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A postcard from Lahore, longing to return

Updated: Apr 27, 2018 19:45 IST

This is a postcard, not the whole story, of my visit to Lahore. And to a Punjab that was, is.

The visit was something I longed for all my life, but it became the beginning of a further longing, for the place and its people.

First up, let me tell you that my family did not migrate from the ‘other side’. Why this fascination for Lahore, then? The answer lay in its people, who greeted me with open arms, became friends for a lifetime. I had met these people last year during a filmmaking workshop for students from both Punjabs in the US. A year on, this March, I got the invitation to attend the wedding of one of those from across the border.

Right at the entry, from “our” Attari to “their” Wagah, I was given polio drops, or as we call them here, ‘Do Boond Zindagi Ke’.

My prime look inside Lahore before this was through Punjabi poet Afzal Saahir. He is well known in the Indian Punjab too for his poetry on Partition. His family had migrated from Chabbewal here to Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) there. Having shifted to Lahore in 1991, he has seen every nook and corner of the city. Pointing at random buildings, he would tell you that that was where so-and-so lived, including the Maharaja of Kapurthala. A guide worth his weight in verse!

An unexpected meeting with him at Al Hamra, the heart of Lahore, turned the trip as realistic as it was romantic. He arranged meetings with people, showed me around, including taking me for the dhamaalan, the carefree Sufi dancing.

A master of ‘jugat’, he will make you laugh out loud without your realising that the joke is on you. But don’t be too quick to judge him as a goof, as he is the flagbearer of the movement for the Punjabi language in the Pakistani Punjab. He is contributing to the music industry, by inspiring young singers to sing ‘kaafis’ by Bulleh Shah and Shah Hussain that remain unsung.

But he had more in store for me.

‘Behimmate ne jehre beh ke shikwa karan mukkadran da; uggan wale ugg painde ne seena paad ke pathran da’ (People who blame luck for their failures are losers; those who have the will to grow will grow through stones). These lines, penned by poet Baba Najmi, are known across borders. It was Saahir who called Baba for a meeting with “a girl from the Indian Punjab”.

A humble soul, a common man, writing poetry, reciting in a low baritone, and laughing at Saahir’s jokes — this man is a delight. Silver hair sliding down his shoulders give him a saintly look.

He writes staunch critiques of the rulers in his poetry, having the heart of a trade unionist.

His real name is Bashir Hussain. And, when he was 7 or 8, he says, he was sick and was taken to a doctor called ‘Najmi.’ That’s where he got the name from. When he was merely 15, due to his serious personality, everyone started calling him Baba, an old man. He is now 70, and wishes to leave behind a library free for all.

O, by the way, I was there for a wedding; remember? The belief that there is no difference between Punjabis on both sides comes through in the spending on weddings. But the Pak Punjab government has made some rules against that — you can serve only two delicacies, with biryani and naan, and maybe a snack. And the hall lights are off at 10pm even if the ‘rukhsati’ (the bride’s departure) is pending.

For food, we also went to a restaurant in Lahore’s Food Street that has a Patiala connection, and a royal one at that! Cooco’s Den is a place owned by a family of courtesans who migrated from Patiala at Partition. They used to perform for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh before that, say the owners. The Den belonged to artist Iqbal Hussain, who grew up in the red light district and is an alumnus of National College of Arts. He had turned to painting to document the life of sex workers of Heera Mandi.

“After migration, Nawab Begum (Hussain’s mother) got the house now known as Cooco’s Den,” says current owner Abrar Hussain. Abrar does not know whose house it was, but says that it was kept as it was, except the top floor that was developed as seating area some years back.

The two-decade-old restaurant gives a pleasant view of Shahi Qila, Gurudwara Dera Sahib and Badshahi Masjid. It is filled with antiques relating to Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Indonesian gods, from the collection of the family that left the house in 1947.

All famous delicacies are served here, including ‘Arif Chatkhaare ke Tawe Wale Piece’, made of chicken that comes from a stall of Arif Chatkhaara. Live performances by musicians add to the experience.

But we had to return home there, and then I had to return home here too. I may have fulfilled the saying, “Jis Lahore ni wekhya oh jammeya hi nahi (One who hasn’t seen Lahore, is not born).” But the longing for Lahore makes me think, ‘Jammdeyan hi vichhad gaye’, separated at birth.

First Published: Apr 26, 2018 22:06 IST