Lahore — the very name is magic to me. There is something inscrutable about this name. It is like a spell that casts itself even on those who do not believe in spells. I do not see Lahore as just a city: it is more like a feeling. As you walk through its dimly lit streets and its ancient gardens, this mysterious feeling that is Lahore grips your heart. You feel that your relationship with this city and its spirit has been there forever, and nothing will ever break it.
I recall once sipping a cup of coffee with a European diplomat on the lawns of a five-star Lahore hotel. It was late March or early April, the time of the year when flowers begin to bloom in the city’s parks. My friend raised his eyes, looked at the magnificent trees of The Mall and began to talk. He said he had begun his career in an African country where he was lonely most of the time. He began to make efforts to get transferred to Paris so that he could enjoy the fabled pleasures of life in that great city. Then one day, while leafing through a magazine, he saw pictures of old Lahore streets and he immediately felt drawn to them. They reminded him of the streets where he had spent his childhood. When he shared this with his friends, they laughed at him. Soon afterwards he was told that he had been transferred to Paris. His friends, who were congratulating him on his good fortune, were taken aback when he told them that he did not want to go to Paris: he wanted to go to Lahore. And that was where, he said, he had finally come, and never for a moment had he regretted his decision.
I do know that if Lahore takes hold of you, it is a relationship that would know no separation, even if you were to leave. Lahore, be it the new or the old Lahore, is Lahore, in every way, in each one of its facets. This is Data Gunj Buksh country and the gentle presence of the saint is like a canopy that keeps the city in its care.
The fragrance of the red roses and the incense that perfumes the saint’s mausoleum also touch this city’s soul. There is much praying in Lahore. It has numerous places of worship. I have seen people at prayer in mosques in the middle of cold winter nights, reading the Quran and supplicating themselves before their Maker. The city has a poignant soul because of the men of God who once lived here and the pious ones who now live here.
I remember the Lahore of my childhood and the Lahore of my boyhood. I also remember Lahore of the day when Pakistan’s green flag first fluttered in its breeze, a time when thousands of Muslims from East Punjab had begun to pour into it. The people of Lahore had taken them to their bosom. Lahore, they say, has a long history, and its present modernity notwithstanding, that old history still lives in its streets. Sometimes, while walking through its cool, half-lit back alleys, I feel as if I would come face to face with Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi at the next corner. My first memory of Lahore is detailed and distinct. I find myself on a vast ground, in the middle of which there is a man beating a drum, next to a green flag. I am being carried in the lap of someone. Then I hear a whisper: this is the last resting place of Ghazi Ilm Din Shaheed.
My next memory of Lahore is a little boy in shorts running along a railway track. I am that boy and this is Farooq Ganj. Another boy is with me. There is a train approaching from the direction of Badami Bagh, its enormous engine emitting steam and sparks. I feel the earth shaking under my feet. The engine is pulling a long, red train. We run down a slope and sit on a rock.
We hear the wheels clattering rhythmically, as they rush past us on the metallic track. And then it is gone. My next memory of Lahore is sitting at a saint’s mausoleum with my mother. There are red rose petals all over the floor and I can hear the sacred voices of devotees praying.
I run out and go stand in the courtyard of a mosque next door. There, people are praying; others are busy with their ablutions. The sky is bright and blue. I go stand in the mosque door when I see an old man in green walking up, followed by many people, I run back to my mother.
The scene changes and there I am walking with Lala Ghulam Hussain. We have just come out through Masti Gate and are now in front of a police station, which faces a huge banyan tree. A police constable sits with his back to the wall, smoking a huqqa. We are on our way to the Ravi River. Lala Ghulam Hussain is our close relative and he is crazy about angling. He holds a bag in one hand and a fishing rod in the other. It is a lovely day. On way to the Badami Bagh railway station, we pass in front of Hakim Nayyar Wasti’s clinic.
We go past the station, walk along the railway tracks towards the river. I love those railway tracks and the trains that move over them. When one passes, I stand and keep looking at it till it disappears into the distance. We are now at the river. I put a foot forward over a muddy spot and I feel that I am being dragged in. I go into what are quicksands up to my knee. I scream. Lala Ghulam Hussain turns back, moves in close, and lays himself flat on the ground. He is not nervous. He asks me to try to do the same. Then he begins to move his arms as if he were swimming. He grabs hold of one of my arms and gradually pulls me out.
We turn back. We have caught no fish. We are now in our Masti Gate house and Lala Ghulam Hussain’s wife is browning onions in a pot in the kitchen, while he prepares minced meat. When he is done, he takes a drag on his huqqa and says to her, “Mumtaz, add a little saffron to the spices. I want the entire neighbourhood to smell the fragrance of your koftas.”
So distinct and evocative are these memories that I can return to my childhood whenever I want.