Daily Times: Sunday, April 15, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore’s fancy barbers and bathhouses

By A Hamid

If you want to be reassured that Lahore’s old culture and way of life is alive and well, all you have to do is throw a towel over your shoulder, grab a cake of soap and walk into one of the city’s hot baths or garam hamams.

I have suggested that you bring your own towel and soap because the soap that the house supplies will have been used to wash many bodies in need of it, while the towel would be thin and the size not of a bath but a hand towel. You need not bring a bottle of mustard oil with you. The oil is supplied by the establishment free of charge. You may be in the habit of oiling your body before your bath, but in the city’s hot baths, this is often to be done after the bath. You are also expected to oil your hair. These hot baths lie at the back of most though not all hair cutting establishments or barber shops where you can have both a cut and a shave.

If it is very cold, the entrance to the establishment has a quilt or a thick woolen curtain hanging over it. As you enter from the cold, wind-blown street, you feel as if your body has been suddenly wrapped in the warmest of blankets. There is a certain smell associated with these hot baths, which may not be too pleasant for everyone. It emanates from the many towels hanging from the wall, but no less than from the combined aroma of mustard oil and shaving soap. Some customers massage their entire body with mustard oil while humming a tune, generally some popular hit of the day. While those into wrestling only oil their bodies in the hot bath, taking the bath at home on return, their younger charges walk into the establishment, their chests thrown out as if they ruled the world, for the full treatment, both oil massage and bath.

You run into some very interesting local characters in these places. Inside Bhati Gate, there was a garam hamam that I used to sometimes visit. One man I often ran into there was an undernourished singer who was possessed by classical music. He was always humming some intricate combination of notes. His favourite place was the hamam owned by Sajja the barber. Our friend the singer was always high on some forbidden substance. He wouldn’t talk to anyone but when he was suffering a fit of classical music – which is the only way I can describe it – he would also produce a sound to replicate the beat of the tabla, the twin drums that must accompany every classical music performance. He would count the beats in a loud voice, then suddenly burst into the tarana or the third-stage extra-quick rendition of the raag. When he had completed a rhythm cycle, he would mark the point by slapping his thigh with his hand. Then he would open his eyes and look around, as if trying to ascertain if anybody had noticed what he was doing.

Another of the regulars of this place was a man who fancied opium. He was always to be found there in winters because of the warmth the place offered. When he would hear the sound of water being poured on the body by one of the customers in the hamam’s bathroom, he would block his ears with his fingers, as if he found the noise interfering with the reverie he was in. The owner of the establishment, Allah Ditta, would be busy clipping a customer’s hair, when one of the bathers would shout from the bathroom, “Uncle, this towel is soiled.” Allah Ditta would respond by shouting at one of the little boys who were his apprentices, “Hey! tiny, go get a new towel for No 3.” He may have been busy giving someone a cut or a shave but one of his ears was always cocked to the bathrooms. If he noticed that one of the young apprentice wrestlers was taking too long in the bath, he would say, “All right now, Nikka pehlwan, enough is enough or the hot water will run out. The rest of the bath you can take at home.” In pre-independence days, these hamams would always have pictures of Kemal Ata Turk and Anwar Pasha hanging on the wall, besides glamour photos of the film stars of the day. Some of the more fashion-conscious customers would request to be given a haircut that would make them look just like that actor on the wall.

These garam hamams have not entirely vanished and several of them remain in business in the old city. I do not know what they charge for a hot bath these days but of the time I speak of the price for a hot bath was only four annas. The mustard seed oil was on the house. Customers who would misuse the facility by massaging their bodies liberally with oil before pouring quantities of hot water on their bodies were informed through a notice on the wall, “Kindly do your massaging at home.” These hamams also served as gossip shops and when politics was under discussion, some customers would get emotional or angry. When fights began to break out, in one of which razors and scissors were employed, another notice went up on the wall: “All political discussion is forbidden.” One of the most popular hamams in the old city was run by Ustad Ghulam, a man with the most fastidious habits. He would see to it that his bathrooms were thoroughly cleaned every morning and that the place smelt nice for which he burnt incense sticks.

How long these hamams would last, it is hard to say, but not very long. The old city has undergone many changes. Many residents have moved out to live in larger and more well-appointed houses. But something valuable has been lost in the process. To this day, in the old city’s residential streets, everyone knows everyone. If a stranger is seen walking about aimlessly, someone is bound to ask him what he wants or if he is looking for a person. This is not so in the newer neighbourhoods, where people do not even know who their next door neighbour is.

I would rather have Lahore the way it was than the way it is.

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

Back to A. Hameed's Page

Back to Column's Page