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Not at all a burning issue

June 04, 2012

“WHAT happened, sir jee? Was this a school? Ok it was a library? Oh ho… did it catch fire today?”

By that time the Ferozsons bookstore on The Mall had been burning for a few days. It was obvious that not everyone who had gathered outside the shop for a quick look felt the same way about the happening as did some of those who had grown up nearby. For those who have been here long enough, the building which housed Ferozsons was an unavoidable base camp that opened up all kinds of spending possibilities.

The building also boasted two of the most well-known and upscale sports goods sellers; it still has two sporting equipment outlets but the shop that was known to us as ‘International’ in times when the communists were still around has withdrawn from the scene . There is a sports shop in the building today that bears the catchier name of ‘Sporty’.

The old Gander Sports is still there as is the Regina restaurant — two titles that would once fuel the downright dirty imagination of boys groping as they grew bigger. These boys would be forever digging deep into their pockets for funds to buy cricket balls that weighed and felt and smelt right.

I can vividly see the gang members gripping the shiny cherry and sniffing it for the authentic smell of leather that hasn’t been sewn and polished too long ago.

The old scent of leather, of books that were sifted out of a very sudden — admittedly rare — urge for knowledge, filters through the thick smell of burning paper. A large pile is still smouldering in the basement that has only just come into public view. The roof is gone and mangled fans latched to iron rods hang over, dark and darker shades play out — just out of Italian realism cinema.

Much of the Rasool Building, where Ferozsons and Regina and Gander have for long coexisted, has remained the same over time. The others have so far been unable to expand and encroach, for whatever reasons.

Instead, they find themselves — as if perennially — lost in the long and often asphyxiating labyrinths on this side of The Mall towards the Panorama centre and across the road where Naqi market does business in the midst of a host of copycats which it has inspired.

It is a remarkable story that while the nostalgic types always complain of the changing face of Lahore, some patches on its old commercial centre, Mall Road, have survived what we call the vagaries of times and changing tastes.

The Rasool building has not been invulnerable to an occasional bout of melancholy, but it has retained much of its old aura — or it had until now. That when it has been living so perilously close to the transformations on its flanks.

Just a few steps to its left, the deep-fried shami tikkis coated with egg can still be had. The number of the shami makers has decreased as has that of the refreshment shops which in the days gone by indicated the irresistible pull of the Alfalah cinema.

As we have since learnt that our falah or welfare or salvation lies elsewhere; in place of posters of the film running in the cinema we now have stage actors inviting watchers from billboards which could do with a bit of painterly skill.

The Punjab Assembly, that stands worthily a stone’s throw away further left, has itself been subjected to many innovations, the most telling of them ugly pieces of concrete that have been put outside the provincial House for much required security. A mirror image is provided across the road where the policemen are entrenched behind security lines that have eaten savagely into the famous Plaza cinema’s clientele.

The Freemasons Hall across the road from the Assembly these days goes as a Free-traders Hall. That is one of the places the freely roaming and peripatetic Punjab chief minister can be found at these days — the building which he, out of reverence for heritage and local tradition, allows his elder brother to chair some important government meetings at.

As desires for change go, it is difficult to do something about the all too imposing Wapda House that stands across even if that is one monstrous load you wish your city had shed a long time ago.

Now does all this read like a lament? It shouldn’t since it would be against a resolve to not wrap up things negative, especially if they have anything to do with culture. If this reads like a lament, there is a reason for it, a small, personal reason which has nothing to do with the grand ideals of earnest-looking people seeking to preserve and conserve and sell it to the culturally inclined.

Far from it, this is about recording the happy expansion, the merry proliferation of the old as it takes place. A few Ferozsons branches have cropped up elsewhere in the city and these offer the very variety in demand.

The circle has widened and the parts that once hegemonised landmarks in old city areas can be wary of losing their edge to the expansion and influx. Ferozsons was no Globe theatre whose burning would lead to mourning and an urge to rediscover or rebuild.

The city is too thriving in its own proud way to be bogged down by the small losses along the way.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.