Daily Times: Sunday, June 25, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: How green was my city

By A Hamid

I close my eyes and return to the Lahore of the early years of independence. I find myself walking along the Mall on an autumn afternoon. Yellow leaves float down from the trees and gently land on the road, from where the wind carries them away. Some fall on the footpath. The Mall is quiet and the leaves lie on its black surface undisturbed.

The verandas that fronted the row of stores in Shah Din Building were always cool and empty. In summer months, we would walk through them to get to Plaza Cinema. The strip of road between these verandas and the footpath skirting the Mall was never traffic-infested. Lahore was such a quiet, civilised and elegant city. Here and there, off an on, the odd car would pass or a stray tonga would go by. There were four eucalyptus trees growing out of the footpath between the Shah Din Building and Charing Cross, their lissom branches undulating in the breeze. Only one of those trees has survived, the other three have long since died, killed by the poison emitted by bus and wagon exhausts. The sole survivor also looks sickly and no one really cares if it lives or dies. It is only a matter of time before it joins its three friends.

The Regal crossing on the Mall was where Bhatti photographer ran his studio. He was Lahore’s prime portrait photographer, with Rollo and Zaidi as his close seconds. Of the three, Bhatti was the artist. Next to his studio, which stood at the corner of the Mall and Beadon Road, was Shezan Continental, where Lahore’s glitterati would come to drink tea and chat. You could see their faces though the restaurant’s glass frontage. Shezan was always full but never crowded. The regulars had their favourite tables, which were exclusively theirs at given hours. During summer evenings, flower sellers would set up shop along the footpath in front of Shezan or sometimes even on its steps. The Chalet, a tiny cottage-like coffee house, next to the Indus Hotel – which used to be Bristol once – had newly come up. Its half-lit interior always carried an air of mystery. On one of its walls, there hung an anchor.

The plot in front of the Assembly was full of thick, shady trees, which made it look like a strip of jungle that had been lifted and transplanted there by magic. So thick was their foliage that if you were walking up from the Plaza cinema side, you could barely see the Assembly building. The Free Masons’ Hall at the corner of the Mall and Queens Roads and across from Shah Din Building always wore a haunted look. People called it Jadoo Ghar - the house of magic.

So quiet was the Mall most times of the day that when a peacock crowed in the zoo, the sound lingered in the air. If you walked past the zoo, you could smell the aroma of the flowers and the exotic trees that grew in Lawrence Garden, which was renamed Bagh-e-Jinnah after independence, and where the Quaid-i-Azam and Miss Fatima Jinnah came to attend a citizens’ tea party.

The Mall began to lose its character with the mad rush of people to get rich quick. The only difference today between the Mall and the Shah Alami road is that while the road leading from the Shah Alami to Rang Mahal lies close to Lohari Gate, the Mall is now Temple Road’s unkempt neighbour. Crossing the Mall today is a veritable adventure and only the reckless and the young can take that chance. I am writing about a road that not many of the readers may remember or even have known. It was the road that was. The road that runs in its place today is not the road of my young, green days, although I am still walking on it.

Another Lahore road I loved was Waris Road, which branched off Jail Road and joined the Queens Road like a silent, gently flowing stream. A friend of ours used to live there in a large house with high-ceilinged verandas. Both in the front and in the rear, lay forlorn-looking gardens. The outer wall was fringed by mango and mulberry trees. Whenever we went to meet our friend and walked through the garden path that led us to his veranda, so quiet was everything that we would even hear the echo of our footsteps. I do not remember any other house standing close to may friend’s. At some distance though, there was another old home which had so many trees growing on its front lawn that it was barely visible from the road. If you went past it, you came upon a pond, where I would always spot a number of very patient anglers who hardly moved, afraid as anglers are, of alarming the fish. Sometimes they looked to me like men who had been turned to stone, as in fairy tales.

The small hill on the Mozang side of Queens Road had a thicket of trees. There was hardly any traffic around the Mozang Chungi crossing. On the road that branched off towards Temple Road, there used to stand an old mosque with a triangular patch on which tobacco was grown. The tobacco plants, which grew from green to brown, as their leaves ripened and broadened, were cut when ready and till the next crop, nothing was grown in their place. Where that little strip of earth once lay, there now has sprung up a market. Jail Road was another of Lahore’s quiet roads, lined on both sides with magnificent trees. The jail with its high mud wall stood to the right if you were going towards what is now Gulberg. There were a large number of quarters built on it for the jail staff. The scaffold where the firebrand revolutionary Bhagat Singh was hanged was located inside the high walls of the jail. When the Shadman Colony was being planned, a good deal of land, which was part of the jail, was sold. Today it is one of Lahore’s more expensive residential areas. The spot where the old scaffold, which people called Phansi Ghat, stood remained unsold for very many years but ultimately it went. Old men used to say that when men move into a wilderness the spirits that live there find another wilderness to live in.

A very romantic Lahore road of those early days was the Sunder Das Road, which branched off from Davis Road and emerged near the Mian Mir canal. On this road, there once stood bamboo groves planted by the Aitchison College. On the other side, behind which lay Mayo Gardens, where officers of the railways lived, there were mango trees.

It was one of Lahore’s shadiest roads. A tiny canal also used to flow by its side. The beauty of this road came to full bloom when the rains broke at the end of summer. It is my belief that bamboo and mango trees are in love with rain, and the rain is in love with them. During the rainy season, one would hear cuckoos singing their forlorn love songs in those trees, as their green undulating branches would wave a welcome to the blue clouds that hung low in the sky. Sunder Das Road died when the pressure of population grew and, one day, men arrived with axes and chain saws and murdered hundreds of those tall and beautiful trees.

Lahore, which was once known as the city of gardens, is now a city of concrete and smoke, full of what William Blake called “dark satanic mills”.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan


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