This digging spree

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn 20th May, 2006

THE walled city of Lahore over the centuries has evolved its social structure in accordance with the economy its bazaars supported. The unplanned and aggressive merchant classes that run the main bazaars today, are having a devastating effect on the city’s traditional way of life.

Given that successive government after the end of the colonial rule have been weak in maintaining law and order, and increasingly corrupt (one does not need proof of such a dispensation as they spin to new lows), we are witnessing the slow physical destruction of the old city. One merely has to spend a few hours walking through the ancient paths to feel the destruction at work. With it go the city’s traditions, customs, festivals and an entire way of life.

Before partition and its fires befell us,“the old, walled city had well-defined domestic and community territories for ethnic and trade groups”.The physical structures represented the lay of its political power, its social strata, its well-defined class and caste scheme of things. In a way it was like any other ancient city in any part of the world. The streets are structured to increasingly head towards “localised domains of privacy”. The main spines — the guzars — lead to ‘mohallahs’, and on to ‘koochas’ (streets) and on to ‘galis’ (cul-de-sacs). One notices that the relief from such privacy was in open squares or gardens where, invariably, existed mosques, gurdawaras, temples and ‘dharmasalas’. The old city had its own logic.Today that logic is being shred apart and the merchant classes mindlessly rush for more and more warehousing space. Within this lies the tragedy, as well as its solution.

To study a few ‘turn of the century’ structures at one place, one can easily make out just exactly the extent of the threat. A few weeks ago I wrote a brief piece on Lahore’s 14th gateway, the Guzar Khajoor Khuh, between the Lohari and Shahalami gates. It is a blatant violation of the old city’s physical structure, and demonstrates the power of the merchant classes. If we turn to the right from inside Lohari Bazaar on Paapar Mandi Bazaar, we reach Chowk Mati. On the corner is one of the most beautiful ‘turn of the century’ houses known as Haveli Lakhe Shah.

The haveli was built in 1901 by a merchant by the name of Lakhe Shah. In 1940 it was transferred to his son Kashmiri Lal. Following the fires of partition in 1947, Kashmiri Lal migrated to India and in settlement it was claimed by a number of people. My father used to call such people ‘47ers’, the get-rich-quick class of migrants that poured over from India. The ‘claim era’ that gave birth to ‘qabza’ groups has never stopped as a way of life.

Located at the junction of Naya Bazaar, Chowk Mati and Koocha Munj Kuttan, it is feared that this exquisite building may be pulled down as a merchant has applied for permission to dig a basement. This, it seems, he will manage, and it will be a tragic day for the walled city. But why go far. In Sootar Mandi Bazaar at the point where Koocha Maan Singh runs to the back is an exquisite hevali built in 1897. This huge haveli is also being destroyed by the basement mafia. This was another Hindu-owned house that went the settlement route. Its exquisite jharookas are unrivalled in the city. Come a basement and this will, very soon, fall apart.

In Koocha Maan Singh, another three houses are going through the ‘basement’ treatment. So is the case with scores of beautiful ‘turn-of-the century’ houses, all with considerable architectural value. If we were to take a walk from Lohari Gate right up to Chowk Chanda, it is painful to see the condition of dozens of beautiful houses, all over 100 years old. The merchant classes, as they expand from the Shahalami westward, are slowly devouring the very essence of the old, walled city. Already the old Bazaar Kharrak Singh, now known by the pious name of Chowk Bukhari (why, one can never fathom), has become a mini-Shahalami Chowk.

The question really is, can the government — local, city, provincial or federal — do anything about this state of affairs? My own assessment of conditions is that they are not interested. The current rulers of Lahore belong, firstly, to a tradition stretching from Gujrat to Sheikhupura. As such, history does not bite with them. Secondly, the new rulers are now basically merchant in class structure, and when, as Machiavelli says in The Prince, when traders become princes, all they can do is sell the state. That process is well in place. Only the people of Lahore can save their own city, new and old, for both have no demarcation lines between the trade and residential areas. It’s simple. No law means no order.



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