Daily Times: Sunday, September 03, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye:The living world of Lahore’s streets

By A Hamid

Lahore has always had a culture that is unmistakably Lahori. Take those who excel at the art of inducing small crowds to not only listen to their spiel but also to buy whatever manner of goods they are trying to palm off. Let me count a few Lahore roadside perennials. There are those who hawk what they call the best tooth cleanser in the world; others can clean your ear in a matter of seconds of the accumulated deposits that have been impairing your hearing for years; while still others can sell you King Solomon’s antimony guaranteed to sharpen your vision and rid your eyes of every impurity. Then there are the fortune-tellers, some of whom can peep into the future with the aid of their monkeys or parrots. There are also those who claim to pull your aching tooth out with just their thumb and the forefinger.

The grassy lawns stretching outside Lohari and Mochi Gates are the hangouts of masseurs who can take care of those aching limbs and enhance your brain power with a head massage. Weary travellers are their sitting ducks. You also find in this area those who sing Waris Shah’s love classic Heer Ranjha. In case you are into romantic Islamic history, this is where you will find the man perched on a stool regaling you with stories of heroic exploits by those warriors on white chargers. These street entertainers, tricksters and stargazers are always around but they are out in large numbers when it is festival time. Nowadays they are not permitted to sell their wares or services on Lahore’s buses but until recently, they would jump on a moving bus and go into their well-rehearsed sales pitch.

Once, one of these characters would jump on to a moving bus near GPO, make straight for the upper deck, take one look at the passengers and say, “Vah-vah! What an assemblage of handsome, well-dressed gentlemen!” The man would be selling fake perfume, both local and “imported”. He would uncork a perfume bottle, put it to his nose and exclaim, “All praise to the Lord!”, then address the passenger nearest to him, “Mian Sahib, let me have your handkerchief.” If the handkerchief was soiled, he would return it and move to the next passenger, asking him for a clean handkerchief, on which he would put a drop of his perfume, wave the handkerchief around and say, “Someone please go down. The aroma has already reached the bus driver.” The moving bus would by now be filled with the smell of cheap perfume. He would raise his hand, in which he would be holding five or six tiny perfume bottles and announce, “But hurry up, kind sirs, I only have these few. If you buy one from me, you pay four annas, but if you go to the company, which makes this heavenly perfume, you fork out one rupee. Why am I selling it at this unbelievable price? For the good name and reputation of the company!”

There was one who used to operate his business between Bhati and Lohari Gates, claiming to sell oil that he claimed had been extracted from lion fat. He would announce to the gathered curiosity seekers, “Friends, if you twist your spine, crack your neck, break your leg or dislocate your arm, there is no need to run to the doctor. Forty years ago, a man of God who had spent his life praying in the Himalayan mountains, killed a black lion and extracted this oil from that animal’s fat. If you break your finger, just dab some of this miracle extract on it and it will become whole instantaneously. It is equally effective if applied to a broken spine, a cracked neck or a broken leg. It works in seconds.”

Another man with a caged parrot would seat himself on the ground, place a row of envelopes next to the cage, open the cage door, let the bird out and ask him to pick the envelope that contained the fate of one of those in the crowd. The parrot would amble out and bring back one of the envelopes to his master, who would hand it over to the would-be client and declare, “Pull out the paper because on that paper is inscribed your fate.” Every paper had more or less the same predictions. “You will win your court case. You will marry the one your heart desires. You will get a job this very month.” The client would part with a little money and go away happy. The parrot would be rewarded for his labours and caged till the next client.”

One of these artists had a parrot, which could fire a tiny cannon, which was a replica of Zamzama that Lahoris call Bhangiyun ki Toap. He would sell whatever he was selling that day climaxing it with the parrot firing the tiny cannon by pecking at a lever or some such contraption. In the same area, you would find an astrologer who had drawn the horoscope of his client on a slate, which the man whose future had just been transcribed in mysterious numbers looking most worried. Then the astrologer would speak, “There is no cause for worry. I will give you an amulet that must be worn around the neck for 15 days and your guiding star, which has begun to move in the wrong direction, will correct its course.” The man would gratefully accept the amulet after paying the astrologer a small sum of money. He would soon be followed by another person down on his luck.

One man used to come from inside Bhati Gate holding just a square tin box. He would position himself in a corner of the lawns, pull out a large handkerchief from his pocket, spread it out on the grass, on which he would lay human teeth of all shapes and sizes. He would only stand up when he had made a sliver rupee stand on its side on his tin box, at which he would stare while remaining utterly motionless. By the time there was a crowd around him, he would begin to recite Heer or verses by Mian Muhammad. He would then make a short speech extolling the virtues of strong, healthy teeth. Thereafter, he would pick up one tooth from the floor and say, “Gentlemen, this tooth used to belong to a judge of the Lahore High Court. So severe was his toothache that no one could help him, even the most famous doctors, which was when I was sent for. All I did was put my finger in his mouth and pull the rogue tooth out. He did not even feel what I had done. I was generously rewarded. Friends, if you have a troublesome tooth, a tooth that is loose or infected or cavity-eaten, kindly step forward. I will pull it out free of charge and you wouldn’t even know.”

He would then quietly produce a pair of dentist’s pliers, which he would place in the patient’s mouth, grab the aching tooth firmly and pull it out with one jerk. So sudden would this action be that the man with the bad tooth would hardly have time to notice what had happened. The tooth-puller would then pick up the rest of the teeth, and drop them one by one on the floor with a commentary, “This tooth belonged to the Maharaja of Patiala and this moler that you see once adorned Allama Iqbal’s mouth. And this one belonged to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.” I once asked the man’s son about the source of the teeth that his father displayed to his clients. “My father has befriended a grave digger who brings him a steady supply of teeth for a price,” he whispered.

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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