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A song for Lahore

Published Jan 16, 2016 02:36pm

The first time I realised I was utterly in love with Lahore, I was eight years old.

My father had taken me to a barber's shop and as I sat waiting for my turn on the sofa — a teenager with a lot of oil on his head sat down on the barber's chair. Bemused by the oily nature of his customer's head, the barber quipped:

"Bhai jee, are you here for a hair cut or an oil change?"

Amidst the laughter that erupted in the busy shop at that time, I acknowledged my love for this glorious city of dreams, wonders and incredible history.

Masjid Wazir Khan: A mole on the cheek of Lahore. —Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of the image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.
Masjid Wazir Khan: A mole on the cheek of Lahore. —Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of the image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.

Back in the day, Lahore had the most amazing of events called Basant. It would rival any festival in the world for its passion and of course, colours.

We would spend months planning it; the second weekend of February was the usual time. Our preparations would start sometimes as early as November. Night skies would be illuminated by flash lights; days would thump with drum beats.

Lahore rooftops were once highly sought-out places during the Basant festival. Streets, too, would be inundated with kite catchers. —Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of this image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.
Lahore rooftops were once highly sought-out places during the Basant festival. Streets, too, would be inundated with kite catchers. —Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of this image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.

The rooftops would be filled with dancing youth under a sky studded with uncountable kites, bearing fascinating names like paras, tawas, niklao cuts, sarh patangs, cho gitthi patangs, teeras and strings that were called 2 rich, 5 rich, 60 oakslay and 12 haathi.

Every basant, we would go to a rooftop in inner Lahore and celebrate everything good about life in a big frenzy of bo-kata.

—Reuters/File
—Reuters/File

That Basant is no more.

When there were enough deaths because of unscrupulous use of metallic threads and aerial firings, the spring festival was banned. Instead of treating the tumour, we performed a lobotomy. Now, the Lahore skies lay woefully barren.

See: Basant under an empty sky

During my days at the Government College Lahore, a few friends and I paid an "educational visit" to the old city. We went to the Phajja Sri Paye restaurant situated in Lahore's Heera Mandi area.

One day, as we sat on the crowded chairs of the restaurant, we met an interesting character.

He was a resident of the Shahi Mohalla. The old man started on a dirge of the place that he grew up in. For him, this place was the best Lahore had to offer. And I couldn’t agree more.

Badshahi Mosque. —Photo by Akhtar Abbas
Badshahi Mosque. —Photo by Akhtar Abbas

According to him, Shahi Mohalla was the cultural zenith of Mughal Lahore.

Here, royal princes and nawabs were educated on the culture and mannerisms of the court by spending considerable time with the youth there. The courtesans were the epitome of everything refined but with their patrons gone, they soon faded into distant memory.

After the Partition, many classical singers, dancers and musicians derived their roots from Heera Mandi. The old madams continued to retain their offices in the area even after becoming sensations on national television.

He lamented how most of the artists had left the old city and had bought offices in the more 'decent' areas of Gulberg, Iqbal Town and Samanabad — the vacuum thus created was filled by drug dealers.

A rickshaw driver in Lahore enjoying a brief moment of solitude. In the 1990s, tongas and buggies were replaced by noisy vehicles. —Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of the image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.
A rickshaw driver in Lahore enjoying a brief moment of solitude. In the 1990s, tongas and buggies were replaced by noisy vehicles. —Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of the image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.

“They have turned this place into a trash can of society. Nothing but sex workers and shady SHOs, who pay millions to get posted here so that they can earn enough to perform their pilgrimages and retire as Hajis​.”

Manto would have nodded his head in assent.

A few years later, grasping on to the last straws of the magical era, an old soul refurbished his haveli by the name of 'Cuckoo's Den'. Ten years down the lane, Cuckoo's Den is surrounded by poorly-restored old havelis selling cultured cuisines like forcing plastic flowers on the trunk of an old tree.

The "trash bin" has spilled its contents all over the city.


The Mall Road in Lahore, or Thandi Sarak as it used to be called, was full of trees. The traffic was manageable and you could still see why poets and writers reminisced about their long walks along these roads.

Then, the road expanded, the trees were cut and the remaining ones now stand frightened in the company of dust and smoke.

The Lahore that I grew up in is lost, let me sing a song for it

Forget Phajja kay Paye, the place is a wraith of the old glory that once was. Lahoris are now more interested in the burgers and pizzas spots that have sprouted in new localities, like the manicured Korean grass on our front lawns.

Sant Nagar became Sandha, Davis Road is now called Sir Agha Khan Road, Mayo Road was rechristened Iqbal Road and Queens Road is now Fatima Jinnah Road. Granted that Lahoris still remember them by their old names, but for how long?

When the old generation departs, the new one will have lesser reason to associate with the things that they've never had much chance to affiliate with.

Children peer through an old balcony into a city that is changing rapidly before their eyes. — Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of the image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.
Children peer through an old balcony into a city that is changing rapidly before their eyes. — Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of the image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.

In a world where ancient places are dug out and celebrated, we are most happy renaming our architecture and heritage after the whims of the latest ruler on the throne.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and company seem to be obsessed with heavy structures: steel and concrete. These "Iron Men" have done much to change Lahore to their own liking.

When the Metro Bus Service started in the Ferozpur road area, very few noticed just how much Lahore’s face would change — to the point of being grotesque.

Places like Ichra and Mazang are now a jungle of rough edges that only man-made structures can bring. Not to mention, the Orange Train Line that will take away the remaining beauty of this city.

A city of lost wonders. I remember watching these old buildings and wondering who used to live there and what their lives were like? —Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of the image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.
A city of lost wonders. I remember watching these old buildings and wondering who used to live there and what their lives were like? —Photo by Khalil Shah/The copyrights of the image are the sole property of the photographer and cannot be re-sold or transferred in any way.

Places like Shalimar Gardens, Chowburji, and the GPO will be no longer visible for daily commuters. They will all but cease to inspire the imagination of millions like me.

Instead we will have a crowd, lost in the complexity of steel and tree-less roads.

See: Orange Line may cause serious damage to Shalamar: Unesco

Nawaz Sharif can be forgiven for his obsession with steel. But I do believe him to be a family man. So let me give an example that he may understand:


Lahore is like an old relative’s face: Full of wrinkles and scars. These marks are not a sign of ugliness but of a strong character that one acquires over the course of time.


Places like Chowburji, GPO and Shalimar Garden depict a history of old battles, victories and defeats. They are the medals on the chest of a battle hardened veteran.

Now, I agree that sometimes old cities die and are replaced by new ones, but do we stab at their chest to ease their suffering?

Lahore may eventually be replaced by a new version of itself, but it has to be a slow and measured process.

This city is our greatest witness of all that we've endured as a nation. Let's not silence it so brutally, so unflinchingly.

The milky way over Lahore. —Photo by Akhtar Abbas
The milky way over Lahore. —Photo by Akhtar Abbas