Memories often make one retrace the steps trudged in our youth, savouring moments that live within us. Last week I decided to walk past the newspapers my father once worked for. The old man and his newspapers are mere memories now.
The year was 1965 and the September War with India had abruptly started. It was the 6th of September and we were at school, that being the St. Anthony’s High School on Lawrence Road. There was a commotion and everyone was shouting that India had attacked Pakistan. I started looking for my brothers, and mind you we were five, all studying at the same school. The Catholic Irish ‘brothers’ who ran the school restored order quickly and soon all five were lined up in the school front verandah. My father came rushing and took us away. He had already collected my sisters (daughters always came first with him) from the nearby Cathedral School (we called it ‘Kaddo School’) and had dropped them at his office at the newspaper, ‘The Civil & Military Gazette’, of which he was Editor, probably the youngest ever.
As we walked past Regal Crossing we saw the first ‘dog fight’ over Lahore. An aircraft was hit, diving in flames, thick smoke following its trail as it headed in the direction of Shahdara. Everybody was ecstatic and started rushing westwards to capture the pilot, assuming it was an Indian, which it turned out to be. Everyone was cheering. We walked briskly to his office and I sat in his chair. The sign outside the room said ‘Rudyard Kipling worked here’. As we were waiting the peon brought in cold drinks, and suddenly came rushing an old family friend, ‘Chacha’ F.E. Chaudhary, yelling that his son Cecil had shot down the first Indian aircraft. There was clapping and a proud ‘chacha’ left quickly to inform ‘others’. Half a century later the road in front of our old school has been renamed ‘Cecil Chaudhry Road’.
Today where once stood the C&MG, a legendary newspaper of its days, is a shopping plaza. Heritage and history had no meaning then as it surely does not today. The slide had started. I walked through Beadon Road headed along McLeod Road, and took the Mission Road route past Maan Singh’s ‘haveli’, now the Divinity School as set up in 1870 by Rev. T.V. French, who was later to be the Bishop of Lahore. I walked towards the old office of ‘The Pakistan Times’, where my father worked after C&MG was closed down by Gen. Ayub Khan. Even PT, as it was commonly called, was taken over by the military authorities in 1958 because, they then claimed, it was the “den of communists”.
Last week a friend had posted on Facebook the last remaining front façade of PT being knocked down. I wanted to see the end of the place where I started my career. It was heart-breaking. Maybe I am being a wee bit sentimental, for surely like the C&MG this was an institution that needed to be preserved and financed and handed over to a ‘collective’ of journalists, just like the French have done with Charlie Hebdo. ‘If you do not like it, do not read it’ remains a valid way of life. There is no need to snuff out any point of view, not that the French weekly is worth wasting our time on our streets. We snuffed out C&MG and then PT, and, as a people, we are the poorer.
After a first look I could not bear to take a deeper look, for there was nothing. It was hurtful. I thought of the amazing archives these two ‘once-great’ newspapers had, which the present ‘owners’ want to sell for millions of dollars to interested foreigners. Surely this is national heritage and should be handed over for researchers to use.
With these thoughts I moved on and up Bansaanwala Bazaar and headed towards the remains of the ‘samadhi’ and tank of Rattan Chand. The 1884 Gazetteer called this as one of the three main ‘serais’ of Lahore, the others being that of Sultan Thakedar in Landa Bazaar, and the Anarkali ‘serai’ where today stands the Delhi-Muslim Hotel, or what is left of this historic hotel. Rattan Chand has always fascinated me as a person, and it was not without reason that Maharajah Ranjit Singh took a liking for him and called him Rattan Chand ‘dhariwala’. The name stuck.
Rattan Chand served the maharajah in various capacities and was officially, in court documents, called Lala Rattan Chand Dhariwala. After the death of the maharajah in 1839, he continued to serve the Lahore Darbar and in 1846 was the Postmaster General of the Punjab. After the British took over in 1849 he switched sides remaining in the same post. In 1862 he was made the Honorary Magistrate of Lahore. In 1865 he was made a ‘Dewan’ and hence his last official name, as given in documents, was Dewan Lala Rattan Chand Dhariwala.
The land outside Shahalami Gate was gifted to Rattan Chand by Maharajah Ranjit Singh. His word was enough. The story was that he had asked for a large tract next to Shalimar Gardens, but the Sikh elite in his court objected that he was doing a favour to a man who did not deserve such an honour. To this he replied, or so we read from accounts, that “people with simple and clear minds are never intriguers, and can solve complex problems”. But the maharajah held his hand and presented him with this patch ‘outside Shahalami heading to Mozang’, which was in a terrible condition.
Rattan Chand set to work, cleared the place, built a beautiful wall around the land and built four platforms in typical Sikh architecture at the corners. Inside he built a huge tank and a beautiful temple with a huge dome in the middle. Around the tank the gardens laid out made this place one of the finest in Lahore, much to the chagrin of the Sikh elite Sardars. The man had arrived. The road in front was, even before the British took over, called Rattan Chand ke Sarak (Road). He also built small houses and shops to raise enough to maintain his beautiful ‘serai’.
When the British came he provided them with housing at very reasonable rates, and in return they confirmed the allotment of the land in his name as the ‘patwaris’ of Lahore testified that the maharajah had promised him this land. After he died in 1872, his son started selling off portions of the land to Hindu traders of Shahalami. Come 1947 and like other Hindu and Sikh properties of the area, this one was reduced to bricks, save a few structures.
As I walked through the area, I turned in where the temple once stood. To my delight a few remains of the ‘shikhara’ portion of the temple, and some portions of the tank on the north-western sides, remain, though both in terrible condition. But they remain there and remind of a glorious era that once existed. In the bricked archway a ‘dhobi ghat’ exists.
On the ‘ghat’ I sat and looked towards the tomb of Hazrat Zanjani, who happens to be among the earliest seers to be buried outside Lahore. In the temple a ‘maulvi’ safely sat on his ‘charpoy’. If anything he represents our age. Back on Rattan Chand Road the building where once the greatest minds of Lahore worked is almost flattened. On Bansanwala Bazaar the sole ‘tabla maker’ has closed shop replaced by a second-hand nylon sack seller. There is an old Punjabi saying: ‘There is a lot of money in trash’. How true.
Published in Dawn January 18th , 2015