Saturday, May 11, 2002

Opinion: Reminiscing about Lahore...

 Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan

There was a time when our women folk could move around the streets of Lahore at any hour without fear of embarrassment. A woman who felt even slightly harassed could beckon any of her passing brothers for help. It was considered to be her right and his responsibility

Lahore today has lost its former glory even if it has become more than it was in the past. It all depends on the way you look at it. Do you know that Lahore has the biggest outdoor mural in the world? The mural covers part of the west wall and the entire north wall of the Lahore Fort. It is not a fresco done with water paints on plaster but a mosaic, though not the type of mosaic one finds in European art! In the Hellenistic period of Greek Art for instance, natural coloured pebbles were initially used for making decorations and figures of humans and animals. Sometimes figures were outlined with lead strips. Later, pebbles were replaced by square pieces of naturally coloured stones that were set on a cement base and then ground smooth. The mosaic work in the Byzantine period in St Sophia at Istanbul for instance follows the same technique.

In the Lahore fort mural, instead of pieces of stone, glazed tiles of various colours are cut into specific shapes to fit with each other like a jigsaw puzzle to create a pattern or a figure. If a visitor has the time or the patience he would be delighted to see myriads of floral designs, mythical and natural birds and animals, episodes from everyday life to aesthetically enrich and amuse him. Camels embroiled in a fight with their long flexible necks, portly elephants with their mahouts, casually ambling along a road. Elephants fighting, elephants on the rampage, sprightly horses ridden by Mughal warriors. The legendary phoenix with her spread wings colours of the rainbow. Fruits of all tastes, shapes and seasons. Part of the mural has been defaced by time but it can be recovered if we would only care. The Wazir Khan’s mosque and the Chauburji which was once the entrance to a garden, now a roundabout on a road with rude noisy traffic, employ the same technique to portray flowers, fruits and birds. Little is know about the fact once the Ravi flowed adjacent to Chauburji, on its southward journey. But that was before my time. I have this on the evidence of a coloured etching in possession of a friend.

However, when I was young and before I joined school, I do remember that people of Lahore, at least the ones who resided in close proximity to the Ravi, used to cook degs (cauldron) of porridge. These degs were cooked on specific days, after a prayer had been answered, to feed the fish and were mostly made up of ground wheat and lots of brown sugar. The porridge was emptied into the river, mostly from the banks but some devotees would rent a boat and be paddled across to the centre of the river to deliver their offering. Ravi in those days when there were no man-built barriers across its path could be quite unpredictable. Because of its proximity to the hills from where it descended, it could, in the rainy season, generate unexpected currents. Flash floods were a common occurrence. There was always a risk at venturing far from the banks. Certainly many river men must have been swept along by its angry tides, but Ravi has never in its career as a river ever engulfed a brave lass daring to swim across its turbulent waters to keep an appointment with an indolent lover squatting on the other bank, like the notorious river Chenab. But let us not be ungrateful because the Lahore canal is an offshoot of the Chenab and not of the Ravi, as most people think, and crosses over to Lahore through a siphon from under the Ravi.

But coming back to porridge. The porridge, as I was saying, was poured into the river as an offering to Hazrat Khwaja Khizer answering a prayer. Khwaja Khizar was regarded as the patron saint of travellers who guided them when they lost their way. He was also regarded patron saint of rivers, probably because people in the absence of roads frequently travelled on water. In addition to feeding creatures of the river, according to tradition, people would also place diyas (lamps) along the banks of the river, which seemed like a string of twinkling stars. The terracotta lamp reflections on impatient water of the Ravi, along with the glittering fireflies, imbued the night’s darkness with mysterious beauty and forbidding presence. What a sight it used to be.

Thanks to President Ayub’s Indus Treaty and our own lack of concern, Ravi has today been transformed from being the naughtiest of the five rivers, which did not even stop at flooding the Lakhshami Chawk, into a sprawling gutter. The famous ‘Roosters of the Ravi’, another name for the delicious creamy fish called khagga which goes down so well with boiled white rice, is now populated by white plastic bags and foul smell.

Someone observed the other day that while Basant was fast becoming an international event, kite flying itself was being sidelined. How can Basant, which lives in the heart of the kite flyers of Lahore, ever be sidelined? It is heartening that we are learning to laugh again. In the Zia era, to be happy was synonymous with being bad. Mullah jee never ceases to tell us that we should restrain from enjoying even our festive occasions. Doesn’t denying unlimited bounties of God that He has sent for our satisfaction amount to spurning His gifts? I say three cheers for people who once in a while want to amuse themselves and have fun. Down with those who readily tuck in anything fair or foul that comes their way and are never tired of frowning on others for their small pleasures like dancing a jig or patting a sequence on a dholki.

There was a time when our women folk could move around the streets of Lahore at any hour without fear of embarrassment. A woman who felt even slightly harassed could beckon any of her passing brothers for help. It was considered to be her right and his responsibility. I remember on one occasion when I was cycling back with a friend after seeing a 6 to 9 show at the Regal cinema, I saw a visibly angry lady standing on the roadside, while three men were reprimanding a young man at precisely the location where Masjid-e-Shuhada was later built. Apparently the young fellow had expressed a sentiment to an unfriendly lass who would have none of it. It was obvious that she had confidently hailed a passing ‘brother’. In a moment, not one but more than four had gathered at her call.

The ‘brothers’ were naturally angry at the conduct of the young man, for which he was firmly but politely admonished. However, they insisted that he call her ‘sister’. Calling her ‘sister’ would not merely shame him but would also automatically insure the lady against any further impropriety from his side. The young man complied with some hesitation, because he realized that to be in his best interest. Soon after he had said ‘sister please forgive me’. Everyone went their own way, satisfied with a job well done!
What has become of us today? We are prepared to give up our life for a divine issue of our own fabrication but will not lift a finger to protect the honour of our own mothers and sisters who today dare not cross a street without fear of being molested by ruffians. Where have the brothers gone? Surely not all have gone for the jihad.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee