The city that he loved

A Hameed is known and remembered for several of his intellectual and literary achievements, but one of his very best works is included in the collection of his essays in Urdu and revolves around the splendid city of Lahore, magnificent in its reservoir of history, rich in its heritage, and wealthy in its layered cultural traditions.
The book has been alludes to the axiom, ‘Lahore Lahore Ae’, which Lahoris themselves utter proudly when their city is praised, or when a quirky identity of their citizens is brought forth. It has been translated by journalist Khalid Hasan, who himself has published 45 books that include a number of translations from Urdu and Punjabi. Although the book was published in English in 2008, it deserves another journey through it, so that readers who know Lahore well (or think they do!), and others who would like to know more about Lahore, especially in its past glory, can travel back in time wandering each nook and cranny that Hameed remembers fondly, each boulevard that has smitten the writer’s heart, and every character that has long been ingrained in his mind.
The city itself is nothing but romance, being translated into words by one of the greatest writers. He shows that the city has bewitched him and entrapped him into its romantic grip.
“Lahore – the very name is magic to me. There is something inscrutable about this name,” said the writer in the very first chapter of the book called ‘Some Early Lahore Memories’. “It is like a spell that castes itself even on those who do not believe in spells….it is more like a feeling….you feel your relationship with this city and its sprit has been there forever and nothing will ever break it.”
Lahore’s autumnal evenings spend in magnificent parks and gardens such as the Lawrence Garden birth exactly this feeling. The rising scent of brown, dried leaves, of freshly forming dew drops on the grass below your feet, the warm, soil, the gentle air around you crisp and sharp, but not yet razor like as it becomes in the winters….these sensations are what makes one want to delve deeper into the city’s throbbing heart, to feel its every beat, and to travel through its artery like network of roads, each connecting one place to yet another.
In old Lahore, narrow streets and old decaying buildings tell stories of several generations. The lives of all those who have lived there still echo within the walls of the houses, and the alleys, yet so full of life are these parts of the city, that no old ghost can dominate them with its existence.
Hameed remembers several interesting characters of Lahore that he has encountered in his life. And even more, he remembers and shares information about those whose names are familiar with everyone today.
“I had entered through the Bhati Gate. To my right lay the street where my friend Ustad Amanat Ali Khan used to live. When he and his brother Fateh Ali Khan came to Lahore from Patiala at the time of independence, they were allotted a house on this street. I would often come there to spend time with Amanat.” In the chapter ‘The City Then and Now’, he also talks about others, including Ashraf, a commercial artist who traced his links to Shah Enaya Qadri, who was the Punjabi poet Waris Shah’s spiritual master. He says he once saw, on the same street, Ustad Ashiq Ali khan, Farida Khanum’s teacher, of Mubarak Begum’s house, who the poet Shohrat Bukhari was in love with. This was a stretch of the Shahi Mohalla.
He remembers what Siraj Nizami of Radio Pakistan told him once. Of a man with a build like a wrestler and a huge perfumed mustache called Kalay Khan, who was said to have a voice like a lion, unmatched by any in the subcontinent. He was a pupil of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan.
Lovingly one day he cooked some mutton curry and locked it in his cupboard to have later, when the police by chance came by, searching for a thief who had fled earlier that day with some stolen goods. As the police party was searching through the house, Kalay Khan blocked the cupboard standing in front of it like a colossus. When the suspicious police asked him to movie he refused and told them they could not look in there. In any case the police moved him, but seeing the pot of curry inside topped with desi ghee, they laughed. Kalay Khan however was not amused.
“You better take this curry now because it is no use to me,” he told them. “The evil eye has been cast on it.”
This funny incident was just one anecdote that Hameed fondly remembers. But there are many others, some melancholy, others bitter sweet. Not one is not worth reading. Each chapter of this book is full of information, history, opinion, experience. For those especially who would have killed to see the city in its prime, in the ‘good old days’, the book is a godsend.
There are bookshops, cinemas, singers, artists, dancers, pimps, streets, buildings, people, alleyways, animals, magicians, everything that could make a wonderful fantasy story. Only these are real.



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