HARKING BACK: Even walls take on a new meaning if you care enough

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 5, 2014


There was a time when the people of Lahore of the once Walled City swore by its walls. Ancient texts describe them as ‘iron-like’, or impregnable. The word ‘loh-kot’, which soon became Lahore, meant an ‘iron-clad’ city.

But then our ancestors had not catered for what we so-called modern city dwellers would unleash on our city. I set about, as if in desperation, though disgust is a better word, trying to find out what the walls of old Lahore mean to the new generation. Get it clear, our youngsters are not as uncaring as us ‘older fogies’ believe. The very word ‘fogies’ means a “reactionary, a stuck in the mud” type of person. For some strange reason I have an abiding faith in the new generation in that they will reason their way through the mess we are in.

I met a group of traders inside the stinking ‘chamra mandi’ (leather market) in Misri Shah. The stink in raw leather is associated with the fat left inside the skin that rots. Modern tanneries are now without smell as the fat is immediately picked up by soap makers. Modern societies force skin sellers to ‘deflesh’ skins within 24 hours to avoid rotting. We have to travel light years to reach that stage. These traders own shops inside the old city. They all felt that the walls constricted their businesses. One said: “The walls were once to protect the population, they now do not need protection, therefore our need for movement we demolished the walls”.

What amazed me was the clarity of their thinking. It was a simple choice which had nothing to do with history or culture. When reminded of them destroying our past, their reply was simple: “Only fools live in the past”. It was a thankless task discussing the issue with them. So I asked them all if they supported the IS of Syria and Iraq alleged objective of demolishing the Holy Kaaba. They went silent. “What has ISIS got to do with the walls of Lahore?” “Well, that is our Islamic heritage and the walls were our heritage”. I moved on.

Inside the old city at Choona Mandi where the family of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar lived, a group of youngster was lounging around. The new trading dispensation has seen them unemployed. I asked them about the walls of Lahore. One of them immediately said: “If these people had their way, they would knock down the Lahore Fort to build trading plazas”. It was a complete turnaround from what the leather merchants were saying. Another youngster said: “Very soon the old city will be 100 per cent Pathans and they have no love for our city and its culture”. This was the current reality at work. I told them that as the new wholesale culture had no economic relevance to the resident population, the original population was shifting to faraway colonies. They agreed that this was the case and cheap Afghan labour had moved in, changing the very culture of Lahore. One quipped: “You get better Afghani roti in Lahore than in Kabul”.

My third group was the youngsters of people who had moved out of the once-Walled City and now lived in Cavalry Ground Extension. I asked them how they felt about the old city of Lahore. The reply was rapid: “It is a dirty filthy place and is unlivable. I just cannot understand what Abbu loves about the place, for the bedrooms are smaller than our servant quarters”. This was a reality check to how far ahead the original residents of old Lahore have moved. I imagined that when our generation is gone, that faraway bubble called ‘the Walled City of Lahore’ will be left to crumble. Old historic building will be replaced by ugly concrete plazas. Probably even the Lahore Fort will degenerate into an ‘unvisitable’ place, almost like it has already become.

But the truth about the future lies more in the eyes of the highly educated youngsters who are emerging to seats of power. I got together a set of LUMS graduates and their response was amazing: “We will have to conserve what is left, and rebuild the old walls and ban all new construction. Trading must not be allowed in an area over 15 per cent of the land mass”. They had it clear in their minds what needs to be done. I asked where they would get so much money, so much political power and so many experts to carry out this task.

Their answer further shocked me. “The money exists in our pockets, we will collect it ourselves for the government is incapable of this task. The world will help for they are more enlightened than us. The displaced traders will have to live beyond the Ravi in a new Walled City. This move will improve their wholesale trade and the city will be saved”. I left this charged lot wondering whether they were living in a bubble that was not likely to burst soon.

But burst it will one day of this I am sure. One hopes the LWCA learns how to exercise its powers with creative will with an eye on the future. Old Lahore was never meant to be a wholesale market. The bloody Partition of 1947 forced this condition on a lawless new country where corruption rules supreme. As Eid approaches this thought rules my mind. Has the race to save old Lahore just started, or has it ended? Will the ancient ‘loh-kot’ ever return? Will we ever see our lost walls again? I have great faith in the new generation, for to be honest our generation has let them down badly. They are surely better than us … I think.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2014




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