By Masood Hasan (NEWS)
Here’s to another lost cause in the land of great lost causes – Birdwood Barracks, 22 acres of prime land right in the middle of the city of Lahore and till recently home to the armed forces. The Ministry of Defence, acting more like the Ministry of Offence, has had the ancient barracks pulled down, the rubble carted away leaving ugly mounds where once the barracks stood, the bugles sounded and young muscular “jawans” came out in neat file formation, running in rhythmic tempo as if with one step. Tenders have been duly floated, land values dutifully worked out and auction dates determined. The Ministry of Defence is pressing ahead to make another sale to the highest bidders.
Waris Road, on which Birdwood Barracks stood for so many years from the time of the British, this was quite a road at one time – not as much for the clear pond at the head of the road where well-fed fish swam contentedly but for the folk of genteel disposition who lived here. It was on this road, where Sandy Rollo the great portrait master photographer was seen rowing a boat during one of the great floods that sent the waters of the Ravi rushing headlong over the “Bunds,” across the great length of Ravi Road, past the Badshahi Mosque and down across Bhatti into the lower and then the upper reaches of The Mall and well into localities such as Waris Road, the road that linked Lahore’s Queens Road with Jail Road, past the famous girls’ hostel of Fatima Jinnah Medical College. Sandy Rollo was to Lahore what Karsh was to Ottawa. As he rowed past, hailing all his many friends who lived here, the gasping residents wondered. A boat on Waris Road? What next and what madness had descended on Sandy? More importantly where did he get that boat?
But Sandy Rollo was not a Waris Road resident, as were the Bhandaras, whose stately home, surrounded by huge shady trees and green gardens, was a cultural melting pot and where Bapsi Sidhwa first began to learn about the curious relationships that alter lives and change courses. Mrs Najmuddin, “Mrs Najj” to all who loved this wonderful and warm lady, the woman in whose memory the Najmuddin Drama Society still lives on in Kinnaird though it is a mere shadow of what it used to be, like the college that’s fallen into wrong hands, lived on Waris Road all her life. There was Theo Phailbus, a gentleman and collector of all things to do with movies, movie stars and the occult, and a little further up, the Zaidi clan, the family of portrait photographers who live on through the artistic creations of Shahid Zaidi, still capturing young brides and their husbands in his inimitable way.
The Coopers lived on Waris Road too and old man Cooper was to be seen forever hanging about at the gate in his striped panamas watching the world go by. His daughters Perin and Rati grew up here, and when they pulled down the great house, it was another chapter that had come to an end. The family of Sikander Shaheen who went on to land into all kinds of trouble were up at the far end of the road and in three lanes branching off the main road were the Bhans and, of course, Samina Ahmed Maddis, who still lives in a tight little lane as if nothing has changed at all. Inside one of the lanes were the Mirzas, the dashing Shahid Mirza with flashing green eyes, a lady killer on the prowl, and right across them my friends Aleem, Tanvir and Tauqeer A Khan, whose family home was on Waris Road too. Veering west was yet another Waris Road, then called “katcha” Waris Road and “Aunt” Edna and her husband, “Uncle” Patrick, lived here at its start, with their sons Ivor, Ronny, Donny and daughter Joy. Blossy Issac who lives in Lahore to this day but not on Waris Road, was here, the self-styled “Bishop” Manoha who arrived here just as suddenly as he departed from these mortal trappings, and, of course, the two sisters, Beryl and Esme (Khanna), the first a much loved piano teacher at Queen Mary’s and mother of Dr Ira Hasan, whom I married many moons ago, and Aunt Esme with her lodger, Mr Duesmont, a bachelor teaching Maths at St Anthony’s. Aunt Esme who sang like an inspired lark, was the feared history teacher at Convent and could stop a class dead with one look. Her only son Philip Lal and daughter Rashmi, one now in Model Town and Rashmi in the wild beyond of USA, have deserted Waris Road. Asma Jehangir once told me that when she would come for her tuition with Mrs Khanna she would be shaking like a leaf. How many people in this world can do that to Asma, I ask you? And there were the Makkis without whom the history of Waris Road is incomplete and who still hang on here amongst workshops and piles of soiled oil filters. All these people and some I have missed surely, lived and made Waris Road one of Lahore’s most elegant and stylish localities.
But that was long ago and Birdwood Barracks are — were — even older, some saying that it was the first cantonment the British built in Lahore. The Barracks’ demolition has been a sad and coarse reaction from people at the Ministry of Defence, who obviously have no sense and certainly no taste or sensitivity. For them it is a mouth-watering 22 acre juicy plum that must be gobbled up. Anyone in a more civilised country would have perhaps tried to restore the great landmark where so much of our past history has resided. It could have been restored to its former glory, made into a library, a museum and even better still, a public park. This is what Lahore’s emerging prince of loony causes, Rafay Alam, has been passionately advocating and so far it seems to have fallen on some very deaf ears. Now campaigner of more lost causes Beena Sarwar is part of a signature campaign asking the young chief minister of Punjab to reclaim the property from the Ministry of Defence, since the land does not belong to them but to Punjab and the people of Punjab, particularly Lahore. A beautifully laid out park would be a source of great joy, happiness and health for thousands of Lahore’s old city and its surrounding areas, where they can walk and relax amongst the concrete jungle that has Lahore in a vice of mortar and steel.
It is most unlikely that the MoD will see any reason to hand over the 22 acres to the Government of Punjab. It is also likely that the Punjab government will not push for it any way. Among the many “baboos” who run the affairs of this country someone or the other is bound to cite the presence of Bagh-e-Jinnah and Race Course Park. But two parks do not mean there can’t be a third. If the Ministry of Defence is not stopped, there will be dozens of five-marla monstrosities of cement, ugly as sin, that will rise and further murder Lahore’s gasping environment. Perhaps we should not wait for good sense to prevail, at the chief minister’s end or the MoD’s. Can Salmaan Taseer, a Lahori to boot, abandon his plans to make Lahore Larkana and take charge? Should we file a stay order or injunction, or whatever you call those things, and make every effort to redeem Birdwood Barracks by making a green and tranquil park here, for the ordinary folk of Lahore. Are we ready for this or shall we take another beating and let men without vision, blind to our plight or our past, once more kill our very souls?
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org