The way it was: Goofers, golfers and gardens Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

I wonder where Lashari Sahib, as many Lahore citizens call him, has been squandered away. What an astonishing transformation he brought to Lahore, making everyone’s heart as they say, ‘Garden, garden’

My friend Aitzaz invited me to play nine holes at the Royal Palm Club. Tahir Jehangir was to make the threesome. Tahir is an incorrigible trekker. In July he was at the Deosai Plains probably for the seventh time. I have always wondered when he finds the time to attend to other things. And I don’t mean attending to his wife Asma, the incorrigible Human Right activist, who is quite capable of taking on anyone on her own steam.

By the time we were through, it was quite dark. Jehangir had arrived late, so we had teed off at about four, which is rather late for October. The sun goes down at 5.20. On the ninth hole both Tahir and I lost our golf balls. Aitzaz was the only one who reached the green from a suspicious route. The Royal Palm Club was previously known as the Railway Golf Club. Before partition I remember when the railway up-train approached Lahore, I would rush to a window to see the big round circles of the golf course. At that age I found them as enigmatic as the big grey birds parked inside the dark hangers at the Walton aerodrome.

The Railway Golf Club in those days did not have greens but browns. Instead of grass there was sand, with a flag in the centre. I always wondered what the clever white men were up to. But at the very time the train would rush ahead, I would dash across to the opposite window because I liked to see the cheerful Railway stadium. There was always some sporting activity going on there.

In the old days golfers were considered goofs by non-golfers, and not without reason. Some golfers, approaching senility, love to be comforted for what they call bad luck. Missing a put can be a cause for endless conversation even with strangers at dinner. Having tucked in an extra kilo of fried fish or a third refill of trotters at lunch, can also cause constant duffs, hooks, shanks and other misfortunes, for which others are made to suffer their drivel.

Even today when Lahoris have become acquainted with this sport through cable television, I am always amused when out of curiosity a motorcyclist slows down, on the road adjacent to the fourth hole, and lets out a shout ‘Paghal-e-oyai’. In English it could be translated ‘Hey there’s a mad fellow!’ The sight of an inert person, leaning forward over a tiny ball, with buttocks shoved out, in all fairness looks funny. Obviously the player is not amused. The golfers are very sensitive to noise and movement, the ball is driven out of bounds. He mutters some obscenity but by then the supportive audience has throttled away out of hearing distance. I wish I had the facility of language and presence of mind to have shouted from the window, ‘Paghal-e-oyai’ at the hefty white strangers trying to put a harmless white ball into a small hole, as the train gathered speed, near the Railway Club before its final burst to the Lahore Railway Station.

The Lahoris even today are as familiar with golf as they are with the Houbara Bustard. Houbara and golf clubs both need to be protected and preserved. I wish there were more of them in the country. We are lucky to have at least two golf courses in the city, discounting the one in the Cantonment. In addition there are the Lawrence Gardens and the Minto Park; otherwise the city would have suffocated to death.

It is a blessing that the Brits liked to play golf and cricket and liked to establish parks and plant botanical gardens, otherwise Lahore would have had been without lungs. I once looked at an anatomy chart and was amazed to discover that the lungs were the largest organs of the human body. I immediately understood why it was so. If the lungs did not clean the blood, the heart would have been like a tube-well pumping and distributing brackish water to the body.

I wonder where Lashari Sahib, as many Lahore citizens call him, has been squandered away. What an astonishing transformation he brought to Lahore, making everyone’s heart as they say, ‘Garden, garden’. The real impact of the bushes, vines and trees that he planted will become fully visible only after a few years. While driving, one is best advised to keep the eyes on the road, but stealing a glance every now and then it is heartening to see that Lashari sahib’s plants are doing rather well.

The Arayeens of Baghbanpura and Sanda Kalan have always bragged about having a green thumb. I bet all the Arayeens of Lahore put together could not have realised what Lashari Sahib has achieved all by himself. In the coming spring who will plant beds of petunias, marigolds, nasturtiums and gladiolas to cheer us, we have yet to see. I think it was clever to plant the tiger lilies under the trees along the Mall, from Mian Mir Bridge to the Lahore Zoo. The lilies really look splendid, swinging on their green delicate stems from February to April. They are quite irrepressible; some of them continue to flower even during summers. They seem to like their abode or is it Lashari sahib’s caring hand? Probably both.

Heritage can be so easily forgotten. It has to be reclaimed from the past and consciously kept alive. The Mughals loved establishing gardens. The medieval European had no concept of friendly nature. Nature was considered an abode of unfriendly spirits, demons, dragons and witches. After sunset no one dared to enter its precincts. The castle doors were barred and sealed before the descent of darkness. The reader has to just accompany the Red Cross knight in the pages of Spencer’s The Faery Queen to get an idea of what nature could have in store for him in Medieval England. The concept of a garden where nature has been tamed for the pleasure of men and women was originally a Persian concept. Like love poetry it was introduced to Europe through the Moors of Spain.

The Islamic garden is designed on a vision of Jannat, the heavenly paradise. The concept is implemented in mosques and secular buildings through floral decorations and even woven into carpets and tapestries. The Mughals loved planting gardens. Emperor Babur stopped for a few days at Kallar Kehar, but did not waste time to plant one there. I wonder if you have seen the beautiful miniature painting in which Babur is supervising the laying of the Bagh-e-Vafa.

Lahore at one time was known for its gardens. We have unfortunately out of sheer indifference and avarice lost the Badami Bagh and many others. We have seen in our own lifetime the Angoori Bagh being divided into residential plots and the Goal Bagh, which garlands the Old City, encroached upon. The Chauburji was once the entrance to a huge garden. One of its burj was probably swept away by the notorious Ravi. Today it stands alone, disdainfully aloof from disgruntled traffic, which encircles it day and night. The intention of listing what has been lost is not to invoke a sense of loss. The purpose is to draw attention to the need to pull up our sleeves and establish some new gardens, parks and playing fields so that Lahore can once again be proud of itself and our lungs can begin to breath some fresh air.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist