Harking Back: New emerging landscape of old walled city

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, May 10, 2015

The popular perception about the typical Lahori living inside the walled city is of different accents of the Punjabi language for different gates, each having its own cultural peculiarities. Even ‘mohallahs’ had their oddities.

That is no longer the case. The city has over the last half a century changed beyond recognition. The people are different, the shops are different, the languages are different and the buildings have become different. It is a quantum change. This is the biggest change in its chequered history. We talk about places and faces and things, but seldom about the people. Last Wednesday I spent a good three hours walking through the city, meeting friends and making new ones. It was a small sociological survey of sorts. One can clearly see a strange transition, call it metamorphosis that has taken place.

The original Lahori is a minority. The new Afghani-Pashtun are in the ascendancy, a slight majority. A similar change was experienced by Lahore almost 300 years ago before the rise of the Sikhs. But then the richer Afghans came to Lahore, built beautiful houses and soon settled in. Today those very families speak fluent Lahori Punjabi. Amazingly those families still speak Persian among themselves. This time it is the very poorest that have come, and they work as cheap labour for the traders in their warehouses.

People respond to the economy in which they live. That is, ultimately, the clincher. The walled city is not a normal economy any longer. It is completely a wholesale economy, with multi-storey concrete warehouses, we call them godowns, for they all go down quite a few storeys. In the building process historic buildings are purchased and destroyed. The original owners, invariably, move to the faraway housing colonies. These first generation immigrants within their own city are very unhappy people. The second generation is incapable of living in their ancestral ‘mohallah’. For them it is an unliveable dump. Their new life fashions this belief, grouted as it is in a new better reality.

In their place come the poorest of the poor from faraway Afghanistan, or even from the tribal areas of Pakistan. Where once lived five or six persons, now live nearly 20. Cramped for space their overheads are minimum and they work 14 hours a day without break. That is the secret of their success. They save and buy new houses and their tribe expands. The original Lahori moves out, forever, taking with him memories of a time when life was seemingly much more meaningful, predictable and simple. It is a dream that fades only with the person who entertains the illusion.

As I entered Mochi Gate and walked towards Lal Khoo, I noticed that the bazaar increasingly had Pathan shopkeepers. I took a turn towards Akbari and the number of handcarts increased. The rush was crushing. The cart workers shouted in a mix of Punjabi and Pushto. It is an amazing new language. I was looking for coloured ‘petha’ for a ‘zarda’ my wife wishes to make. The ‘pansari’ was a Pathan and he spoke Pushto, Punjabi, Urdu, a wee bit of broken English and claims he can speak fluent Persian and Seraiki. Immigrants are survivors. He told me that now nearly 25 per cent of the smaller shopkeepers are Pushto-speaking immigrants. Their grip is slow, strong and certain.

With ‘petha’ in hand I moved towards a bye-lane and stopped at a ‘frontier-style’ tandoor that made ‘khameri roti’, the sort Pathans prefer. Everyone in the ‘gali’ spoke Pushto. As I approached Shahalami it was amazing to see that the cart-pushers were increasingly Afghans and the shopkeepers were mostly Pushtoon-speaking. Lahore’s wholesale shops cater for the retailers of central and northern Pakistan. You can give your show size in Lahore for a beautiful Hazro ‘chappal’ or even a Mardan ‘chappal’.

From Shahalami I moved towards Rang Mahal and then towards Chowk Chanda (flag). Along the way I noticed that the children playing in the streets were speaking Pushto. I stopped and asked a young man where he was from. He replied in chaste Punjabi. I told him that he looked like an Afghan and he replied that he was a Mohmand. It is amazing just how well these Afghans have meshed into Lahore. Like their ancestors almost 300 years ago, these new immigrants to the walled city have taken to their new life with a gusto.

My meeting with young Nawaz Khan Mohmand turned out to be an amazing experience. He took me to a nearby tea shop and we enjoyed the ‘frontier kava’ as I love to call it, full of cinnamon and a beautiful red colour. He introduced me to his old father. We got discussing the historic buildings of Lahore and how they are being destroyed by the trader classes. The old man was honest when he said: “I cannot oppose these brutes because we live off them, but they do not love the soil that gives them food. They are ‘beysharam’ (shameless) because they do not live in the walled city. They come every day to destroy it. One day they will regret this”.

It was an amazing analysis by a person who did not, originally, belong to old Lahore. What came as a shock was that in the lane where this Mohmand family live, out of the 23 houses only six are inhabited by original Lahoris, all of whom are poor local shopkeepers. One day they will also sell out. The rest are Afghanis or people from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Strangely our tribal areas Pathans are opposed to the Afghanis. “In Peshawar this rivalry is intense because local jobs have been hit by the Afghanis, who work for very low wages”, says the old Mohmand. “Even in Lahore they beat everyone by demanding very low wages,” he explains. That naturally suits the traders, and why not.

From the middle of the walled city I moved towards Mori Gate and was amazed by the change that had taken place. One thing is clear, crystal clear, and that is that extreme poverty because of a disconnect with the local wholesale economy is driving out the original Lahori. While one cannot help but admire these new hard-working immigrants, it is sad when yet another historic house is sold to a trader, who only knows how to destroy our heritage.



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