By Ajai Shukla and Sonia Trikha Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Oct 12
Some cities, just a fortunate few, remain coloured by their history, visibly enriched by reminders of centuries gone by. Residents of Delhi like us routinely walk past 500-year old monuments with scarcely a thought for the shared past that they evoke. But on a visit to Lahore, in so many ways Delhi’s historical twin, we notice so much that we take for granted here, displayed as it is in a different, yet familiar, framework.
Bashir, our taxi-driver in Lahore, is a portly, loquacious, shalwar-clad 54-year-old with the energy and verve of someone half his age. Finding a taxi is never easy in Lahore since locals prefer auto-rickshaws, but we hit the jackpot when we chanced upon Bashir: he was a natural tourist guide. Asked to drive us around Lahore, Bashir shot back “which Lahore?” Seeing our bemused looks, he elaborated, “There is a Mughal Lahore, a British Lahore and a Pakistani Lahore”.
“Let’s start with British Lahore,” we said. It was close at hand both physically and in family consciousness; Sonia’s Lahori parents had brought her up on tales of the paradise that was their ancestral heritage. This deep-rooted Lahori pride (inexplicable to outsiders!) seems an ingrained feature of the city’s residents. When Bashir learned that Sonia’s family was from pre-partition Lahore we were adopted like prodigals. The conversation quickly switched from Urdu to Punjabi.
Driving down the leafy Mall Road, we felt the irritation ebb after our flight to Lahore the evening before. The ancient Pakistan Airlines 737-300 aircraft had developed engine trouble in Delhi, mercifully before take-off, and it had taken five hours and a component borrowed from Air India to get us to Lahore around midnight. The day before had been Youm-e-Ishq-e-Rasool (Day of Love for the Prophet), misguidedly declared by Pakistan’s government to prove that they were as good Muslims as the ones who were already rioting against Innocence of Muslims, a blasphemous film that had denigrated the Prophet. The government’s licence unleashed what was effectively state-sanctioned rioting, leading to the deaths of protesters after a large mob gathered at the US Consulate in Lahore. Washington and London, as well as others, had issued advisories against travel to Pakistan.
But today, it was sunny, pleasant and utterly normal, highlighting the astonishing ability of Pakistan and its citizens to oscillate between extremes. Driving down Mall Road we admired the stately, whitewashed colonial-era buildings from the time when Lahore was the heart of “the north west”. From here the British administered vast swathes of the Punjab and the North West Frontier up to the Afghanistan border, the still-disputed Durand Line. Before them, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Lahore-centred empire had extended even further, well into Afghanistan.
Bashir pointed out the magnificent Dinga Singh Building, where one of Sonia’s grandfathers had worked and the National Bank building that had been the office of another. Passing Luxmi Chowk and the old High Court, we head towards the Anarkali Bazaar, the centuries-old market named after the legendary slave girl who was put to death by Emperor Akbar after Prince Salim (later Emperor Jehangir) was enraptured by her. Bashir, like us, has heard the story through the immortal film, Mughal-e-Azam, in which Dilip Kumar and Madhubala memorably played the tragic couple. Anarkali’s mausoleum is nearby, as is that of Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the Mamluk monarch who built the Qutb Minar in Delhi.
Next we come to the grand Lahore Museum, outside which stands the 14-foot-long Zamzama, the largest cannon cast in the subcontinent. Built for Afghanistan’s talismanic monarch, Ahmed Shah Durrani, legend has it that thousands of Lahori kitchen utensils were melted down for making the gun. Durrani employed the Zamzama in his destruction of the Marathas in the third battle of Panipat in 1761, the bloodiest battle ever fought till then. En route to Kabul after that victory, Durrani left the Zamzama with his governor in Lahore since he did not have a carriage strong enough to carry such a heavy gun back to Kabul. Later, it was fought over by assorted Sikh and Afghan chieftains who all believed it was a battle-winner. To this day, Afghans lewdly refer to their Casanovas as “Zamzama”.
Rudyard Kipling, who lived in Lahore from 1882 to 1887, found his earliest muse in the city, which he chronicled in The Civil and Military Gazette. Lahore figured in his magnificent tale, Kim, as the base for the young explorer’s travels across the subcontinent. The novel, in fact, opens at the Lahore Museum, with Kim perched “astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher --- the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.”
Architecturally grand as the Lahore Museum is --- like many old buildings in Lahore, was designed by the architect, Sir Ganga Ram --- its piece de resistance is the 2nd century, Kushan sculpture of Fasting Siddhartha in the dramatically realistic style of the Gandhara School of art. Depicting Siddhartha after six years of fasting, every rib and vein carved into his emaciated frame depicts the tribulations that led to his enlightenment.
Bashir is pleased at how thrilled we are when we emerge from the museum. A devout, beard-wearing Muslim, he is a very long way away from the Taliban’s antipathy to Buddhist sculpture. Fundamentalism may be gaining ground in Pakistan, but Lahori taxi-drivers have apparently not yet bought into it. Bashir reveals that his mother was from Dehra Dun and his father from Ambala.
A short drive from the museum is Shadman Chowk, where the British hanged Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev Singh in 1931. Pakistani civil society has long agitated for renaming the place Bhagat Singh Chowk. Soon after we returned to India we learned that the Punjab government had agreed to do so.
Despite the pleasing array of Gothic and Victorian style buildings from the British Raj, time has not stood still in Lahore. The famous Gawal Mandi, a pedestrians-only food street that served sumptuous, dhaba-style, Lahori food, has been pushed out of central Lahore by security concerns.
And the old Race Course, which dates back to 1924, now has a posh continental restaurant called The Polo Lounge, owned by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar along with a sister establishment in Islamabad that overlooks the Margala Hills. This top-of-the-line eatery that has just 30 seats is billed as “The only setting of its kind where you can enjoy gourmet cuisine while watching a game of Polo.”
We dine at The Polo Lounge as part of an Indian delegation. The tables are done up thoughtfully with ribbons in a tricolour theme; each seat has a printed menu with the Indian and Pakistani flags. The guest list includes a former Pakistani army chief, a former navy chief, and Pakistan’s most successful businessman and only dollar billionaire, Mian Mansha. Like Punjabi businessmen on both sides of the border, he is pushing for better relations and freer trade. With the polo field providing a darkened backdrop through large windows, we dine on prawn soup, forest salad, and herbed and spiced grilled fish. By the time dessert --- chocolate puddle cake --- arrives, everyone is groaning.
Good eating is an essential component of Lahori culture, dovetailing quite naturally into late rising --- no shop opens before 11.30 a.m. or closes before 11 p.m. But, after another day of sightseeing with Bashir, we have no time for shopping. Instead, another interesting evening awaits us at the home of one of Pakistan’s super-rich. Like in many wealthy Delhi homes, a large Hussain greets us as we enter. Unlike Delhi’s wealthy, though, the home has a large library with a painting by Vincent van Gogh adorning the mantelpiece! Most of the Pakistani guests lament the fruitlessness of India-Pakistan hostility and how leaders on both sides should mend fences. There is little understanding in Pakistan, and this is true from milkman to millionaire, of how much India has been alienated by cross-border terrorism, particularly 26/11.
We start late the next morning; Lahore is insidiously seeping into our systems. But the lethargy vanishes when Bashir draws up at the Badshahi mosque, which Aurangzeb built between 1671-73. Sadly, the wall outside has been recently painted, but as we enter we are overwhelmed by the sense of space, one of the greatest features of Indo-Islamic mosque architecture. Once the world’s largest mosque, the Taj Mahal and its platform would fit comfortably inside the main courtyard that accommodates one lakh worshippers. A nikaah is finishing as we arrive, a simple ceremony with a shy bride. We are offered many rounds of mithai.
In the enclosed garden outside the mosque is the Hazuri Bagh, which Maharaja Ranjit Singh (who conquered Lahore in 1799) used as his baradari or court of audience. Nearby is a red stone colonial building, the grave of Allama Iqbal, one of Pakistan’s founding heroes along with Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Ironically, and to his lasting regret, he had earlier written the stirring song, Sare Jahaan se Achha Hindustan hamaara.
Forming the backdrop to the Hazuri Bagh is the imposing Lahore Fort, or Shahi Qila, which Akbar built between 1556 and 1605. The staff there insists that we pay for tickets at the local rate of Rs 10, rather than the Rs 200 rate that foreigners pay. He says we are hum zubaan (speakers of the same language). We had last seen the fort by night in 2003, when a spectacular official dinner hosted there had transported us back into the medieval era. With mashaals (fire torches) lighting the way and enormous doorkeepers in loose black shalwar kameez, that had been like a movie set.
That night we dine at Andaaz, a tony Mughlai restaurant in the red light area of Hira Mandi that overlooks the spectacularly lit Badshahi Mosque. Sadly, the mujras (dances) that Hira Mandi was famous for have given way to Islamic austerity, but restaurants like Andaaz and Kuku’s try to capture a flavour of the place. Also visible from our tables, as we bite into juicy tandoori prawns, is the Dera Sahib Gurudwara, where the 5th guru, Arjun Dev, obtained martyrdom in the river Ravi in 1606. Highlighting the duality of India-Pakistan relations, we learn that this is where General Zia-ul-Haq housed Khalistani terrorist leaders in the 1980s, when Punjab was aflame. Suddenly my prawn tastes a little less juicy.
We say goodbye to Lahore with some regret. Change is in the air in India-Pakistan relations; but there is never any telling when another dip happens, closing down, at least temporarily, the option of travelling there again.