Syed Rizwan Mahboob spins a magical yarn about his childhood in Lahore’s Chauburji
It was sweltering in early June when not a single leaf stirred. Teenage students were back from school and the more enterprising of them were already out of their homes after a quick meal. Their combined focus was a medium sized ground somewhere in old Lahore which had many mango, Beri, Neem, Sumbul and Labernum trees. The ground was located at the confluence of several narrow streets in a government colony, populated by clerks and lower-grade government employees.
As soon as troops of urchins reached the ground, there was a rush of activity, as if life had been injected into a drab landscape painting. Several doors around the central ground opened and closed in quick succession with colourful dupattas withdrawn in haste. From around these doors would emerge several good-looking young lads, with bright handkerchiefs around their necks, betokening the early, heady days of first love.
The ground, for the next few hours, was to be the stage for a string of events including fights among the strapping lads for the acquisition of sour ambis (unripe mangoes downed with the skilful use of catapults) and garlands (made from streamers of bright yellow Labernum flowers), both of which were meant to be presented to the coy owners of fluttering dupattas later in the evening.
For the majority of lads in their early teens, the delight with which girls received unripe mangoes was a mystery which took years to unravel. Side by side with these steamy exchanges, the teenagers would indulge in dogfights of “Gulli Danda” made from Beri wood, which left many a face bruised and bleeding, to which crushed leaves of Neem were employed for quick relief.
And then the same ground would start drifting into an island of gradual calm as stifling afternoons would give way to balmy evenings. The intensity of the ruthless sun, beating down on the lads’ backs would soften as the shadows of Labernum, mango, Sumbul and Beri started lengthening. And then suddenly, a different crowd including young girls and boys – ranging in age from six to sixteen – would take over the ground.
The whole atmosphere of the place would be transformed. Suddenly, the milieu would become gentler with childish games of “Pharan Pharai”, “Safe”, “Keeri Kara”, “Hara Samundar”, “Aik Saheli Bagh Main Bethi” being played with abandon. Younger girls would gather beneath Sumbul trees and put the blood-red blooms of the tree on their nails to resemble shiny nail polish. The bright yellow blooms of Labernum were also plucked and tucked into raven black hair with an innocent conceit. Young boys would hover around the mangoes and Beris, hurling stones to land the choicest of fruits.
While the majority of girls were solely interested in games and garlands, there was one particular girl – Billay – who was always there with a definitive agenda. She was a butter-complexioned young girl with velvet hair and dimpled cheeks. Her family was an overtly traditional one with both of her younger brothers going to a religious school, while her father led prayers in a nearby office. She was the youngest of five sisters and almost all the young boys of the mohalla would give anything to catch a glimpse of her. Almost every evening, Billay would emerge as the leading possessor of Sumbul and Labernum flowers, liberal quantities of which would be given to her by Soody, with whom she was apparently in love.
Soody’s family came from a small city in Southern Punjab, and he was popular in the locality for possessing “Sharabi” eyes. Soody was also cheered as a local hero for once administering a thrashing to Gulab, a good-looking Christian boy who had dared to walk in front of Billay’s house late one night. While the evening activities reached their climax, Billay would arrive at the Beri tree under which the toughest ‘Gulli Danda” match, featuring Soody, was taking place. It was common knowledge amongst teenage boys that Soody would hit the Gulli farthest, once Billay was at hand.
The very trees – the Beri, Laburnum, Mango and Sumbul – revered during the day, would suddenly transform into objects of terror as soon as night came. Everybody living around the ground was convinced that djins roamed the environs of these trees after dark. The most feared was the dense Beri tree, which was famous as the hideout of a witch or Churail which was said to live atop its branches.
There were strict instructions for all girls and boys to stay away from this Beri, once the evening light faded. Hence the very Beri, which all through the day was the centre of the universe for the boys (for its sweet, tart fruit, its flexible wood, ideal for making a Gulli and the love drama involving Billay and Soody being played around it) would suddenly become an island of ominous terror.
Jeeta, the sweeper, had the misfortune of once setting eyes upon this “Churail with turned back feet” but escaped unharmed by employing the only trick that was said to be effective against Churails – by snatching her dopatta. Ever since this gory incident, no one was heard to have ever dared pass near it at night except the two love birds – Soody and Billay – who dared to meet there even after night had fallen. It was this indiscretion of the two that gave people an inkling of the unholy love affair around the Beri tree.
And then things took a turn. Local Bodies elections were held and one Shaikh sahib – a retired superintendent living in the vicinity – was elected a local councillor. Shaikh sahib was highly respected in that lower middle class locality and was a great champion of morality. He was a vocal critique of the mixing of teenage boys and girls in the evening on the pretext of games in the ground, and always warned the elders of the destruction of the locality’s moral fabric if they were not careful.
In a hushed voice, he also raised the issue of Billay and Soody, but was brushed aside by local elders, given the impeccable character of Chukkay’s father and brothers. He had a great recipe to purge the area of moral vices by converting that ground – the hub of profanity, into a beautiful lawn, after cutting down the haunted mango, Neem and Labernum trees. Being a councillor, he had access to funds, but the old association of the locals with the ground and the trees did not allow him to implement his puritanical scheme.
But then something unexpected happened. One night, Billay came to the Beri tree around nine at night. She was reportedly looking for her missing earring which she had dropped there during the evening. And as soon as she reached the Beri tree, the Churail got hold of her. Her loud shrieks pierced the silent night and Soody was of course the first one to get there to rescue her. He had hardly got there when to their mutual misfortune, Shaikh sahib and two other respectable people of the area also arrived. Shaikh sahib later said that the sight of the shrieking Billay in the close proximity of Soody was the most lurid thing his chaste eyes had ever seen.
In no time, the whole mohalla including Billay’s family arrived on the spot. Her mother and sisters’ efforts to drag her away failed as she was under the Churail’s influence but was removed from the scene with the help of other women. In the meanwhile, Billay’s brothers, ably assisted by other young boys of the locality started thrashing Soody, and by the time his father got there, he had been beaten black and blue. Shaikh sahib, who after raising that early alarm had stayed in the background, now advanced forward, and noble as he was, separated the quarreling crowds. He advised them that the only way to save the honour of the locality was to follow his advice. That night, the elders of the Mohalla sat till late at Shaikh sahib’s residence and apparently agreed on a great strategy.
Within the next few days, major upheavals happened around that old ground. The Works Department people came, and within a week cut down all the trees (except the Beri). The ground was then converted into a grassy lawn. The spectacle of wailing children as the mangoes and Labernums came crashing down will never be forgotten. (The haunted Beri was left untouched as labourers were scared of the Churail). In the meanwhile, Billay was hurriedly married off to a classmate of her brother in the madressah, whose father was also famous for ridding women of djins and Churails. Soody – who was kept locked up for four days after that gory night – ran back to his village in Southern Punjab. He was apparently heartbroken as Billay’s marriage news was broken to him, whereupon he went to Afghanistan with his friends to fight the Russian army.
After several years, I saw Billay with her aged mother at Data Darbar where they had come to offer a “Deg” as a son was born to her after four daughters. Curiosity made me visit that locality again, where I found that Soody was still a revered name for his purported martyrdom at the hands of the infidel Russians. The ground that was cleared of beautiful trees was reduced to a desolate wilderness, overgrown with unruly grass and the old Beri tree, still standing guard in the midst. Of the Churail, I neither saw nor heard anything, though a door in the nearby narrow street opened and closed with a colourful dupatta withdrawn hurriedly.
Syed Rizwan Mahboob lives in Lahore
Friday Times – July 9-15, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 21