Lahore Lahore Aye: Ah! those long lost summers, winters of Lahore
By A Hamid
The people of Lahore have always been known for their zest for life. Brimming with enthusiasm, they never miss an opportunity to enjoy themselves. This upbeat attitude, this refusal to see the dark side of things, is part of the Lahori genetic makeup. Lahore’s festivals, seasonal and religious, are not the only occasions on which the Lahoris have fun. The fact is that they let nothing stand between them and good times. In the months of May and June, when the sky is like a blast furnace, you will find Lahoris parked in the gardens that fringe the old city, the river Ravi and Jehangir’s tomb. The mango season sees them turn out in huge numbers with friends and families for mango-eating marathons. Lahoris are gregarious beings by nature. They love to set out on picnics in groups. No occasion on which good food can be eaten with friends and family is allowed to pass. An old Lahori custom consists of throwing into the Ravi a specially prepared choori (a butter-laced sweet concoction) after a devoutly prayed-for event has come to pass. This custom is a strange and fascinating example of an old folk - may be pagan - tradition.
At the height of summer, the people of Lahore celebrate what is called “Paar da mela” (the festival on the other side of Ravi). It is said that the purpose of this celebration is to break the sizzling summer spell. Special large cauldrons of food (degs), would get going in the gardens around Jehangir’s tomb and the celebrants sit in groups, playing games and exchanging stories. Petromax lamps provide light- and folk-singers are at hand to sing verses from Heer Waris Shah and Mirza Sahiban. Some people play board games and cards - not always without a wager. This particular festival requires that a whole night be spent in the area around the Emperor’s tomb.
I often used to go to meet a friend of mine who lived inside Bhati Gate. We would be joined by other young men from the neighbourhood and there were days when someone would suggest that we go to Regal or Plaza to watch an ‘Angrezi’ movie. But we would never go barehanded, always making it a point to carry packets of wrapped food containing deep-fried fish, and butter-browned flat bread (nans). We would also make it a point to bring with us the sweet and aromatic betel leaves (paans) from Dar ul Saroor, a popular outlet outside Bhati Gate for such delicacies. We would take the food into the cinema hall and start feasting on it as soon as the credits began rolling on the screen.
During summer, the rush of customers at shops selling ‘falooda’ (a sweet, cold and delicious white pasta shaped like thick vermicelli) and buttermilk was to be seen to be believed. Women would commandeer a child to fetch these delicacies so that they could enjoy them in the cool privacy of their homes. The typical Lahori dandy would wear a long muslin shirt, a black-bordered dhoti and patent leather pumps in summer. Inside the old city, many of the havelis (mansions) had their own wells whose water was ice cold, even during the hottest months of summer. People who lived in such grand mansions were known as “thandi khooi valay”. Water from the wells owned by Ilahi Bux Jernail and Bawoo Ishaq was greatly prized and sought. The streets of old Lahore would be cool in summer and mildly warm in winter. Some of the streets were covered. They were known as Chatti Chappat. In every covered street (galli), there would invariably be a deep well of sweet, cold water. Some of the old city’s mosques also had such wells.
The Lal Khoo (Red Well) and the Thandi Khooi of Mochi Gate were famous. The residents of the neighbourhood, where these cold-water wells were located, never bought any ice in summer but drank the water they pulled out from these springs. If the rains were late some summer, a child would be chosen for a ritual aimed at softening the heart of the rain gods. His face would be blackened and other children would chase after him chanting an age-old ditty that was quite meaningless but often brought down rain. When the great monsoon finally hit, women would fry “pakoras” and a sweet bread called “poora”. A curry made with black poppy seed was also traditional for this time of year. The rush of bathers at the Mian Mir Canal was a given. The canal water was clean and cold.
If the monsoon rains were heavier than normal, the Ravi would rise in flood and inundate all low-lying areas, creating havoc. But that was in the past. Today, there is a high embankment that keeps the old city from being flooded. But back then when floods were a common occurrence, the Lahoris would show themselves to be great volunteers. The more daring of the youngsters would go up to the river and watch its furious waters rush past them. A few would even climb on to one of the steel girders of the old Ravi bridge to enjoy the terrifying sight of the angry river, which was so placid in winter.
A popular ditty that truly describes Lahori character went something like this: Sat din te athh melay: kum kraan main kairay vailay. (The week has seven days but eight festivals to celebrate, where does that leave me time for work?). The most famous festival of Lahore was and remains the Mela Charaghaan, followed by Tarroo da Mela, Charyan da Mela and Qadman da Mela, the last one known for its curious custom of people letting a water-carrier drench their feet from his leather mashk. Charyan da Mela used to be celebrated for 12 days because the old city of Lahore had twelve gates. Another characteristic of this festival was folk singers from the countryside who would chant lullabies for children. They would move in parties of three or four, pick up a child from the street, and while one member of the troupe would rock him around, the other would sing lullabies to the child, accompanied by a sarangi player. The women of the mohalla would send out their children to be serenaded. The lullaby singer would also dance as he sang. These folk performers were rewarded with money, rice, flour and lumps of brown sugar.
But much of what I have recalled here relates to a time and place that has almost faded. The inroads made by modernity have destroyed much of old culture of Lahore. But those who knew it once, like me, will never forget it.
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