspring. She, therefore, bore the stamp of reliability and confidentiality, and was much respected by the womenfolk of the family. A successful match meant a reward for the nai and the nain from both families in the form of cash, gifts and dresses or joras. The demise of this fascinating couple somewhere in the early sixties effectively put an end to this form of matchmaking in our family. The cooking that nais did was a far cry from the stuff that is served at weddings these days. As a child, I was witness to this activity at the wedding of one of my aunts. The cooking pots or degs were washed spotlessly clean, the meat and spinach were given a thorough scrutiny, and the former was rejected twice before it was washed and prepared for cooking. The condiment or masala was freshly ground in large stone receptacles known as koondis with a large wooden pestle normally referred to as danda. Our nai then bathed, said his prayers and finally got down to business with a loud prayer to the Almighty. The wooden fires beneath the degs were constantly watched and regulated in tune with what was being cooked. At serving time, the nai personally filled out the large serving dishes, delicately selecting the meat and curry. The end result of all this fuss was a banquet par excellence, where every morsel spoke of the chefs understanding of flavours and food. To my good luck, I still retain many friends in the old city and I intend imposing myself on one of them soon with the request that I be served with a degi curry made from freshly ground masala and prepared by none other than a nai. The writer is a freelance columnist.