Harking back : Fun of getting to know our own backyard well

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Apr 12, 2015

In my college days we lived on Rattigan Road. Our huge house was second home to my father’s countless friends – musicians, poets, writers, journalists and professors, not to mention the numerous friends of his eight children. A hot meal and delightful conversation, even at odd times, stood guaranteed. On the rare occasion when no guest turned up, the old man would grumble: “This meal is tasteless”.

As one ages the things learnt from my father at the dining table come to mind. This column is about one advice he gave us time and again: “Learn in great detail about the history of the places near your home first, then your city, then your country, and then you will understand the world”. We all did become very street wise, of this there is no doubt.

Yet every day we got new books to read, not to speak of the five newspapers that came every day. At breakfast he asked us about the latest news, while at dinner he expected a speech from one of the brats about how the day was spent. Along the way our diction was strictly checked.

Once I had a ‘very heated’ discussion over the Vietnam War with my elder brother, in the process smashing all the furniture of the sitting room. When my father came home, there was silence. He surveyed the damage, asked the reason, and remarked: “So who won America or Vietnam?” End of matter and a hug to both. Next day both got a book each on the subject.

Then one day he asked me to research into who Charles Bradlaugh was. The back side of our house touched the back of Bradlaugh Hall, and during a raid to catch kites my brothers Karim and Rauf would often run at great speed on the ledge of the hall. It was frightening to just see them do it. This is the hall where The Indian National Congress was set up, and it was in this hall that the Declaration for the Freedom of India was adopted, which is today India’s National Day. India got its freedom, but lost Lahore and their Bradlaugh Hall. We, naturally, ignored both.

Charles Bradlaugh was a British MP who advocated, to the utter horror of other British members of parliament, freedom for a united India. He was a secular politician, an atheist, a Free-thinker, who stood for Irish Self Rule, Women’s Rights, Abortion, and the freedom of India. In a way he was a hundred years before his time. In 1880 he was elected as MP for Northampton and immediately hit the headlines when he refused to take the ‘Oath of Affirmation’ to the Crown and to God. “I will affirm my loyalty to Parliament, not to meaningless devoid symbols”. You can imagine the uproar.

He was re-elected to his seat four times after he kept resigning over this matter, ultimately the powers that be made sure that he was the last man, symbolically, to be imprisoned in the tower under the Big Ben. The story of this colourful British politician is too long to narrate in this brief column, but it was in respect to him that when he died the 21-year old Mohandas Gandhi attended his funeral, which was attended by well over 3,000 people.

Bradlaugh Hall was built in his honour by the precursor of the Indian National Congress. At this place Jinnah, Nehru and all the great political leaders of the subcontinent spoke. Freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh lived and were educated here at the National College. It is, by all accounts, a national heritage building.

Then one day my father asked me to research the ‘tibba’ of Baba Fareed which lies at the edge of Rattigan Road just behind the District Court. I went there a number of times, and in the process decided to experience a ‘chilla’. I sought my father’s permission, but he cut me to size with the remark: “I asked you to research in a scientific manner, not go daft”. So at the dining table one day he asked me to narrate everything I had learnt. That lesson I still recollect.

Baba Fareed was born in 1179 at Kothewal village near Multan. His family belonged to Khojend in Tajikistan. While studying at Multan he came across Qutabuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki who had stopped at his ‘madrassah’ while travelling from Baghdad to Delhi. He was to become his disciple, travelling with him wherever he went. A renowned Sufi saint, Kaki advised Fareed to first perform Haj and then proceed to Lahore and perform a ‘chilla’ of 40 days at the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh. “You will find light there and will know what to do next”. This he did after Kaki died in 1235 and from the mound at Rattigan Road he proceeded and finally settled at the present day Pakpattan, then known as Ajodhan.

Over the years the ‘tibba’ of Baba Farid has been visited by great Sufi saints like Nizamuddin Aulia, Saleem Chisthi, Baba Guru Nanak, and a long list of Sufi saints over the last 800 years. Today it is the haunt of drug addicts and persons of the legal profession who cut deals of various sorts.

It is amazing just how much history exists around us. But then my father had a scheme of things for his children. He wanted us to learn of all the great Sufi poets of our land, and one by one we got assignments about all the great saints and musicians and writers of our land. He would walk with us through the lanes and ‘mohallahs’ of the old walled city and every house had a story. At Mochi Gate he told me that in his youth a wooden drawbridge stood outside the gate. I often wonder just what happened to that drawbridge.

But just in the middle of Rattigan Road, where today is the house of the principal of the training college, once stood a Sussex cottage with its exquisite straw roof, where Mr Justice Rattigan lived. Opposite his house in the open ‘maidan’, where today is the Central Model School, from Moghal days were the underground tunnels where ice, frozen in large trays in winter, was stored for use in Lahore all the year round.

This just goes to show that he was correct in his assessment that we must first know our own backyard if we are to understand the world. There are scores, if not over a hundred, stories about where we once lived. Imagine just how much history Lahore contains, let alone the Punjab, or more importantly, the ancient land of what is today Pakistan. Just imagine how much research the new generation has before it. On this I am very optimistic.



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