Daily Times: Sunday, April 02, 2006

LAHORE LAHORE AYE: More early Lahore memories

By A Hamid

My earliest memories of Lahore, it seems to me, date back not to another lifetime and a vanished world, but to a world that I can reach out and touch. It is like it all happened only yesterday. Time is like a river and I can flow back and forth in it at will, and quicker than a flash of lightening. There is no dividing line between my present and my past.

Here I am, sitting at a window in one of the inner rooms of an old house in the city. There are many women in the sitting room that we called a baithak. I can smell the powerful and mystic aroma of burning incense. There are large serving dishes in the middle of the floor and on them lie great quantities of cut fruit. The atmosphere is heavy with the perfume of henna. Some women are singing a devotional Punjabi song, keeping time on a pair of drums. In the middle sits a fair and corpulent woman whose hair cascades over her shoulders as she shakes her head violently from left to right and right to left. He eyes are shut and she is dressed all in white. The rhythm quickens as do the woman’s movements. She is in a trance. The voices of the singers rise in chorus. Other women with white dupattas on their heads are also now moving in rhythm and singing along. I am scared. Suddenly, the woman in the middle raises her arms and everyone falls silent. She is perspiring heavily. Someone wipes her forehead reverentially. She opens her eyes, which are bloodshot. In a heavy voice she says, “I am Shah Pari, why have you summoned me?” “May your coming be auspicious,” the woman who has wiped her forehead says. “Where is Guddu?” Shah Pari asks in an even deeper voice. A little boy is brought to her. She runs her hand over his head and says, “Make a doctor of him”. Other women are now asking her questions, but they are told sternly not to burden Shah Pari, who does not seem to mind. To one woman she says, “Your child will get well”. Another is told that her husband will return safely home, someone is told of the birth of a child. Next I recall standing in the street, watching a performing monkey, my hands full of cut fruit.

My next memory is sitting in a “box” with some relatives in the Rivoli cinema close to the Lahore Railway Station. I am very young and I am sitting in someone’s lap. On the screen I see a man riding a horse. I learn years later that the movie was called Lail-au-Nihar. But that is all I remember of the movie: this man riding a horse at breakneck speed. I also remember being in another house inside the old city where one of our relations lives. A woman walks into a small room whose walls and roof are studded with tiny mirror pieces. She is holding a tray on which there is a mound of dough which serves as the base for many smoking incense sticks. This room is called Shish Mahal and it is supposed to be the dwelling place of jinns. Our aunt Sughra swears that the jinns too have their family weddings and recently she herself saw a young she-jinn dressed up as a bride.

I remember being in the house of my eldest sister in Lahore. Out on the street there are men working on metal utensils that they fashion out of copper sheets which they knock into shape with hammers and chisels. I am about seven or eight and there is another boy with me. We are both very giddy because we have smoked a cigarette each some minutes earlier. We drink water, then lie on the floor but our giddiness doesn’t go away. A big man stands over us and asks harshly, “What have you been up to?” When he finds out, he shouts in a worried voice, “Razia, come down here.” I do not recall what happens next.

Another of my memories of my Lahore childhood is a tiny house inside Ratti Darwaza, which is perhaps inside Dabbi Bazaar. It is a four-storey house and the ventilators have green, red and blue glass. There are also a large number of light grey pigeons on a perch on the roof. The house has a tiled floor and if you look up, you see the sky. It is all very quiet and very cool. Lala Ghulam Hassan has asked me to run an errand for him. I have to go to the house of a friend of his and leave a message. I stand outside that house and call for attention. A latticed window opens and a girl’s face, which is like the moon, appears in it. A lock of her hair hangs down as she bends her head to speak to me. I give the message I have brought and she answers, then she shuts the window close and I never see her again but her memory stays with me. The man who sent me to that house where she lived, is dead and those grey pigeons are dead too and where is that girl with the moon-like face? Lost along with so many lovely faces that were once in this city of Lahore. Were I to run into her today, would I know her?

I am now seventeen or eighteen but I have taken a job. Everyday, I board the Babu Train from Amritsar and come to Lahore. I am a clerk at Railway Headquarters. Zahoorul Hassan Dar also takes the same train to Lahore with me everyday, as do Nafis Khalili and Iqbal Kausar. The monthly railway pass costs three rupees and eight annas. I travel without a ticket and the money that I get from home for buying one, I spend on other things. Off and on, there are ticket checkers on the train and once when the train is passing through Mughalpura, two checkers walk into our compartment. I have no ticket and when one of them walks up to me and asks me for it, I get up and jump out of the slow moving train. I fall into bushes and I am laughing as people stick their heads out of the windows, looking at me with astonishment. And then I leave Lahore and I even leave Amritsar and run off to Colombo where I have relatives.

But wherever I go, Lahore goes with me.

A Hamid, distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, will be contributing a column based on his memories every week. Translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan


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