Lahore as Rudyard Kipling knew it–ii | Pakistan Today

Lahore as Rudyard Kipling knew it–ii

The Badshahi Mosque stands in perfect spatial harmony to the old city, the white and gold pudding cake of a Sikh temple, the gardens of Hazuri Bagh and Akbar’s fort. The Sikh temple holds the remains of Ranjit Singh, a one-eyed drunkard and opium addict who brilliantly ruled the Punjab in the early 19th century by uniting all the Sikh tribes and maintaining peaceful relations with the British. It was amid the trees and flowers of the Hazuri Bagh where he held court.
The red brick fortifications of Akbar’s Fort, roughly four times the size of the Badshahi Mosque, give an impression of what the old city walls must have once looked like. The fort, completed a century before the mosque, is nowadays a quiet world of well-kept gardens and archeological remains. In the northwest corner is the Shish Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), built for the women of the court in 1632 by Shah Jahan, the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal. What’s left of this pleasure palace is actually quite little. But, like a good, spare poem, the few marble, Corinthian archways and pavilions, each overlaid with frescoes and thousands of silver, convex mirrors, are sufficient to convey the luscious ambiance of the harem. One can imagine the women, in jewels and saris, reclining on cushions, while sipping pomegranate juice and being refreshed by the breezes that blow through the archways.
The most magnificent of the surviving pavilions is called the Naulakha, which means nine lakhs, or 900,000 rupees, because that was the cost of building it. The Naulakha was also the title of a novel Kipling wrote in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier, the brother of his fiancee, who died of typhus a few weeks before the wedding. In the book, the Naulakha is a famous jewel. But Kipling no doubt was inspired by this pavilion in the Shish Mahal, filled with silver and semiprecious stones. Close by is the Fort Museum, an air-conditioned refuge from the heat, holding an excellent, albeit small, collection of miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts.
The next morning I took a taxi to the Anarkali Bazaar just outside the Lohari Gate. According to legend, Anarkali (Pomegranate Blossom) was the name of a favorite concubine of Akbar the Great, whom he put to death for having a love affair with his son. This is Lahore’s main shopping district, and on account of its length and the mixture of exotic and mundane household goods, it reminded me of Muski Street in Cairo. For the tourist, Anarkali is a disappointment. All I bought was a battery-operated racing car for my son. (The best collection of miniature paintings I found not in Anarkali, but in the gift shop of the Lahore Museum, where prices range between $10 and $200 depending upon the quality. And for those interested in printed cloth and saris, the best shops are in the Panorama Shopping Center, formerly the site of The Civil and Military Gazette, on the Mall road.) From Anarkali, I took another auto-rickshaw to the Bhatti Gate, and walked up the bazaar street to the Faqir Khana, a rambling, down-at-the-heels mansion in the old city that is known for its private art collection. The guest book showed that I was the first visitor in three days.
A kindly man led me through the many rooms of the house, teeming with precious objects: carpets, old books, Chinese silkscreens, Buddha statues, coins, pottery, paintings, photographs. There was a Mogul miniature with a detail of a court artist drawing a horseman. The horseman was so small that a magnifying glass was required to see it. I was next shown a framed and shredded piece of silk. When I held it up to the sun I saw an intricate Mogul needlepoint drawing of archers and courtesans. This work of art was so faded that a strong light was needed to reveal the details. In another decade or so, I thought, nothing would be left of it.
‘’Kim,’’ as I was discovering, though as old as the century, had not faded at all in its ability to render both the overwhelming beauty and squalidness of the Indian subcontinent. And my last night in Lahore, I thought I caught a glimpse of the respect, combined with the terror and amazement, with which Kipling himself must have reacted to this city, back in the days when he edited newspaper copy while sweating under a ceiling fan and sipping a whiskey and soda.
From other travelers, I had heard vague stories about the ‘’street of the dancing girls’’ in the old city, but I assumed this was just a polite phrase for a red light district. Then a taxi driver insisted I was wrong, and took me inside the Taxali Gate to the Diamond Bazaar at 11 P.M. This was where Kim had listened to the fakirs and their ‘’lewd disciples.’’ (I did see one old man who was shaking a bell and chanting.) The narrow, derelict alleys here were crammed with all types of people, and groups of policemen stood at each corner. But there was no atmosphere of crime or tension.
The crowds were attracted to the succession of lovely carpeted rooms lined with velvet cushions, which were opened to the street and illuminated by the light of hissing gas lamps. In each of the rooms, as though mannequins in a store window, were one or two beautiful women sitting impassively, sipping tea and flanked by a troupe of musicians and an old woman – the dancer’s ever-watchful mother. None of these women leered or even smiled at the passers-by. The women looked fresh, haughty and elegant in their saris of every imaginable color, like the daughters of rich oriental politicians being shown off at a ball.
I selected one room and entered. The door closed behind me and I was offered a seat against a cushion. Then, to the accompaniment of a sitar and a squeeze-box piano, two young women began a classical dance. Their painted faces could have been sculptured by a Mogul artist: I was reminded of the ladies in Shah Jahan’s court.
The dancers asked for the equivalent of $10 for the private, 15-minute performance. The only thing hokey about it was that, in the middle, a vendor came through the door, as if on cue, and threw rose petals at the dancers.
There are tales of wealthy Arab emirs who send their servants to these streets near the Taxali Gate at night, ready to pay thousands of dollars to the mothers of the most beautiful girls in order to take them as concubines to the Gulf. It is the kind of story that young Kipling would have loved to check out, wandering these same back alleys as he often did.
‘’Our city, from the Taxila to the Delhi Gate . . . would yield a store of novels,’’ wrote Kipling, whose imperialism was tempered with a humanism and street-wise reporter’s knowledge of the East that many people today don’t give him credit for. And, particularly in ‘’Kim,’’ Kipling has created a sympathetic literary myth to go hand in hand with Lahore’s artistic pleasures. For me, the book was a perfect companion to a bewitching city.

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