A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. People in their late-twenties like me, remember him well for his novels. It was later that I discovered him as a columnist and perhaps as a historian. I am talking about the era when Ishtiaq Ahmed and Ibn E Safi were still read by a good percentage of our youth. This one, published in Daily Times, has been translated by Khalid Hasan (I am a BIG BIG fan :)) and I thought it would be very appropriate to share it here today.
On the lawns facing the Punjab Assembly, there used to stand a statue of Queen Victoria under a canopy, ringed by magnificent trees. If you walked towards the Assembly from the Plaza cinema side, so thick were the trees that you could barely see the entire Assembly building. They were such lovely trees that I could never tire of looking at them. For many years after the establishment of Pakistan, the trees stood at that spot in all their splendour, but then they were cut down, for what reason I am not sure. One day, as Munir Niazi and I on our stroll down the Mall, came to Charing Cross, I looked towards the Assembly building and said, “There used to be such lovely trees there with impenetrable foliage, but since they were axed, the beauty of this spot is gone.” Munir replied, “But have you not noticed that the removal of the trees has opened up this vista and brought in heaps of sunlight that could never reach it before.”
I liked what he had said. It was true that the Punjab Assembly garden had gained more space and it did look beautiful. There are many other spots in Lahore whose beauty has been enhanced because of new construction or other improvements. For example, if you went towards Simla Pahari from Abbott Road, in front of the old radio station, to the left, there used to stand a decaying, forlorn yellow house, dating back to British times. Next to it was an empty plot of land, overgrown with bushes and infested with heaps of discarded things. Someone had set up a teashop on the spot that had come to be known as Phoons Hotel because its makeshift roof was covered with grass. A few broken chairs and wobbly tables had been placed under the ramshackle canopy for the customers who came there to drink tea. All that is gone.
Today, if you come towards Simla Pahari from Abbott Road, to your left you will find several high-rise buildings with glass fronts, which shimmer when they catch the sun. Those who remember that wretched old hotel and see what has replaced it have no reason to lament the passing of that eyesore. Several years into independence, when you went from the Wahdat Colony square towards the Muslim Town canal, you could not help noticing a mud road that ran along the canal and was always full of clouds of dust. There was no proper footpath on the other bank of the canal at the time. This was the road which led to what was to become Punjab University’s New Campus. Where a footpath now runs, there used to be scraggly trees and wild bushes. Today, there is a carpeted road on either side of the canal, fringed by tall, shady eucalyptus trees. The two roads carry one-way traffic.
Small, colourful craft go down the canal and at night both banks are lit with thousands of tiny bulbs. A lovely little bridge has been thrown over the canal close to the New Campus. Two underpasses have also been constructed so that the flow of traffic is not interrupted and there are no snarl-ups, as there used to be. The residential colonies of Johar Town, Garden Town and Modern Colony have spread out as far as Thokar Niaz Beg and the Motorway. To lighten the flow of traffic, a couple of smaller roads that run along the main artery have also been built. It is a delightful sight at night when the lights are up.
As for the old city, that too has changed but mostly not for the better. Those who remember the pre-1947 Bhati Gate, Shah Alami Gate, Texali Gate and Model Town, will not recognise these areas were they to return to them today. New colonies and residential developments have sprung up everywhere. While Lahore is a far more attractive city than it was before independence, many of the old historic and cultural sites have disappeared, as if they never existed. They should not have been allowed to vanish because they bore the history of the city itself.
I remember the Lahore of the old days distinctly and long for its return. If you walked from the Tollinton Market towards Regal Cinema, just past Commercial Building, on the inside road, there used to stand the Sunlight Building, which was home to various companies and stores, including the Krishna Book House. If I remember, this name was later changed to Minerva Book Centre. There were also a couple of restaurants that the building played host to. The India Coffee House and the Cheney’s Lunch Home stood side by side. After independence, I saw more than once Saadat Hasan Manto at the Cheney’s Lunch Home, as well as the sweet-voiced and handsome Amanat Ali Khan of the Patiala Gharana. The Coffee House was frequented by journalists, lawyers, teachers and writers. The regulars included Abdullah Butt, Bari Alig, Abdullah Malik, Prof Alauddin Kalim, Riaz Qadir, Manzoor Qadir, Ijaz Hussain Batalvi, the painters Shakir Ali, Ali Imam, Ahmed Pervaiz and Anwar Jalal Shamza.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as prime minister of Pakistan once expressed a desire to drop in at the Coffee House. He was as good as his word and did drop in one day and stayed for quite some time. He also once walked into Lord’s restaurant on the Mall, where Sardar Muhammad Sadiq was king. He sat down with the regulars and assured them that he was still “one of the boys”. But as time passed, these old hangouts of Lahore’s intellectuals began to make way for trendier, new-fangled places. And one day we saw a big, ugly lock on the steel-grill doors of the Coffee House. It was a turning point in Lahore’s intellectual and artistic history. It is said that both the Coffee House and the Pak Tea House, which was across the road, belonged to two Sikh brothers. The two places used to be known before partition as the India Coffee House and the India Tea House. The two brothers replicated their two Lahore restaurants in Delhi where they were forced to migrate as the 1947 bloodbath took hold of Punjab.
Sirajuddin, who turned India Tea House into Pak Tea House (now dead like its owner and only a memory), once told me – or was it his son who did – that one day, he noticed a Sikh standing across the road, just staring. When he asked the stranger to come in, he told him that he had come from India and this place and the Coffee House across the road used to belong to him and his brother. The Coffee House has long been gone and in its place there now stands a bank. Nila Gumbad, where these restaurants and intellectual hangouts were once located, is now a bustling auto parts and car tyre market. Although there is no shortage of hotels and restaurants in Lahore today, there is not a single place that could claim to be a true successor to any of those wonderful establishments.