Daily Times: Sunday, October 08, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: Down and out but happy in Lahore

By A Hamid

Inside Lahore’s Delhi Darwaza there used to be a hakim who had put up a sign over the front of his clinic, which actually was a shop: Every disease is treated here through Tibb-e-Unani, the Greek system of medicine. Famous for his sherbats, he was obviously a learned man as the collection of medical books on his shelves indicated. He would open the place quite early in the morning, sprinkle the stretch of street that ran in front of it with water, arrange his bottles of sherbat and other potions in their assigned places, dust a piece of carpet that covered the cushion on which he sat and pick up one of his medical books – Tibb-e-Akbar or Avicenna’s Al Qanoon. He would get so absorbed in his reading that often he wouldn’t even notice his first patient or customer of the day. The patient would wait for a few minutes, then say, “Hakim sahib, please give me two annas’ worth of sherbat sandal.” This demand would be ignored. Finally, the patient would shake hakim sahib by his arm and say, “Hakim ji, please give me two annas’ worth of sherbat sandal.” Hakim sahib would look up from his book, give the patient a dirty look, put the book down and say in a bored voice, “They don’t even want to wait. The place has hardly been open a minute and in barges the first man. What nuisance!”

Next to his clinic was a small general merchandise store. The sign said, “Soap for bathing dead bodies available here free of charge.” In the morning, the proprietor would open the store and stay there during the day, but let his son take care of business in the evening. The first time I noticed that soap sign, I was with my friend Latif who was called Teefa. Suddenly, I had a brainwave. “You hang in there, don’t move,” I said to him. Next, I walked to the shop, made as mournful a face as I could and said in a sad voice, “Haji sahib, my grandfather has died and we need soap to bathe his body.” Haji sahib offered me his condolences, then picked up a cake of Sunlight soap and handed it to me. An hour later, Teefa did the same thing. He went to the store, told Haji sahib a cock and bull story about a death in the family and returned triumphantly with a cake of Sunlight soap. He had his grandmother die suddenly. Teefa repeated his performance the next morning, this time announcing that his aunt was dead. He was given a cake of soap. That evening, when Haji sahib’s son was minding the store, I went to him and got myself another cake of soap, having sent one of my relations to the next world. Those cakes of soap we sold at half price to a shopkeeper in Misri Shah.

Some days later, I went to Haji sahib’s store again and asked for a cake of soap for performing the last rites for my most beloved aunt. What I had not bargained for was that the Misri Shah shopkeeper to whom we had sold those cakes of soap would be sitting with Haji sahib. I had hardly opened my mouth when this fellow said, “Haji sahib, this is the urchin I told you about.” Haji sahib leapt up to grab me but I was faster than him. Within minutes I had run to the safety of the road outside Delhi Darwaza.

From 1952 to 1954, I worked for the Urdu daily Afaq. Ali Sufiyan Afaqi and Intizar Husain were already working there when I joined. Not much later, Nasir Kazmi also joined us. All three were my friends and they all worked the day shift, whereas I was assigned to the night shift. My job was to translate English copy into Urdu. Although we were paid in time every month, since Nasir and I spent a good deal of our spare hours in Pak Tea House, we were always short of cash. The only option was to ask for an advance against the coming month’s salary, which was deducted from the month’s pay. Syed Iqbal was the manager of the newspaper. He was a very nice man who always had a smile on his face. He admired poets and writers and always had a soft corner for them. However, the newspaper’s treasurer was a man with a dictatorial temperament. He always looked like someone who had just had a fight or who was about to have a fight. To get an advance from him was the equivalent of putting your hand in a hungry lion’s mouth and snatching his dinner from him.

I was successful the first time I went to him, asking for an advance of fifteen rupees; however, the next time I went, he said, “Get lost, nothing doing!” When I told Nasir Kazmi of my ill luck, he said, “You know what I do? I write a note asking for an advance and take it to Iqbal sahib, who graciously initials it, which is what I take to that miser of a treasurer. He has no option but to part with the money, though that’s the last thing he wants to do.” I took Nasir’s wise advice and was able to get advances at least three times. However, the fourth time I went to him with the duly countersigned application, he put it away with his papers and said, “Good, but as of now I have no cash. Try me later. I am waiting for some money orders to arrive.” That was how he kept putting things off for several days. In exasperation, I thought of another ruse. I went to him with a weepy face and said that I simply had to have an advance of twenty rupees because my grandfather had expired the night before and money was needed at home for his burial. His heart must have melted because he parted with the money. Over the next few months, I sent several other of my poor relations from here to the hereafter.

Every dog has his day, it is said. What is left unsaid is that there comes a day which is not that dog’s day. Mine came when the treasurer received the news of the sudden and tragic death of my grandmother’s triumphantly. “She is already dead. Remember”, he rifled through his papers and produced evidence written in my very own hand a year before. For the first time, I saw this man who never smiled, smiling.

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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