“Why are you alone? Where is your golden girl?”
“She has reverted to the goldmine sir.”
So ends the chapter, “Chandrawati”, from Qudrat Ullah Shahab’s literary masterpiece, Shahab Nama, detailing his journey of life. Shahab is responding to his British professor who spots him sulking alone in the garden. He could hardly fault Shahab, as the setting was classic, beautifully ripe for simmering love. The pre-partition Government College Lahore, with its towering spires, darkened corridors and an all-pervasive feel of grandeur. Shahab first meets Chandrawati, a Hindu beauty in the library and falls for her during the course of a relationship that starts as friendship, but blossoms into mutual attraction as they explore the roads and alleys of Lahore on a bicycle. The sunny roads, dimly lit streets and the colourful history, serve as the perfect props in the heart-rending drama. She is diagnosed with galloping Tuberculosis and dies young, leaving Shahab desolate and broken. Lahore plays home to this stunning tale of love, lust, longing and death that leaves you mesmerised.
The late Abdul Hameed, an Urdu short story writer par excellence, had a flair for vivid imagery of sights and sounds and calling him the Thomas Hardy of Urdu would be no exaggeration. A romantic to the core, it was said of him that he could fall in love with even the electric poles on the roads of Lahore. I easily identify with the mavericks, moody souls and happily fall in love with people, aromas, trees and moments. My love for Lahore was essentially borne of the books, as I vicariously experienced the joy, the pain, the moods and the artistry of these writers through their creations. My eyes opened wide to a whole new world as I graduated from seeing things to feeling and experiencing them. Lahore may be a mere name on the milestone to many, and I wither at the misfortune of those who come to Lahore only to leave in the setting sun, utterly unaffected. What can be more condescending to the city of saints, to the city of souls on fire? I quiver at the sacrilege and thank God in the same breath. I thank because I am alive to breathe in that early-morning air, filled with an ethereal quiet as you see people, silhouetted, rosaries in their hands and tranquility writ on their faces. I thank because I am alive to drive on the canal, through that endless vista with trees arching above to form a frescoed ceiling, protecting me from the unrelenting sun.
What really draws us to a city? Some would say roads, markets, gardens and people. Some would get more philosophical and with eyes forlorn, say that memories of the loved ones — of those who flew away and of those who still stay — define a city. Lahore is all that and more. It embraces the loyal, even rescues the deserters when they come back abandoned, looking for solace. My English teacher at college would often ask us in a faintly tremulous voice, about the most romantic place in Lahore. Excited, we would rattle off names of gardens and cafes, only to be dismissed by his glazed eyes. “New Campus”, he would declare. Back then, we did not understand. Time reveals at its own pace and we learnt soon what he meant and why. New Campus was and remains an island in a sea of turmoil. The endlessly stretching green fields, the rainwater puddles here and there, the rickety canteens, men scurrying to serve the students, old trees standing tall to protect them all and the evening outlines of people hurrying to their homes. “There is a kind of hush”, carpenters sang, and an endearing hush indeed descends on the campus as the day wears down.
One has to see Government College from the roof of the New Hostel at the break of dawn, or when the sun is bidding farewell. The shimmering green sprawl, deferring to the gothic magnificence, the tower standing firm like a sentinel on guard and the breathtaking panorama of life hurrying past. Then there is Shezan, of Fortress Stadium. Its menu refuses to give in to the demands of the modern palate. The crease-lined faces of the old waiters have memories buried in the furrows of their foreheads. Wearing contentment and courtesy, the twinkle in their eyes says it all when they see an old timer. From the rich gardens to the Mughal heritage, from the ambrosial food to the warm and generous Lahoris, from the elite camaraderie at the beautiful Gymkhana Club, to the huddles at the roadside tea stalls, Lahore is, gushes The New York Times, “a rich confection of a city, whose great Mogul buildings and street life evoke the deep hues and sensuality of a miniature painting”.
Chandrawati’s city bleeds now, riven with hate and blood thirst. I can’t imagine the torment to her soul as temples and churches and mosques and parks turn into graveyards in the city where she roamed without fear and fell in love. I wonder about the incorrigible romantic, Abdul Hameed, who saw love everywhere and made Lahore his muse to produce some of his finest works. I think about you all, I think about myself and I think about our children. What will we pass on as our legacy and what will Lahore be like in the coming years? No easy answers. I remain hopeful though. Born and raised in Lahore, I have had the pleasure of partaking Lahore in the best and worst of moods. Spitting fire in summers, intimidating to both friends and foes, it mellows down in winters and serves ice cream on a warm plate. Monsoon rains wash it to pristine green, releasing an intoxicating aroma, a heave of relief as water splashes love on to the parched earth. Spring sees colours sprout all around and rainbows descend to the ground. Autumn is like a saffron bride, devoid of trappings, but no less inviting. Lahore embodies mirth and sorrow, heat and dust, the sun-kissed mornings and aromatic evenings, a future wedded to the past and a gloriously resilient spirit. I love you, Lahore.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2016.
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