The way it was

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Aug 01 , 2010

The Lahore of our youth is essentially about our memories, and we keep returning to relive them. Everyone has their own unique yardstick of the change that has taken place, and our memories provide that compass to guide us.

In my schooldays I often went on long walks with my father in the old walled city of Lahore. Along the way he would point out things that had changed. I could never understand why each change was lamented. Once while entering Mochi Gate he stopped and pointed to where, in his school days, lay the rotting frame of an old drawbridge. “It was lifted every night so thieves could not enter the city”, he told me as I conjured up a picture in my mind of the daily event. I am sure he never saw it function, but the graphic detail of the drawbridge functioning remains etched in my memory. He was sad that the wooden bridge had been removed, for, he said, it should have been restored and kept for the future generations to see. That made sense.

Once we passed a house in Bazaar Hakeeman and he pointed out that this is where Barre Ghulam Ali Khan used to live. “They should have a plaque here for the greatest classical singer of our times”, he said. Once we went to Hira Mandi to visit Ustad Akthar Hussain Khan, the father of Ustad Amanat Ali, Ustad Fateh Ali and, then a slight boy, called Hamid Ali Khan. Their mother made us tea and served biscuits. Music was discussed and the new restrictions on classical dancing were deplored. “They will damage classical dancing and music by these actions”.

So we grew up in Lahore and explored its streets, mohallahs, koochas and galis. At every turn history faced us. The best thing about the Lahore of the 1960s and 1970s was that one could take a walk for miles without ever experiencing dust. Sounds like an alien concept in 2010. During my days in Government College, Lahore, we used to walk from our house on Rattigan Road to Lawrence Gardens. It was such a pleasure, for the air was fresh and clean, and though dust surely existed, the green patches more than compensated for it.

Talking of walks, my three sisters and my future wife used to walk every day with their towels to the Punjab University Swimming Pool, and never a worry was there of being teased. People knew who these girls were and to which family they belonged. Some-times they went on bicycles, a few times on the once famous double-decker buses that Lahore had. Sometimes from their swimming they would turn up to listen to a debate at Government College to buck me up.

It was during those days that Duke Ellington came to Lahore and we had our first taste of jazz music. That experience in the Open Air Theatre of Lawrence Gardens still lives with me. At home we often had the finest musicians visiting and getting kebabs or fish for them was 'burdened' on us two elder brothers. We secretly cursed them as they performed late into the night.

Also, we learned puppetry from two Czech ladies called Mrs Vadichkova and Mrs Havelakova at the Arts Council. Both died in the PIA Cairo air crash. Also to perish was a dear friend of my father, Medjid Al-Makky. Now here was a man who used to go to the Mela Cheraghan with his brothers, all in bow ties. In those days bow ties were worn frequently, as were tweed jackets. Lahore was the city of gardens, of libraries, of universities and colleges; of music and dance and debate and poetry, all of a very high order. The traffic then was probably not even one 50th of the present. My father described it best as “the world's largest village, where everyone knows everyone”.

A lot has changed over the last 40 years for the worse. But then a lot has also changed for the better. The Lahore of old was smaller and predictable, and therefore at peace with itself. The Lahore of today is immense, well over ten million people, and the problems much more complex. But all said, you will still hear people say “Lhor Lhor aey”.




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