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Arts/Society Home Away From Home (Travels Of Khushwant Singh)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Home away from home

Khushwant Singh paid a just tribute to the people of Lahore, calling them “recklessly generous”. Some time ago, when my friend Madhur and I visited the cultural and intellectual epicentre of Pakistan and set out to find our parents’ ancestral homes, we experienced some of that hospitality first-hand. Friends of friends hosted us, took time off from work to show us around and plied us with old-world khatirdari. What we hadn’t expected, and were touched by most of all, was the generosity of perfect strangers. Madhur’s Indian passport had to be stamped every morning, and from the photographer out side the law courts to the police at the station, they would tarry, plying a cup of tea, shuffling for staplers, just to chat about India. What was it like there, how was it different, and most importantly, “What new Ballywood fillum is good?”

In Model Town, Amjad, our driver parked outside 67 B, the house where my mother’s grandparents once lived. Despite his plea not to slip behind the gates for photo, I stepped in to a lawn encircling a lovely, old, dilapidated house. An hour later, he came looking for me, brows knotted with worry. He found me finishing a second lunch with Abida and her sisters, holding a baby and chatting as though I was one of them. Finding me in her lawn, when she’d heard that I had come from Delhi to see my parents’ homes, she insisted I come in, showed me around, and literally foisted her food and affection on me. The Khaliq family had come from Jalandhar just after the Partition. Hostility had given way to hospitality in one generation.

Lahore’s streetscape
Loosing myself in the streets of Lahore, I played the familiar game with myself, pretending I did not know where in the world I was. Delhi is what came to mind first. Neem, peepul and alistonia trees were everywhere. Stately red brick Colonial buildings such as Aitchison College — built by the British for the sons of Punjab’s landed nobility — formed the backdrop to vibrant streets animated with three-wheeler scooters, pani-puri vendors, anar juice stalls, and corn-on-the-cob roasting on coals… Mall Road, Alamgir gate, Badshahi Masjid, Dera Sahib Gurudwara with frescoes of Shah Jahan and Krishan Leela on the ceiling… there was a familiar ring to it all.

Yet there were differences. Lahore’s streets were not nearly as crowded as Delhi’s. Tall, hirsute men dominated the streets. The restaurants often seated us in a separate “family room” away from where the men sat. At the Mozang Chowk Nihari House, the thick nihari was served with daal and naan, but the menu was sorely bereft of any vegetables.

The old city
Enclosed by ramparts dating from the time of Akbar, Lahore’s old city is still surrounded by thirteen handsome gateways. Inside, the winding roads and knotted alleyways came alive with men racing pigeons on terraces and boys raising their kites into the winds. Women in black abayas swished about in the evenings, shopping, trying on bangles, examining the delicacy of zardozi embroidery, pecking at the food stalls. Festooned with decorations and riddled with artisans selling carpets, metalwork, jewellery, shoes and embellished textiles, Bano Bazaar is a mecca for the pre-wedding trousseau hunters. Tongas clipped by, a radio’s volume was turned up, Noorjahan’s dulcet voice and poignant words rent the air… My mind turned to the girl who awaited her lover by a bridge on the canal. For a while it was easy to pretend that that I was part of a bygone era.

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