Daily Times: Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: The Mall as it once was

By A Hamid

On the Mall, facing the Lahore High Court, the E Plomer chemist shop still stands, but it has changed. They say that before the establishment of Pakistan, there were English salesgirls working here. It was Lahore’s most famous and best-stocked chemist store. Any medicine that was nowhere to be found could be had at E Plomer’s. Today, you can get your eyeglasses fitted here and even buy cosmetics, but those English girls are gone.

This grand, high-ceilinged building, designed keeping in view the hot summers of Lahore, stretches from the High Court crossing to the General Post Office intersection. Dating back to colonial times, it remains a landmark structure and such is the construction that even in the heat of summer you can do without airconditioning in one of its rooms. It is flanked on the Mall side by a long veranda which shelters passers-bye from the sun. I have seen similar buildings in Bombay, Madras, Colombo, Rangoon and Singapore. I recall that in Calcutta, exactly such a building stood in Dalhousie Square, across from which was the Metro cinema where I saw Kedar Sharma’s celebrated movie Chitralekha.

Next to E Plomer Chemists was the Ilmi Printing Press, owned by the Almakki brothers, Majid and Hamid. I haven’t passed that way for some years, so I do not know if the press still exists, and if it does, who runs it. Both Majid Almakki and Hamid Almakki were aesthetes with superb literary and artistic temperaments. Majid, the older one, was a very fine artist and when he drew a line, it reminded me of ancient Chinese painters because of its delicacy. He had a handsome, sensitive face with fine features and the demeanour of a poet. He would speak in a soft voice and only when it was necessary. The two brothers used to bring out a literary and artistic magazine called Nargis, whose design, illustrations and makeup were entirely Majid Almakki’s work. In contrast, Hamid Almakki was known for his full-throated laughter and his conversational flair. We were good friends. Like his older brother, Hamid was a natty dresser. He reminded me of the great Amritsari political leader Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew because like him, he used to keep a handkerchief tucked inside the sleeve of his jacket or sherwani. Tragically, Majid Almakki died in the PIA Cairo crash of 1964, along with some of Pakistan’s famous journalists. Hamid died some 10 years ago.

In the same building, the photographer Zaidi had his studio. He was known for his fine portrait work. His portrait of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah became very popular and can still be seen hanging here and there, mostly in government offices. At the Post Office end of this building, where McLeod Road begins, there used to hang a huge tube-lit sign that said ‘Murree Beer is the Best’. It remained in place for several years after the birth of Pakistan but eventually it was dismantled and taken down.

Across from the E Plomer building on the other side of the Mall, there stood the Dyal Singh Mansion. One of its flats housed the Star News Agency, headed in Lahore by ABS Jafri. Marghoob Siddiqi, always clad in a brown suit, was often to be seen there. He would walk in on quiet feet and get down to work. Abdulla Malik was a frequent visitor. Another journalist, whose name was probably Siddiqi also lived in one of the flats where he was to set up the first Agence France Presse office with several teleprinters and four large antennas on the roof.

Also in Dyal Singh Mansion, two brothers who were known as the Chaudhri brothers, established the office of the weekly, Nizam. Before Pakistan, they used to bring it out from Bombay. The weekly’s office was in the city’s Bhindi Bazaar and leading progressive writers were among its contributors, including Ali Sardar Jaffrey, Moeen Ahsan Jazbi, Kaifi Azmi, Krishen Chander, Josh Milihabada, Rajendra Singh Bedi and Jan Nisar Akhtar.. The Progressive Writers’ Association also used to have its weekly meetings in this flat. The proceedings would appear in Nizam regularly. Hamid Akhtar was the Association secretary.

However, after some time for reasons unknown, there was a policy change at Nizam weekly and I was offered its editorship, which I accepted. It was in the office of this weekly that the Azad Khyal Musannifeen or the Independent Minded Writers was formed. As far as I was concerned, I was essentially a romanticist and while the Progressive writers considered me a reactionary, the “reactionaries” or those who believed in art for art’s sake, took me for a Progressive and probably a Commie. I remained friends with both groups. The secretary of the new body was Quddus Sehbai, a very fine writer who was a refugee from Bhopal. He was known for his stylish clothes and there is no doubt that he was a sober intellectual. He had a very deep understanding of Urdu literature. He left Lahore and moved to Peshawar where he was associated with the newspaper Shahbaz. I may add that his son, Shaheen Sehbai, is one of Pakistan’s finest and most upright journalists. To my regret, I never met Quddus Sehbai again.

The Mall of those days was very quiet, very peaceful, very calm. We would walk under its great banyan trees on its perfectly maintained footpaths with not a worry in the world. During the afternoons, the road would be practically empty of traffic, except the occasional tonga or bicycle or the odd car. I don’t think more than a few motor cars passed up or down the Mall at any given time. A double-decker omnibus used to run from its stop in front of Habib Jalib’s Krishen Nagar house to the RA Bazaar in Lahore cantonment. I don’t remember more than a dozen passengers riding in that bus most days. I am not conjuring up some dream city in a fairy tale but that really was how Lahore once was. I would even go as far as to say that if a bird sang in a tree in Charing Cross, one could have heard it in Regal Chowk, such was the silence that used to cover this loveliest of Lahore’s roads.

Outside Dyal Singh Mansion, there used to be a cycle stand run by an old man, who would always talk about his native Chamba - that storied valley in the Punjab hills. One day he told me a story that I have remembered to this day. He said, “There was a lake where I come from and two trees grew on its bank. People said one of the trees was actually a Brahmin virgin and the other a young man whose father was a cobbler. The two were in love. So beautiful was the girl that the serpent god who used to live in the lake fell in love with her and her father, to appease the god, pushed his daughter into the lake. When her lover saw that, he jumped after her. The two were never seen again, but one day two trees sprang out of the earth and everyone knew that they were the two lovers who had come back to life, but in another form.”

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


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