How we went wrong with Rawalpindi
The history of Rawalpindi is one, which is scattered across a vast area. To draw a complete picture of our history, one has to collect the scattered pieces and put them together. No doubt, it’s quite a difficult task but with time and patience, all can be achieved.
Most of us know Rawalpindi as a convenient route taken by the invaders, when coming from the north-western regions. It also served as one of the most important cantonments established by the British Army in the north-western region of British India, in days of the The Great Game.
Before the partition, Rawalpindi was an urban centre mainly populated with Hindus and Sikhs. Even today, one can see the old remnants of their existence in the old areas of the city, in the form of houses, abandoned temples and Gurdwaras. However, during the last 60 years post-partition, the city has undergone a lot of changes. The Hindu and Sikh population migrated to India in 1947 and the city provided shelter to the Muslim migrants from Punjab, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
The city of Rawalpindi, home to several Hindu temples and Sikh Gurdwaras, was also renowned for many other historic landmarks, whether it was, a Dhobi Ghaat, a Haveli or a public space. With the passage of time and the increased growth in population, the city’s demography gradually changed. Most of the old and historic places fell victim to the advent of modernisation, giving way to countless commercial buildings, markets and concrete matchbox structures.
Mai Veero di Banni (The Abode of Lady Veero) is one such victim.
It is said that Mai Veero was an aged Hindu lady, who was saintly in her behaviour with others and respected among the masses. Banni Mai Veero was built by her, for the benefit of the people where they could bathe, swim, rest and freshen up. It was sort of a gathering spot, much like the Greek Agora, for the public in the heart of the city. The water source of the pool was from a clean water stream nearby (an area on the opposite side known as Kartarpura).
Some old residents of Rawalpindi say that the area around Banni Mai Veero was densely populated by Khatri Hindus.
While hunting for Banni Mai Veero I managed to reach the exact spot where the pool had once been. Today, it is a market, housing video stores. I met the president of the market, who on my request introduced me to the oldest living person of the area. That is how I met Muhammad Ishaq, Bhaiyya ji as he’s popularly known, who sells fruit-chaat in this market.
Born in Ambala Cantonment area (now in Indian Punjab) in 1936, Muhammad Ishaq migrated to Rawalpindi in 1947 along with his family.
“I remember it very clearly; there was a pool here, I used to take bath and swim in it” says Ishaq.
“When we came from Ambala we lived in Bazaar Talwaraan, near Raja Bazaar” he added.
He goes on to further narrate that one of his elder brothers was a government employee working in the railways and the other owned a shop of shoes in Ambala.
“I also worked for the Pakistan Railways as a porter after partition, for some 20 years” Muhammad Ishaq tells me whilst showing his old employee’s identity card.
Initially, Ishaq started his fruit-chaat business in Raja bazaar, as a part time engagement later shifting his shop to the newly built market where the government allotted stalls to the street vendors. This market, he adds, was built in 1980s right on the same spot where the pool of Banni Mai Veero had once been.
Needless to say, today there are no traces of any pool anywhere near the market, that was built in 1982 and inaugurated on May 5, 1982. The market has more than 100 shops, most of them selling CDs and DVDs, and a few repairing electronic appliances.
“So, what happened to the pool?”
Muhammad Ishaq recalls confidently, back when the pool did exist, the water had been clean and fresh, so much so, that this water allowed the pool to house different species of freshwater fish. Where there had been stairs on all sides of the pool, people used to take a bath and the women washed their clothes. Unfortunately, people eventually started polluting it. The link to the stream, which was the source of the water to the pool, was cut off; new houses were built and the pool slowly dried up. It did not take much time for the locals to turn the place into a garbage dump.
That was, probably, how Mai Veero di Banni made a silent exit from the history of Rawalpindi.
Much later, the City District Government Rawalpindi planned to use this place for commercial purposes and built the market in 1982. But the businesses that initially set up shop here didn’t really flourish. It was only in the late 80s when the VCR culture was ‘exported’ to Pakistan (mostly by the overseas Pakistanis in Middle East) the market gradually became the hub for VCR and video films, due to the high demand for VCR and Indian film VCD rentals.
The main square outside the ‘video market’ still goes by the name of “Banni chowk”, though some people tried their best to change its name to “Sunni Chowk” (Why Sunni Chowk? Because the main procession of Ashura Juloos ends here with Zanjeer-zani: I hope you will get the hint).
At one point, there used to be a tonga stand outside the market at Saidpur Road, which has now turned into a Qingqi (Motorcycle Rickshaw) stand. Added to this crowd are numerous shops selling flowers and materials for wedding decorations. This area also boasts of desi food culture.
Muhammad Ishaq looks back at the past and reminisces that he has seen the changing demographics of the city.
“The city wasn’t this noisy, but now it has traffic and people everywhere”, he almost laments.
When I asked him why his family chose to settle down in Rawalpindi and not in any other city, he replied that they had some relatives in Rawalpindi, so they came here.
“Do you want to see Ambala once again?” I asked him as I was preparing to leave.
“No, I don’t want to go to Ambala. Everything has changed. We have some relatives in Delhi and some other cities in India, but the elders have all passed away and their children don’t know us”, he answered ruefully.
“But there would be no visa issue for you, you know that...”
“I know visa restrictions are relaxed for senior citizens (above 65), but why would I go there? Nobody knows me there. That was in the past and that time has passed” he replied this time, almost matter-of-factly.
Then I hugged and thanked him and walked away, promising to meet him again, very soon.
This post originally appeared here.