For, above all, Lahore is a city of poets. Not just giants like Allama Iqbal or Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but a constellation of poets. Given half a chance, the average Lahori breaks into a couplet from an Urdu ghazal, or from Madho Lal Hussain or Bulleh Shah’s mystical Punjabi verse and readily confesses to writing poetry. But if I toss up the word “Lahore” and close my eyes, the city conjures up gardens and fragrances. Not only the formal Mughal gardens with their obedient rows of fountains and cypresses, or the acreage of the club-strewn Lawrence Gardens, but the gardens in thousands of Lahori homes with their riot of spring flowers. The trees bloom in a carnival of jewel-colours — the defiant brilliance of kachnar, bougainvillea and gulmohur silhouetted against an azure sky. And the winter and spring air are heady — they make the blood hum. On summer evenings the scent from the water sprinkled on parched earth signals respite from the furnace of the day — for the summers are as hellish as the winters are divine.
One of the earliest Muslim saints to visit India, Data Gunj Baksh was embraced by all communities including the Hindus and Sikhs. I was regularly hauled to the shrine as a child. My mother had a committed and confidential relationship with the saint and was forever asking him to either grant her some favour, or thanking him for having granted it. On those visits, prompted by her gratitude, she would insert one or two crisp 10-rupee notes in the collection box just inside the grills of the tomb’s window.
Sometimes, when the resolution of a particularly knotty problem merited extra thanks, she would also donate a deg or cauldron of sweet or savoury rice. The shrine provides food at all hours and the path to the shrine is lined with merchants hawking enormous degs of steaming rice and lentils. Once the deg is paid for, two men haul it on bamboo struts to a comparatively vacant distribution lot a few yards away, and immediately a long line of labourers and beggars materializes before it as if beamed down from an airship. The labourers hold out the flaps of their shirts and the women portions of their ragged dupattas, to receive saucerfuls of rice ladled out by the hired help. It is alleged that the saint saved Lahore during the ‘65 and ’71 wars with India. Sikh pilots are believed to have seen hands materialize out of the ether to catch the bombs and gentle them to the ground. How else can one explain the quantity of unexploded bombs found in the area?
Courtesy Tahir Yazdani Malik