The Walled City no longer has any walls

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Nov 18, 2012

It is about time all of us who claim to love Lahore confess that we have been utter failures and have effectively deserted our city -- our ancient walled city -- the one we ‘lovingly’ harp about all our lives.

For starters there are no walls any more. We have a ‘walled’ city without its walls. Our wholesale traders, backed by crooked politicians, in order to create space for their merchandise to move efficiently, have knocked down all the historic walls that remained. Our rulers -- the British and the ‘free’ Brown Sahibs that followed – have over the last 150 years deliberately knocked down the walls that made our city famous.

It is about time that we accept that we do not deserve to lay claim to a great city. The original residents of the city have, for purely understandable economic reasons, deserted the ‘mohallahs’ and ‘guzars’ of their forefathers. Once they moved to the various colonies miles away, they have never bothered to look back at the carnage. It is a classic case of the famous saying: “whom the gods want to destroy, they are blinded, their homes destroyed, their ancestors forgotten, their children desert them, and brigands occupy their space”.

This is the true story of the ancient walled city of Lahore, the city without walls, naked, exposed, without any city father to bother about it as it slowly decays and disintegrates. The brute force of our rulers compels us to shut our eyes to this reality.

When the Punjabi poet from Lahore, Masud bin Sa’ad Salman, enslaved and imprisoned by the Afghan invader Mahmud of Ghazni, wrote his poetry lamenting the loss of Lahore to the illiterate (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1905, pp 705-707), he was probably foreseeing the year 2012 and not 1121 when he died a lonely death a prisoner in a foreign land. But then we are all prisoners, all of us, to avarice. To us history is utter bunk and the education, the little that we blow our trumpets about, just does not enlighten our conscious. Our helplessness compels us to remain silent.

On Sunday morning I set off to walk around the old city that was once a walled city. I tried to get a few friends to join in the walk, but everyone had an excuse not to join in. Why see the obvious. A dear friend put forward the excuse: “What if Shia-Sunni riots break out”. That stumped me, and I said something unmentionable. But it does reflect the deep malaise, the utter rejection by a class totally alien to the condition of the poor.

I parked my car outside Lohari Gate and went inside to see Mohallah Maulian. This is, probably, the original Lahore and the oldest portion. Inside is a scene of decay, probably utter decay is a better word, where ancient houses, exquisite in design, are decaying. They smell foul. People are so poor they cannot afford to get their choked drains functioning again. Almost all the historic houses have developed cracks. The traders want it to decay and then they pick it up for a bargain. Poverty has its limits.

As I walked inside a ‘ghumti’ (curved lane but corrupted to be pronounced ‘gumti’), a few very old buildings have fallen and as traders dig deep to build new ugly concrete structures, it was painful to see, almost ten feet below the surface, ancient arches built in small bricks emerge. These are the remains of an even older Lahore.

But then who cares about ancient cities. In any other part of the world newspapers would highlight the discovery and TV channels would be praising the find. Not so in Lahore. Every day an ancient house or two is knocked down by hungry traders to build a new warehouse. They do not need permission from a bureaucracy castrated by the buying power of business.

Let me quote a research by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Mind you, the Punjab government’s Lahore Walled City Project, now a dead leaderless organisation because of powerful political and trader pressure, remains quiet about. In 1947 less than 15 per cent of houses in the ‘walled’ city were commercial. In 2012 they have crossed the 72 per cent mark. The evil has spread far and wide and even Mohallah Maulian, purely a residential area for centuries, is being, slowly, eradicated.

As a reaction to the entire walled city being declared ‘commercial’ by the LDA and by the current rulers, themselves traders, I went to the Lahore High Court after a newspaper advertisement of the LDA stated so. The honourable court has not been able to hear my ‘urgent’ plea for well over a year. I am not surprised at all, for even they are human.

So back to Lohari Gate I came, shocked at what I had seen. Then started my three-hour walk, along garden paths, the outer road, the patches of garden, and where possible alongside the paths where the wall once stood. Traders have built shops, warehouses, fences and open spaces to store goods. Not a single brick remains. The government at places has managed to auction portions of the old garden. Even a city without its fathers does not deserve this. Why should bureaucrats remain far behind given the profits to be made by inaction.

At Delhi Gate I stopped to see shops oozing out onto Circular Road. The sheer strength of the trader mafia is too strong for any political establishment to resist, let alone bureaucracy. There was the old ‘Nakkas Khana’ that was bulldozed overnight by the LDA backed by the son of a top politician, for he is part of the trio mafia who rule, informally, everything that happens inside the ‘walled’ city. If you want to sell a house, it has to be routed through them.

To the north the government, while building a hospital named after Nawaz Sharif, knocked down the remaining historic walls.

The Press did not flinch, let alone report it. This was after several gates were made in them by traders. This newspaper reported the development. The traders decided to get rid of the old wall to end the controversy. No head, no headache. Journalists remained silent. I am not surprised for they are, like bureaucrats, human too.

So on to Tibbi I went. Incidentally, the word ‘tibbi’ comes from the word ‘tibba’ – a mound. Today mention of the word titillates the imagination. The food street also titillates as it slowly converts into a brothel as we had predicted after the young buck of the ruler got it made. I have nothing against the world’s oldest profession, and would probably want them to be licensed and restricted. But among the illiterate morality swings both ways.

As I walked along the western side, I knew that this was knocked down by the British for defence purposes after 1857. They feared sieges like the one that took place at Delhi. So back to Bhati Gate, onto Mori and back to Lohari Gate I came. Luckily my car was still there. So I completed my walk to see the wall that is no longer there. The poverty is unwatchable. The original inhabitants have all fled, their ancestors and their traditions no longer exist.

Can we save our old ‘walled city’ yet? The answer is a massive ‘No’. Our trader-politician class forced an organisation like the Aga Khan Trust for Culture out of Lahore. The government even sent a bill for the security provided to the Aga Khan, mind you our guest, when he came visiting. Might as well have slapped the man for caring so much for Muslim culture.

There is only one solution, and this might excite the rulers who love to build expensive infrastructure. Might as well give the rulers more grass to chew. Let the government build a New Walled City on the other side of the river between the Saggian and the Motorway bridges. Let all the markets and traders go there. Shift the truck and bus stands there, join it with the Metro Bus plan. Let this be the New Lahore Walled City.

In this way the original city will be vacated and conserved for tourists, who will bring in more money than the traders can imagine, as well as providing the city a soft image and a lot of business. It will give the poor a chance. If this happens, then mind you the rich will want to buy property in the old ‘walled’ city again. There is no harm dreaming something positive. After all we dream of Lahore and do nothing about it.




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