In the afternoon of a warm day in May, the trees along the main Mall in Lahore are more lovely than ever. Casting their much-needed shade on burning tarmac, these trees tower above us, their branches like umbrellas protecting us from a vengeful sun. Pedestrians and cyclists must sigh with relief as they make their way through the chaotic traffic deftly managed by the smartly dressed and well-trained wardens in dapper blue uniforms, their gloved hands dancing in the still air of noon.
The many landmarks on the Mall read like a text-book of colonial history, starting with Aitchison College, (1886) the Pakistan Administrative Staff College, the Governor’s House, onwards to Charing Cross, the erstwhile Masonic Lodge (1914), Shah Din Manzil (1919), the Dingha Singh horse-shoe-shaped enclave housing the erstwhile chambers of Masud Khadarposh, CSP, the Bawa Singh Building and Laxmi Mansions on the opposite side, the art-deco era architecture of the stretch of buildings housing E. Plomers, Zaidi’s photography studio and now Bundu Khan’s eatery.
Opposite this colonnaded structure lies the stately, sprawling red-brick complex of the Lahore High Court, built in 1886 in the classic Indo-Victorian style, gothic windows mingling with Moghul arches, an ancient “bor” tree casting its shade across the courtyard at the entrance of this hallowed space.
I have been here many times, in times of war and in times of peace, as a protestor and as a petitioner in public service litigation, and each time the beauty of the buildings within the complex overawe my vision. I have stopped the beating of a hapless, female donkey named “Peji”, after a former President, and I have rescued a puppy, also female, named “Asif” after another former President at the beginning and end of the Lawyers Movement. The donkey had been brought into the premises of the Lahore High Court by a group of charged lawyers who were protesting against the forced removal of the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In a sudden reflexive act, I had put out my hand to protect the donkey whose back now bore the marks of their beatings. The lawyer wielding the baton did not stop and the “lathi” came down hard on my hand, breaking fragile bones and resulting in a permanent haematoma.
Dishonor and death are the ghosts that linger in Lahore’s GPO chowk, where the guilty walk with heads high while their mute victims cover
Two years later, on March 15, 2009, I found myself in the thick of the toxic fumes of the tear gas being pelted in cannisters flung into the main square between the Lahore High Court and the General Post Office. A young man who operated the television crane in the middle of the mayhem had caught my attention earlier. Unable to leave his post as the crane operator, he had to endure the terrible stinging of the tear gas and the searing of his gullet as he tried to not choke on the smoke. I had rushed toward him and offered him my wet towel and a pinch of salt to help him swallow and then breathe. Ensuring that he was able to drink from my flask, I then rushed back to the safety of the wall behind which many protestors had sought refuge. It was from this vantage point that I saw a sight which still horrifies me, years later.
A group of young men on motorbikes appeared out of nowhere and began to tie a small puppy onto the camera crane, ordering the crane operator to lift the animal into the sky. Then the young men started beating the puppy with bamboo sticks, cursing it and almost bludgeoning it to death. Had they not already beaten the animal to death, the yellow satin neck-tie which was wrapped around its neck and from which it was suspended in the toxic air would have choked the life out of it.
I rushed to the middle of the square and beseeched the crane operator to lower the animal so that I could untie her from the jib arm. The puppy was terrified — her eyes had a white film covering the retina, and for a moment I thought she was blind. I covered her in my chaddar and rushed towards the canteen behind the bor tree so that I could give her some water. There were lacerations on its haunches and back where she had been struck. I took her home, shaken at the brutality unleashed upon an innocent animal that had half a chance to survive on our streets in any case.
Every time I drive past the square known as GPO Chowk, I remember that incident. But yesterday, that memory was replaced by another one, something more terrible than seeing a puppy being beaten by idle, misguided young men. It was the sight of the killing of the young woman who had dared to defy patriarchal tradition by marrying of her own accord. I was on my way to see my lawyer when a young woman was beaten to death by her brothers and father who pummeled her limp body with bricks gathered from the site. There were many people who stood and watched as I too, drove past, unable to stop the brutality, the injustice, the crime that was being enacted before the world, dressed in the guise of honour. That young woman was punished for the “crime” of exercising her right to choose. Her murderers shall probably not be punished, for in a land where violence against the vulnerable is acceptable and even celebrated, criminals walk free, heads held high, their stride confident and steady on the ground where truth is buried with every step.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 1st, 2014