Daily Times: Sunday, November 19, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore’s inner city of silence

By A Hamid

Of Lahore’s many graveyards, the Miani Sahib is the oldest and the most historical. It holds in its vast bosom countless men and women of genius, including religious scholars, freedom fighters, poets, writers, intellectuals, mystics and political leaders. One day after performing my ablutions, I walked into this most famous of the city’s last resting places. Before stepping in, I raised my hands in prayer for all those who were asleep here; then I entered and began to walk along an unpaved path that divided that section of the graveyard into two. I walked with great care so as not to step upon any grave. Some were in very poor condition and others had simply caved in. Some were covered with fresh rose petals, while some obviously had not had any visitors for a while.

I noticed a middle-aged man who was busy digging a grave. In the old days, a side chamber was created inside the dug-out grave where the body was placed, but that no longer is the custom or the practice. Nowadays, the body is laid into the rectangular hole dug into the earth. The gravedigger’s work was half done and he was taking a break. I sat down next to him on the ground to talk. His name was Rehmat Baba. I asked how long he had been working there. He replied, “As long as I can remember, I’ve been digging graves. It is a hard, back-breaking job and you have to squat while working. Sometimes I feel as if my intestines are all knotted up. I often experience sharp pains. One day, when digging a grave, I will collapse and that is where they will bury me. Right here!”

“Are there spirits in this place who materialise at night?” I asked. “I live in this graveyard,” he said, “I have never run into any spirits wither during the night or during the day. Spirits belong to God and live under His mercy in a better world than ours.” My next question was, “Have you ever had an experience here that took you by surprise?” “Yes, once, I would say,” Baba Rehman recalled, with a distant look in his eyes, “I was digging the side niche of a grave that I had already dug, when I realised that my shovel had exposed another grave. What I saw was a body wrapped in a clean shroud. Now that was strange. There is not in inch of this graveyard that I am not familiar with and I know that the spot my shovel had exposed had no graves at all. Nobody had been laid to rest in that area the last fifty years at least. That notwithstanding, the shroud in which that body lay was spotless as if it had been placed there just that very day. Even more astonishing was the sight of roses covering it and although they had dried up, their aroma was still there as if they had been fresh. I stopped digging, raised my hands and prayed for the person lying there so peacefully. It has been said that the bodies of those who have been good in this life remain uncorrupted in death. But God alone knows such mysteries. We humans can only pray for His guidance and blessings.”

I asked Baba Rehmat if he had ever felt afraid in this vast graveyard. “I am afraid,” he replied, “when I step out of here and find myself on the streets of Lahore. I am terrified of being hit by a speeding bus, truck or rickshaw. In this graveyard, it is only God whom I fear.” On the side of the Bahawalpur Road, there was a grave on a plinth that was in very poor condition. I walked up to it and my heart missed a beat when I realised that this was where the great romantic poet Akhtar Shirani lay. Not far from it, was the great dramatist, the man who was called “Indian Shakespeare”, the one and only Agha Hashr Kaashmiri. I kept walking, looking at the tombstones, searching for familiar names. It was very quiet, the silence being only broken by the occasional cawing of a crow. I didn’t have to look far because they were all here, men I had admired all my life and men who had made a difference to this world. There was Maulana Chargh Hasan Hasrat, the great scholar-journalist, Urdu’s greatest story writer Saadat Hasan Manto, the rebel poet Habib Jalib, the educationist and man of letters Dr MD Taseer, and that wonderful poet Shad Amritsari. They were all here resting in the peace they may not have known in life.

On a raised platform protected by a grill was a pair of graves, with a stone awning shading them from the sun. I asked Baba Rehmat, “These two are very elaborately made graves. Please tell me about them.” He replied, “This is where a husband and wife lie. The wife was the first to go. Her husband loved her very much and wanted to lie next to her when his time came, and his wish was fulfilled. When he was alive, he would come every day and light a candle on her grave and leave it with fresh flowers. Well, there the two are, eternally together, never to be separated again.” The graves, I noticed, needed some tending. Time had not been too kind to them. I asked if anyone ever visited them. “The man who loved the woman who rests here now rests next to her. No one is left to light a candle for them,” he replied.

I asked Baba Rehmat if he had any children. “Yes, I have a son,” he answered. “Did he help him in his work?” I wanted to know. “He has a job; he helps me out.” “Does he work in an office?” “No,” Baba Rehmat answered, “This is where his job is; this is where he works.” “What does he do?” “Well,” the old gravedigger replied, “Sometimes at night certain rough characters come to this graveyard and we don’t want them here. The people in the neighbourhood offered to pay my son if he would stand watch at night so that the sanctity of this graveyard is not disturbed. So that’s what he does. And of course he helps me.”

I noticed a fully dug grave next to where Baba Rehmat was standing. “Whose grave is that?” I asked. “The body has yet to arrive,” he replied. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You see,” he said, “It’s like this. Sometimes a body arrives which has to be buried immediately, so we always have an already-dug grave for such an occasion. Who knows when that body might arrive?” That set me thinking. I said to myself, “The person who is going to lie here is alive somewhere in this town. Perhaps he is busy working with his partners in his office, totalling up his profits. Maybe he is planning the construction of a shopping plaza, or perhaps making final preparations to take a foreign trip with his wife and settle abroad. But little does he know that a quiet corner of this graveyard is waiting for him.

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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