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-Illustration by author.
-Illustration by author.

I have started missing the Lahore of my blissful youth years though I continue to live in the same city. It has changed a lot - that's the regular argument, but one of my friends diagnosed that it is also because I have crossed the Canal and started living on the other side of city. That may in fact be right. My romance with Lahore had started somewhere around the 'civilian end' of The Mall and had wandered in the same area for quite long. So one fine morning, I decided to walk a lap in nostalgia.

It happened soon, on a sunny Sunday. The Lahori winter was getting chillier but not enough to warrant something as warm as an overcoat. I strolled in my jeans and pullover. The Overcoat and a walk along The Mall have an interesting literary connection. Overcoat is the title of a popular Urdu short story written by the renowned writer, Ghulam Abbas. The story follows a character who is neatly dressed in an overcoat taking a carefree walk along The Mall, probably sometime in the 1940s or 50s. The character's looks, gait and actions are cool and classy.

He came to The Mall, turning right from Davis Road (or Sir Sultan Muhammad Aga Khan Third Road!) and passed by the Governor's House, Lawrence Garden, Charing Cross and continued ahead. I started from the opposite side, the Town Hall end. That character kept haunting me that day for some unknown reason. At first I thought that it was a reflection of one of my own selves. But then I doubted it as I could not bother much about looking fashionable, not at least on that day. I was more interested in reliving past memories than in making an impression on the present. So whoever that ghost was, he was around.

I said hello to the pigeons pecking underneath the Bhangian wali toap (the Zamzama Gun). They must be the umpteenth generation of those that once posed on my shoulders for a snap. The renovated Tollington Market is awe-inspiring – standing next to the Lahore Museum, it is one of the very first grand buildings of the Colonial era. One of the two art material shops in Anarkali chowk has closed down. I used to shop there almost daily, along with my class fellows from the nearby art college. The market for 'hard' art materials has shrunk substantially.  They work and exhibit in virtual space now and only occasionally need to touch base with the tangible world. The famous photo studio a few meters ahead also gives a dilapidated look. I could not, however, find the Chinese Restaurant that used to host all the revolutionary press conferences of my student union.

And then came the awaited turn in the story. Just at the point where Ghulam Abbas' character had met a fatal road accident, the GPO chowk, I hit a road block. As if approaching from opposite sides, that character and I had a head-on collision. There were hooting ambulances, police vans and motorbikes and mysterious looking anxious faces all around. I jostled to break that human barrier to have a look at the character's injured body. I was agog whether this time too those two nurses would discover on the operation table that Ghulam Abbas' character was in fact a jobless, poor jerk posing to be a nabob. In that short story, as they uncovered his body layer by layer, his soul stood denuded. His painful realities were way too different from what the world had known those to be. He was wounded or had died already, I shuddered. I was no Alice and this was no wonderland and there was no dead body lying out there.

I went past that traffic barrier. It was not meant for pedestrians. The road ahead obviously had no traffic. It was blocked as Jamaat-ud-Dawa was holding a rally in the next chowk. Utilising the free space, some boys had set out a T20 on the service road opposite the High Court building. Bundu Khan has carved itself a niche in this old commercial block. KFC's Colonel was smiling next to the Dayal Singh Mansion. But I had lost the appetite for my 'glorious' past as I stood stunned in the middle of my present.

There were around 25 buses and other vehicles. All of them empty inside as their passengers rode the roof tops waving black and white stripes. Maybe this arrangement is more photogenic. The windows of the vehicles were anyway covered with large flex banners. The designers took pains in translating the hate into visuals – charred bodies of Samjhota Train victims, a combo of River Ravi in India and the same in Pakistan, one of the two doves in the Aman ki Asha logo morphing into a serpent, and a number of other gory scenes of heinous crimes. The 2-dimensional visuals were put to life by audio recordings of hysterical rants and abuses. Nobody was shouting slogans. There was no energy emanating from the crowd only pre-recorded fury blared from the good quality sound system. Maybe I was in too close a range and could barely understand the full sentences but whatever words I could pick were quite communicative – India, Hindu, hate, Muslim, kill, hate, Hindu, ...

Around these vehicles roamed stick-bearing guards with fluorescent jackets labeled 'volunteer' and Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Similar uniforms manned the few stalls put up on the footpath in front of Masjid Shuhada at Regal chowk. The stalls had little or nothing to offer. Most of the protest props and acts here were being played out without any enthusiasm. It seemed that they were intended to just touch base with reality and their actual selves existed in some other world.

A man standing nearby held a display board pinned with buttons, badges and bands for the forehead and wrist inscribed with verses in Arabic. Dawa's branded shirts dangled over his other arm as he piled similarly branded P-caps on his head. Some of them had pictures of Azam Tariq, the late and renowned Shia-phobic leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba. Interestingly, the memorabilia was only for sale, nothing was for free. The CDs of speeches by known Shia-bashing ulema were also being sold a few steps away, though these were a dime a dozen.

Besides the stick-wielding guards, there were at least two more kinds of uniforms in the crowd. Dark green shirts and pants and long black boots with round, shiny tips were a brash display of the outfit's paramilitary ambitions. The uniformed battalion made many attempts to present itself as a smartly turned out contingent. A person would rush towards them often and whisper in someone's ear and then they would try to re-arrange themselves in columns and rows but it would fizzle out before achieving the desired order. They would try to blame each other but before arriving at any conclusion, there would be a distraction. Maybe the organiser’s attention too was more focused on the events taking place inside the walled compound of Masjid-e-Shuhada.

The entrance was further barricaded by a human chain of volunteers who would let in people after a body search. The compound walls are quite low, allowing an easy gaze inside from all sides. A number of passersby encircled the compound to have a look at the renowned figures gathered inside. Journalists were jostling to rub shoulders with them and camera crews were selecting backgrounds for their presenters. From the other side of the fence, I could see General (R) Hamid Gul, Shiekh Rashid but Maulana Samiul Haq's view was blocked. The leaders were surrounded by another group of volunteers donning commando-like uniforms. Those trying to put up a march on The Mall were unarmed, those manning the compound were empty handed too but you could easily notice the bulge around their waists. One young volunteer who was watching the crowd that I was part of, wore black goggles as well. He dithered restlessly, overreacting to every movement. He was enjoying his 007 like role. You could easily find an Ajmal Kasab here.

Some leaders were still awaited, including Hafiz Saeed and then the procession was planned to rally towards Wagah. I was already exhausted. The postmortem of Ghulam Abbas' heroic character was complete. All of his realities that he took pain in disguising stood exposed layer after layer. The corpse now lay completely denuded on the hard and cold surface of The Mall – waiting for me to tell the two nurses that 'yes, the body is of my city.'

Ghulam Abbass' short story: Overcoat

 


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The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

 


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