Our family’s ancestral home was situated inside the old city, bordering one complete side of a large bricked area known as Maidan Bhaiyan. This was a historically exciting location as opposite and across the wide expanse of the ‘maidan’ lay Victoria Girls High School - formerly the haveli of Naunehal Singh (Ranjit Singh’s grandson) and the alma mater of my mother, aunts and later my sister.

The whole structure was in fact two houses joined together, each occupied by my grandmother (my maternal grandfather’s younger sister) and my ‘Chotay Nana’ (the younger brother). I greatly looked forward to the daily trip to Nani Amma’s house, necessitated by the need to pick up my elder female sibling from school. Our driver parked the car outside Mori Gate and we footed the rest of the distance through the maze of ‘galis’ that make up the Walled City of Lahore. Fair of complexion and dressed in spotless white, my grandmother produced out of the world curries that had no parallel anywhere. I would plonk myself down on a ‘peerhi’ in the kitchen, as she doled out the steaming spicy gravy and hot ‘chapaaties’ and then watched me with an indulgent smile, as I made short work of the food.

The Walled City’s culture was in itself a unique one. It embodied honest relationships, loyalty and a lot of respect for elders and females. My mother always wore a ‘burqa’ when visiting her aunt and as she entered the ‘maidan’, even the most notorious of residents in the locality stood up to pay their respects. There is a pre independence story that does the rounds in family gatherings typifying this relationship.

Dr. Shanti Lal and his assistant Beli Ram had houses on one side of ‘Maidan Bhaiyan’. The good doctor was a kind and gentle soul, who never took money from those unable to pay. One of these families (I forget which) had a daughter called Shakuntala, who was my mother’s friend and playmate. When the orgy of blood began in 1947, Muslim mobs began to target Hindu and Sikh homes on this side of the divide, while Muslims and their property were attacked on the other side. One evening, news was received that a mob was planning to kill Dr. Shanti Lal and Beli Ram’s families the next day. My grandfather immediately warned the intended victims and moved them along with their valuables to his own house. He and his younger brother then took turns sitting up in their front ‘deori’ or small covered lobby, with loaded shotguns waiting for the mob to arrive. Sometime after sunrise, shouting was heard in the street close by and soon a seething crowd of blood thirsty people carrying butcher knives, staves, spears and axes was seen pouring into the ‘maidan’. The noise died down as both brothers stood up and addressed the mob. (I am reproducing the exact words that passed between my grandfathers and the mob, as narrated to me by my mother, who was an eye witness to what happened) – “Why are you here?” they asked. “To kill Shanti Lal, Beli Ram, their families Mian Ji. To burn and loot their homes”, came the response. “Both families are in our home and under our protection. You can only do so after we kill a few of you and you kill both of us” said my grandfather. There was loud murmuring in the crowd followed by animated discussion, during which the words “Mian Ji and his ‘hukam’ were frequently heard and heads shaken. Tense minutes went by and then the faces of the brothers lit up as the crowd began turning back and dispersing. Needless to say, the grateful families of Dr. Shanti Lal and Beli Ram were soon dispatched under escort across the border and their homes handed over to the Evacuee Property Trust.

It was after almost fifteen years that while returning from the ‘Maidan Bhaiyan’ house, my old grandfather asked the driver to stop the car in front of what was a prosperous milk shop and eatery. On seeing the occupants of the vehicle, the proprietor immediately got up from his cushion and ran up to pay his respects. I watched the two individuals from different social worlds chatting away as only those with mutual respect are apt to do. Intensely curious, I asked my mother as to the identity of the ‘pehelwan’ from the milk shop. “Remember the story of Dr. Shanti Lal?” she said. “This was the man who led the mob to massacre the two families on that day in 1947.”