Daily Times: Sunday, July 23, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: Fading memories of the city that was

By A Hamid

If you turned towards McLeod Road from Chowk Laxami in the direction of the Lahore railway station, it split into two at some distance from that point. The one to the right, called Nicholson Road, crossed Empress Road as it found its way to Bohrwala Chowk, so named because of the great banyan tree that grew there. The other went past the old office of Maulana Zafar Ali Khan’s fire-breathing daily Zamindar, winding its way to the railway station without changing its name. Zamindar has been dead and gone for nearly 40 years.

At the point where McLeod Road bisected itself into two, stood the Lahore Hotel, which went back to British times. This double-storey hotel was comfortably middle class and traditional. The residential rooms were located on the second floor while a large dining hall lay to the right of the entrance, complete with four permanently curtained cabins for “lady guests”. There were large mirrors on the wall facing McLeod Road and several tables for those who came to dine or drink tea. The newspaper Mashriq was also based in this general area. On the first floor of the neighbouring Rattan cinema, the weekly movie magazine Screen Light and some others, including Javed, had their offices. A number of film production and distribution offices were also housed in Rattan cinema. Lahore Hotel, thus, was a convenient gathering place for movie journalists, writers, poets, columnists and music directors. That was where they came for a cup of tea and conversation.

There were two businesses that Lahore Hotel provided space for. One was called Parsi Laundry, where one would find a Parsi gentleman behind the counter, wearing a buttoned-up long coat and a round black cap. Next to the laundry was an old bookshop, which pre-dated Pakistan, and where one could find at low prices Urdu translations of various foreign works, including novels, biographies, travelogues, critical essays and poetry collections. Once before 1947, I saw here the roving writer Davindra Satyarathi looking through books. I recognised him from his long Tagore-like beard. I remember that I bought a novel called The Apple Tree from this shop for two annas.

Some distance past the Lahore Hotel, there was an eatery run by a Hindu. It was a dhaba and quite unpretentious, happy being one. It was a long tunnel-like place where Haji Laq Laq, who worked for Zamindar, was often to be found drinking tea. It was there that I once saw, sitting next to him, a slightly-built, shy poet with dreamy eyes whose name, if I remember it right, was Dil Shahjahanpuri. In Gowalmandi, there was a hotel owned by a Sikh gentleman with a sign on the outside wall that said, ‘It is permitted to drink here.’ Such derring do was characteristic of this open-hearted race. But let me come back to Lahore Hotel. A full set of tea cost 12 annas and a large piece of pastry was just one anna. If you tipped the waiter four annas or a “chawanni”, he was delighted. Lahore Hotel tea was always nice, hot and aromatic. Often, Akhlaq Ahmed Delhavi from the radio station and I would bring our families here for tea, which, as was the custom of the day, we had in one of those “family” cabins.

The production office of movie director Aslam Irani lay close to Lahore Hotel. He was busy shooting a Punjabi movie those days, with music by Tufail Farooqi, who was a close friend of mine. The two of us would often spend time drinking tea in Lahore Hotel, where we would be joined off and on by poet Habib Jalib. Not far from Lahore Hotel, was the office of daily Zamindar in a double-storey building. Munir Niazi and Zahoor ul Hasan Dar both worked there in the afternoon shift. When you entered the office, to the left was Maulana Akhtar Ali Khan’s room, where I would sometimes find his younger brother Mansoor Ali Khan, who was my friend. It was also here that I saw the legendary Maulana Zafar Ali Khan for the first and last time in my life. He had grown very old. When the newspaper went out of business, the building became Zamindar Hotel, which I always found tragic, considering what a great and popular newspaper of its day Zamindar was. Punjab’s Hindu press was said to decide on its week’s strategy after reading Maulana Zafar Ali Khan’s latest poem, which always had a political theme hammering home the Muslim cause.

Zamindar Hotel did not last long. All that remains of it now are memories of what was once a great publishing phenomenon. Today, nobody even remembers that newspaper or where it used to be. Time has obliterated all traces of what was, including the building. The entire area, from Lahore Hotel to Zamindar, has now been turned into a commercial market and motorcycle and scooter stores and workshops. I also remember that across the road from the Zamindar office, there was a Parsi doctor who specialised in children’s diseases. I think his name was Dr Barucha, a strong, sallow, middle-aged gentleman, with a quick temper, who never smiled at his patients. He always appeared to be in a bad mood and he was also a man of few words. But he did not charge a consultation fee; he only made the patients pay for the medicine he dispensed, generally in the form of mixtures. He would also treat adults. His mixtures had the reputation of working like magic. All you needed was drink three or four doses from the blue or green bottle he gave you and your ailment just vanished. There was always a sharp medicinal smell in his clinic. The green, blue and brown bottles would sit on several shelves from which the necessary dosage was ladled out to the patient. There Dr Barucha would stand in front of his medicines, muttering something under his breath. I always felt that he was a magician from the 18th century.

Dr Barucha would always instruct the patient to firmly cork the bottle after taking the recommended dose otherwise the medicine would lose its potency. Whether this was true or not, I do not know, but his instructions were not to be trifled with. He would also warn patients not to shake the bottle too vigorously. I don’t know what it was, but when you uncorked his mixtures, the cork flew off as if the contents were pure champagne and not cough and cold medicine. Dr Barucha had no fixed hours. You could pop in any time. He certainly had that healing touch, no doubt about it. I do not now remember when Dr Barucha’s clinic closed or where he went. He is gone and what has replaced him is not another kind-hearted doctor but an ugly motorcycle store.

I sometimes think that what time takes away, it never returns. Memories remain but even memories fade. It is like a bouquet of roses in a room. If you take them away, their fragrance hangs in the air for some time, then fades away. So it is with memories, but one writes what one remembers, which is one way of giving them a kind of permanence.

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


Back to A. Hameed's Page

Back to Column's Page