harking back : Painful decline of Lahore’s residential quarters

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 27, 2013

Last week I went to meet Sheikh Mubarak Ali, the 92-year-old gent who led Muslim youth in the walled city of Lahore in 1947 targeting Hindu and Sikh inhabitants. He himself killed four persons. He told me the door to heaven would open for him on Thursday. On the predicted day he passed away.

I write this piece to share with you our conversation, for his interview is part of a much larger effort to record the events of the painful Partition of Punjab, in which the greatest exodus in human history took place within the span of three months. Neighbours and friends for generations were separated forever, bringing in its wake a hatred that has consumed the entire sub-continent, warping our very humanity. The corruption led by the ‘Evacuee’ phenomenon grows geometrically still. The honest, slowly, become poorer.

Though Sheikh Mubarak Ali killed for Pakistan, he died in poverty. The euphoria of Pakistan was followed by utter disappointment. He hero-worshipped Jinnah. By the time his end came he had serious doubts. “I miss the times when all of us lived like brothers. People were honest. Neighbours cared like ones own family.”

On many an occasion I have maintained that the generation that lived through ‘The Partition’ is fading away very fast. There is an urgent need to record their stories. It was in this spirit that I used to often visit him, for he pointed me on to other old friends who operated with him. My first acquaintance with him was made almost 20 years ago while he sat in his little shop in Tehsil Bazaar. I was then researching for a commercial organisation.

He became a good friend and because of him I started writing every week about old Lahore almost 16 years ago. Till the end he remained a source of information about oddly named ‘gallis’, or ‘katras’, or ‘ghattis’, or ‘khoos’ or the hundreds of other places that make Lahore among the finest old cities that humans have ever inhabited. While discovering amazing archives in the numerous libraries of the University of Cambridge, I would phone him from England in my excitement, and he would add to my ‘discovery’. At heart he was always young and eager to learn.

His story is an amazing one in its own right. This is the correct time and place to tell it. Born in Tehsil Bazaar just off Bazaar Hakeeman inside Bhati Gate, his mother died when he was merely seven. Her love was the one thing that he held dearest to his heart, and to his dying day he praised her lavishly. He married young and his wife bore him 11 children - six daughters and five sons. The youngest was merely seven when his wife also died. He also praised her too till his dying day for her honesty and piety, and next to her he was buried on Thursday last, the day he predicted when the path between the Earth and the Heavens would be cleared for him to travel. It was an amazing prediction for a man who seemed reasonably healthy. He always spoke in religious syllables.

In the 1930s he hit it big when he landed a job with his uncle who was building the Lahore Central Jail. From his earnings he opened up a tailoring shop and when the Second World War began he landed a whopper of a contract – to make as many soldier uniforms as he possibly could. His quality impressed the British Indian Army officer in-charge, who after an intelligence clearance loaned him a large amount to expand his small tailoring shop to a large factory located inside Tehsil Bazaar. He delivered on time and “not a single uniform was ever rejected”.

On his success his wife asked him to go to the shrine of Ali Hajveri (Data Sahib) and feed 101 poor persons every Thursday. On the very first day he met a Hindu devotee of the saint, who became his bosom friend. Hari Ram assisted him in his work, guiding him on how to keep accounts and how to check for quality at every step. It was help sent virtually from heaven. As the war ended his contract ended too, and then one day on the steps of the saint’s shrine Hari Ram told him that he was destined to even greater glory, provided he prayed five times a day and late into the night. He felt a strange feeling as if someone was speaking to him from within his very body. He turned to talk to Hari Ram, who after smiling just dissolved and disappeared from sight as if he had turned transparent. Sheikh Mubarak Ali was never to see him again. That strange happening changed his life forever.

Let me make it clear that believing in the occult or anything resembling such pastimes, or even in belief, is not the way academics work. But listening to everyone is critical. To me Sheikh Mubarak Ali was an important source of the infinite wisdom of the old city. His ‘facts’ I always checked and double checked, and never was he once wrong. With time I had learnt to trust his honesty. His exceptionally detailed account of the events of August and September 1947 make compulsive reading, and provide an important source for future historiographers.

In my last meeting I asked him just how could he go around slaughtering humans and then expect to be forgiven by the Almighty. He looked at me sadly. “Sheikh Sahib, a heap of corpses has no religion. In the end even humans respect corpses more than we respect the living”. I was taken aback by his observation. “Then why kill in the first place”, I asked. He gave it deep thought and said: “Killing of the poor, like the soldiers in a battle field for whom I made uniforms, is really a struggle of the rich to attain power to oppress the very people who fight for him in order to become rich. In history, without exception, the rich become richer and the poor poorer.”

In our last meeting he said: “Sheikh Sahib, you write so much about a fading old Lahore. Remember the rulers are cheats and the law is deliberately bent to suit the rich, but then one honest man can make a difference”. It made me happy and he smiled. I never knew it was our last meeting.

In his life time he built a beautiful mosque on the corner of Tehsil Bazaar and Bazaar Hakeeman. Below he sat to assist the poor, always refusing to take any money. From the super rich from afar to prostitutes living nearby and even to followers living as far away as Canada, where he once went to visit a son, he advised. Every time I dropped in he left everything aside and ordered a cup of tea. We chatted and I sought information about old Lahore. When I went to his ‘Qul’ on Friday, his daughter broke all religious protocol and gave me a cup of tea. She added in tears: “This was the last thing he said. Always give Sheikh Sahib tea without sugar when he comes”. I will miss him a lot.




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