by Samia Altaf
When we were young and living in Sialkot, we went frequently, almost once a week, to Lahore, the grand and hip city just a two-hour drive away. The trips were ostensibly for some real work—father, a district court lawyer, was appearing in a case being heard in the High Court or, his tuxedo in the trunk, was heading to a meeting of the Freemasons. Or it was for mother, who had critical shopping at Haji Karim Buksh, for crystal fruit bowls or the latest coffee cups, things not to be found in Sialkot, or was going to Hanif’s for a hair trim. Mother in the early 1960s sported a Jackie Kennedy cut that needed serious maintenance and only Hanif’s could manage that. For the children it might be to see doctors or dentists at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital—deflected septum (one of the boys was an avid boxer), enlarged tonsils, persistent skin rash, and such. And of course the routine checkups for father’s hypertension. Sialkot at the time did not have specialist doctors or reliable surgical facilities. (Interestingly enough it still does not, despite being a manufacturer and exporter of surgical goods.)
SGRH and Fatima Jinnah Medical College for Women were where mother’s sister worked as a young doctor, and where the best doctors were, as far as we were concerned. It was there that we sat on high stools in the college canteen and sipped Coca-Cola on the rocks. Rocks! At a time when ice cubes had barely made their way into our lives. Coca-Cola in tall glasses through paper straws—even the paper straw a novelty, what to say of the nose-tingling fizzy drink. Thrown in would be a visit to grandma for a rest and wash and maybe a sleepover. Grandma lived on Waris Road and in addition to encouraging comments on how one had grown—since last week!—we got to eat oodles of delicious food, homemade mango ice cream in summer and piping hot gajar halwa in winter, and to flirt with the curly-haired shy cousins on holiday from Karachi. Usually an evening trip to the zoo in Lawrence Gardens, named after John Lawrence, one of the viceroys, was a bonus. (Lawrence Gardens has now morphed into Bagh-e-Jinnah.)
But in reality all of these were just excuses to go to Lahore, that grand and glorious city full of throbbing and thrilling life, of sin and splendor, of glamorous women in sleeveless, waistless blouses worn with chiffon saris and men with Brylcreemed hair in bow ties congregating at the Gymkhana Club or Services Club, or the Saturday night jam session at Falleti’s Hotel.
The city casually supported young women bicycling down the Mall, their dupattas slung nonchalantly around their necks, on their way to Government College or the National College of Arts. It was that and the mouthwatering food—fried fish caught fresh in the Ravi the same morning, lemon tarts as light as feathers at the Shezan ensconced in the horseshoe–shaped Sir Ganga Ram building, and everything in between. Lahore of cinema and song, of poetry and art and literature (serious and frivolous), of grand gardens new and old, of ancient ornate buildings. It was a palimpsest of armies and kingdoms and kings, their artists and poets and architects and cooks and musicians all nurtured in the generous folds of this generous city through eight centuries.
For me Lahore started as soon the car crossed the bridge over the Ravi. It was once you crossed that bridge that the city began to unfold. Past Minto Park (now Azadi Chowk), skirting by the outside wall of the Badshahi Mosque with its pristine domes, turning left from Government College, you came smack up against Kim’s Gun. It was here that the world disappeared and the city winked at me, as the lights of the Mall danced like fairies, promising unimaginable delights.
Down the Mall you go past the Lahore Museum, then the High Court building, a blend of different architectural styles built in red brick standing so solid and secure. Then past the Sir Ganga Ram buildings. Past the many new and old shops to the right and left, bookshops and restaurants. Past the famous Shah Din Building, constructed in 1914, to reach Charing Cross. All along the way you see people. People walking, talking, shopping, laughing, spitting, falling, all the way to Charing Cross, renamed Faisal Square by President Zia ul Haq, the infamous military dictator, in homage to his new friends, or masters.
Charing Cross, sharing its name with Charing Cross, London, was the central square on the Mall, where against the backdrop of the Punjab Assembly building stood the pristine marble pavilion with its elegant cupola, an Anglo-Mughal design shared by many buildings of that era. In this pavilion stood Queen Victoria’s statue looking benignly at her subjects. In its place now sits a wooden replica of the Holy Quran. The queen’s statue was removed and is stored in the windowless basement of the Lahore Museum—never to be seen outside again. The Charing Cross square has the Shah Din Building on one side and the original Masonic Lodge on the other. The Masonic temple building, now the chief minister’s office, was built in 1914 and once known as the Lodge of Hope and Perseverance. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Berkeley-educated liberal prime minister, closed the lodge in 1972, labeling the Freemason Movement as “anti-Islamic.” He also banned liquor for the same reason—and while he was at it declared the Ahmadis as un-Islamic too.
Back then, as a ten-year-old sandwiched between teenage brothers arguing over the latest cricket scores, I looked out at the city, at the dance of lights through the grimy windows of father’s black Anglia Deluxe. Exhaling on the rear window and cleaning with my sleeve, I thought the city was roaring off to somewhere. Why would it not? It was the sixties after all and exciting things were happening. There were poetry readings by Faiz, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, and Ibn-e-Insha. Madam Noor Jehan, heartthrob of millions, the Melody Queen, sang us to heights of bliss. There was rock and roll during the jam sessions at Faletti’s, Coca-Cola and Teddy Boys on Vespa scooters—big brother being one of them. I did not want to miss a moment of the city’s race to get ahead of itself. For by some secret code I felt the city was going somewhere grander and loftier than where it was. What place could that be? I could only imagine and was sure the city wouldn’t disappoint.
The other day driving home from the Mall Road to Defence, I could not help but feel good about the city. I had just had a delicious cappuccino at Gloria Jean’s with friends at the Mall of Lahore after window-shopping at its grand stores full of the latest trendy clothes and state-of-the-art gadgets. I could not help but marvel at the smooth paved roads, the underpasses, the overpasses, the tasteful landscaping with many potted plants along the roads. Through the Cantonment and over the DHA Phase 1 overpass, through the three underpasses, the much-advertised “signal-free corridor” circling around the gigantic Nawaz Sharif Interchange, I entered DHA Phase 6, laid out like a California suburb. Streets on a grid, all electricity lines and sewers underground, new fashionable contemporary houses with immaculate lawns.
As I slowed down to go past an under-construction house one street before mine, I hear him before I see him—the monkey man! I also see half a dozen children appear as if from nowhere. They emerge from the depths of the construction site clambering over the half-built wall, sliding down piles of rubble. Without shoes, in tattered clothes, orange dry matted hair, noses running, holding on to younger or older siblings, dragging and pushing each other pell-mell. The air was full of a joyful expectancy as they surrounded the monkey man. One arm raised working the tambourine, the other holding the monkey’s leash, the monkey man sits down, the children surround him, and the show begins.
I look at the faces gathered around. About a dozen children, aged maybe between two and fourteen, though it is difficult to tell—given the state of malnutrition in the country. One little one is dragging a paralyzed leg behind him as he crawls over the soft earth, hand over hand. A boy of maybe fifteen—there is a shadow on his upper lip—stands sullenly in the background holding a bag full of stuff he has gathered from garbage bags, which he hopes to sell at the end of the day for whatever pittance it brings. One little girl is coughing and spitting fit to puke her lungs out. A woman, head and half of her face covered in folds of a dirty yellow chador, holds her hand—the mother probably.
This, I suddenly realize, is the future generation of this city, this country. Sick, anemic, undernourished, uneducated, and probably cognitively deficient. What kind of future can they hope for? Why aren’t they in schools? Because there are no schools. And what would be the point if there were? say the parents, for there are no teachers or books. The private schools, whatever their qualities, are too expensive. And what would be the point of school anyway; it isn’t as if they will find a job after going to school. In the meantime what would we and they eat, if they go to school?
The show is over. The audience begins to scatter. I try to engage an older girl, maybe nine, in conversation, but she is in a hurry—she has to get to her janitorial job at one of the new houses down the street. I look around for the boy with the sack but he is already far across the street rummaging through the piles of trash on an open lot, competing with two mangy dogs and an emaciated cow.
The next day, December 11, 2019, two hundred lawyers dressed in their official clothes—black coats white shirts and black neckties—walked down the Mall from their offices in the district courts, announcing along the way on videos that went viral, “Doctors beware, we are coming to get you.” The lawyers went on to attack the Punjab Institute of Cardiology, the only such public-sector hospital in the city. They trashed the hospital wards, broke windows and ventilators, damaged vehicles, beat up support staff and whichever doctors came in their view, and threatened a pregnant doctor so badly that it seems her pregnancy is in danger. Critically ill cardiac patients, their intravenous lines dangling, oxygen masks allegedly ripped off their faces, hanging on to their catheters, were spirited out of the ICU by distraught relatives. Three patients died during the melee, one because the doctors giving him CPR had to leave him to run for their lives. Another suffocated; he had trouble breathing because of heart failure, and his oxygen mask was ripped off as the room filled with tear gas. It is being said that even during wars such an attack on a hospital would be unthinkable.
It seems the lawyers had an earlier grudge against the doctors. On November 20, one of the lawyers was physically beaten in the institute because he had protested the “disrespect” with which the doctors had treated his ailing mother. Following the “disrespect” and the beating, lawyers had complained to some relevant authority, and since this gripe was not addressed, the lawyers decided to take matters into their own hands. Telling enough as the incident is, the aftermath is more so. Incredible as it sounds, there are people who defend the lawyers’ behavior, including Raza Rabbani, an experienced politician and chairman of the Senate. Mr. Rabbani has also served as minister of state for law and justice and in many other prominent political positions. He thinks they, the lawyers, had sufficient justification.
Our own Dr. Azra Raza was prescient when in her uplifting, poetic speech at the 2018 Lahore Literary Festival she asked, “Where is Lahore going?” She evoked Lahore’s glorious past and the traditions it comes from. Traditions that made it what it was. She spoke of its people epitomized by the great Ayaz, a slave who ultimately ruled Lahore in the eleventh century. She spoke of his self-respect, humility, and honesty. She told us of his vision as a ruler. How he mobilized the diverse citizenry to build Lahore, make Lahore what it became. We, Lahoris, listened to her and recalled with pride where Lahore came from. Dr. Raza then asked, more importantly, where is Lahore going?
This is a question that requires a serious answer.