A tale of two cities

By Moazzam Husain

AS two lovely looking girls riding bicycles overtook us, I saw one of them turn to us, then say something to the other. They both giggled as they rode away. Having travelled more than my fair share, the novelty of visiting exciting places had diminished with each successive destination — until I arrived here.

I had never envisioned a place like this. Last week I visited Lahore. On the Mall road people courteously gave way to each other and smiled frequently. I saw nobody talk on a mobile phone nor heard any ring tones. There were bookshops and newspaper stalls but no hawkers nor any beggars. People waited patiently in lines at the theatres. There were far fewer people too and elegantly dressed, as if a dress code went into force in the evenings. There were many neatly managed wide open spaces with art deco. This was a fashionable and cosmopolitan city that had acquired the title of ‘the Paris of India’. Last week I visited Lahore, as it was on the eve of the breakout of the Second World War.In his book Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, Pran Nevile takes the reader to the Lahore of his childhood and subsequently his days as a student at Government College. So with Nevile as my tourist guide I experienced craft shops and elegant cafes, met his friends, watched puppeteers perform on the street, strolled through a flower show at Lawrence Gardens and past the ballroom of the gymkhana where a waltz was in session.

The highlight was the ride in a tonga from Anarkali towards the Tollinton market, on which the greatest tourist attraction is Ahmad Shah Abdali’s cannon, the Zamzama. Made of copper and brass I learnt how it sowed terror amongst the ranks of the Marhattas in the battle of Panipat in 1761. It was during one of Abdali’s plundering expeditions to India that the gun was seized by Ranjit Singh and immortalised by Rudyard Kipling as Kim’s Gun. It was said that whosoever owned this gun ruled Punjab.

We rode past K.L Mehra, tailors, the YMCA, Lloyds Bank and the telegraph office. Getting off the tonga, we walked past a theatre before coming on to Temple Road where children were playing with earthenware toys, a group of girls was playing hopscotch while some boys played gullie danda, a fascinating game requiring quick reflexes and exceptional hand-eye coordination. In the ante room of the newly opened Standard restaurant I picked up a copy of the Civil and Military Gazette and later, over dinner, joined a discussion with the intellectuals and glitterati of the day.

Amongst the people I met was Abdus

Salam, a reserved, unremarkable youth whose father wanted him to take a job as a clerk in the government of the Raj “so the boy could make a life for himself”. Not known to me and to the boy’s father was that Salam had other dreams … of becoming a physicist.

Lahore was pillaged by Mahmud of Ghazni, then plundered by the hordes of Genghis Khan, then razed by the Mongols. After this the reins of the city passed to the Mughal dynasty, heralding a dazzling age of splendour.

From here, Ranjit Singh lifted Lahore to the height of its celestial glory as the capital of the most powerful Punjabi kingdom there has ever been. Then during the British Raj the city witnessed an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity — as well as administration and laws — a welcome change after the Sikha shahi or arbitrary rule of the earlier dominions. I came to envy many aspects of Nevile’s life and indeed his Lahore, built as it was on three layers that were still intact. Intact until the city was once again plundered by postcolonial failure, ravaged by the worst aspects of globalisation and razed by a population bomb.

So, by contrast, the Lahore I got in the flesh had obtrusive push-cart vendors, tasteless billboards, telecom towers atop unsightly buildings, and plastic bags and bottles littered everywhere. Sixty years of ‘development’ brought the noise of transport over the wall into our receding gardens as a permanent haze of smog blocked the sky. It introduced alien, inappropriate and heat-trapping architectural forms, designs and materials.

I have to admit that coming back from Pran’s Lahore to mine was a bit of a culture shock. One day while negotiating a traffic snarl and visible road rage outside the Civil Secretariat, I recalled how in his day the Mall was sprayed with mist every evening to cool the temperature and settle the dust. In this moment I became aware not only of how quickly the cultural layers built by the Mughals, Ranjit Singh and the British were crumbling to ash but how even history had been rewritten in the name of a religious nationalism. My sentiment here is somewhat simplistic. By distorting history you are lying to children. You build a dishonest foundation.

Every day we hear the same cliché: where are we headed? Let’s also come to terms with where we are coming from. A sage once told me that you will find the answer — to where a nation is headed — in two places: by listening carefully to what its old and wise are saying, and by looking at the present state of its youth. So I turned to Zia Mohyeddin and this is what I heard him say: “… what I see around is deterioration of everything not just political life, which is obvious, but the deterioration of taste which I suppose is a natural corollary. I do not find encouraging signs … and I don’t mean in my own profession but about life. I find that people are less kind to each other than they used to be. I find, as I said, deterioration all around. I can’t do anything about it. I can’t make compromises now. So the best thing is … well, to live in seclusion.”

Out of Pran Nevile’s Government College walked out Har Gobind Korana, Nobel laureate in molecular biology. He was followed by that dreamy youth I had figuratively met, Abdus Salam, Nobel laureate in physics. All eyes have been on its gates since then. Several dry decades have passed but none other has walked out.

It’s been a week since I put the book down but one thought has not stopped nagging me. If the government of the Raj could teach its subjects to invent new knowledge, what insecurity drives an independent republic to imprison its children in an invented version of history?