Lahore Lahore Aye: The kings and clowns who entertained Lahoris
By A Hamid
During the annual celebrations marking Lahore’s patron saint Data Ganj Bakhsh’s birth, makeshift kiosks come up from Taxali Gate to Bhati Gate. One specialty of this much-loved Lahore festival is a pizza-like deep-friend bread which makes a great snack. Until recently, there also used to be magic and variety shows, and even a third class circus with an old, ailing lion. I think they gave him a vitamin B-complex shot before they brought him out. This lion was more afraid of people than people were afraid of him. He would walk two steps and then sit down. Then there would be, what were called, one-anna theatre companies, which would pitch their tents in the area and perform skits with boys playing female roles. Nicely made up and wearing colourful costumes, under the light of petromax lamps, they looked more fetching than women. A curtain would be hung at the entrance to the makeshift theatre and on a raised platform, two boys dressed as girls, would dance to attract customers. The ticket office was just one man with a small tin box whose sales pitch would be, “Come in, come one, come all, dear patrons of the arts, the play Laila Majnu is about to begin. Right now, if you come in, you will see Laila singing a duet with Majnu.”
In order to whet the appetite of the crowd that had assembled outside the curtain was drawn aside for a minute and then drawn back, which was long enough for the bystanders to catch a glimpse of several boys dressed as girls in gold and silver finery dancing on the stage. The trick succeeded and several of those who until then were indecisive about buying tickets would go in. Some paid more to get into what was billed as first class, while the more economy-minded were content with watching the show in third class. The audience sat on cotton spreads in a dugout. There were no chairs. Those who had paid more, would sit in front, and those who had paid less, sat in the back. The stage was lit with big petromax lamps. The actors were free to improvise their lines. There was no script.
Once I recall going to one of these shows with my friend Anwar Jalal Shamza. We sat on the floor. I remember that the play that day was Laila Majnu. A man walked on to the stage, ringing a bell and announced, “Dear patrons of the arts, please remain alert and watch your pockets because if some pickpocket does a number on you, the company will not be responsible for the loss.” In a voice that rose above the beat of a drum worn around an accompanying drum player’s neck, he declaimed, “Dear patrons, please stand by for the show. The play Laila Majnu is about to begin.” The man walked off, followed by two people who placed a wooden chair of sorts on the stage and left. Another man appeared from the wings and announced solemnly, “All stand at attention and be on their best behaviour, His Majesty the King is on his way.” The audience clapped as the King made the promised appearance. He was wearing a threadbare gown that appeared to have been bought at a bargain price from Landa Bazaar. In his feet, he had a worn-out pair of Bata’s tennis shoes and on his head a cardboard crown that said ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. Behind him walked his queen. She waited for him to take the throne and then sat down behind him, with her hand on his shoulder, as one sees in miniatures of Emperor Jahangir and Empress Noor Jahan.
In walked a court attendant, “What is Your Majesty’s wish?” The answer came from the queen, “Potatoes cooked with greens.” There was a hearty response from the audience. “Let Laila be brought into our majestic presence,” the king commanded. Soon Laila appeared, wearing a flowing Arab dress. The king graciously invited her to sit next to him, “Bring a full set of tea, cakes and cookies for our Laila,” the king ordered. As if from nowhere, a street urchin jumped on the stage and said to the king in a most insolent voice, “You still owe for the last half set of tea you ordered. Unless that bill is cleared, no more tea for you or Laila.” The king said to the impertinent boy, “O Dulli (which must have been his name), don’t you know that as of this moment I am not a vegetable vendor but the king of this land.” “Cauliflower, spinach, radishes and carrots are what you sell!” the boy replied in an insulting tone, which also happened to be true in real life. The king was not amused.
The next to appear was Majnu, wearing breeches, acquired no doubt from the used clothes’ market. The breeches were somewhat loose and the legendary lover had to pull them up every now and then to keep them from slipping. He took one look at Laila and said, “Laila, what is a nice girl like you doing with this clown of a king?” Laila rose from her chair, grabbed Majnu’s hand, turned her face towards the audience and said, “My darling Majnu, by all that is sacred, I swear I belong to you and you alone. This king is a big rascal. He was trying to entice me to go with him to Bhati Gate where he was going to treat me to spicy chickpeas. And then he was to take me shopping to Landa Bazaar.” Majnu looked furiously at the king, “O king, were you trying to entice my Laila?” The king’s response came like a shot, “O Lahore vermin, recognise your station.” Majnu pulled up his breeches, produced a knife from somewhere and shouted, “You son of a monkey, only your dead body will leave this place today.” The king turned to his queen for moral support, which came in the form of a blow to his neck. Then she addressed Majnu, “Majnu, this king is a blackguard and a rascal, don’t let him get away.”
Majnu emitted a war cry and leapt towards the king, who stepped aside. Then he removed his cardboard crown and placed it at Majnu’s feet. He raised himself to his full height, brought both his palms together and said, “Little brother, forgive me; from this day on Laila is my sister.” Laila moved towards the king emotionally, “My sweet brother.” She caught the king’s hand and the two broke into a dance, singing a Punjabi song about how a sister celebrates the wedding of her brother. The queen did not look amused.
For the residents of the inner city of Lahore, those theatre companies and their nonsensical plays were a great source of entertainment. Those companies are no longer around because the world has moved on and the electronics revolution has equipped everyone with the means to obtain his own entertainment. What is missing is the simplicity, good humour and innocence of those days.
A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan