Roundabout: Letters from the streets and ledges of Lahore

Published on Dec 04, 2022 03:13 AM IST

Storyteller Zubair Ahmad grew up in Lahore’s Krishan Nagar listening to stories of lost hometown Batala and wondering if 1947 would ever end

Storyteller Zubair Ahmad outside Lahore’s Badshahi Masjid. (HT File)
Storyteller Zubair Ahmad outside Lahore’s Badshahi Masjid. (HT File)
ByNirupama Dutt

He is often described as the storyteller of the old streets of Lahore, a city where he spent his childhood and youth. But for Zubair Ahmad, who consciously chose to write in Punjabi, the past of undivided Punjab plays constant hide-and-seek. The lost hometown of Batala and the tragedies that came in the wake of Partition often find mentions in this second-generation migrant’s tales.

Ahmad’s is indeed a literature of multi-layered remembrance. From his mother come stories of better times when they were not displaced from their home in Batala — when his uncle had not yet been killed and when his mother did not have to flee with the family with nothing other than the henna-coloured suit she was wearing. Born some eleven years after Partition and mass migration, he carries in his subconscious the past and the present of the Punjab divided into two halves between Hindustan and Pakistan.

A former associate professor of English literature in Lahore’s Old Islamia College, Ahmad chose Punjabi as his medium of creative expression and two of his short story collections were finalists for the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi literature, instituted in Canada for writers from India and Pakistan.

A friend and a guide to the splendid city of Lahore during my first visit in 2004 for a Punjabi conference, his works are now available to a wider audience — having been published in Canada in a fine English translation by well-known Punjabi scholar Anne Murphy. Titled ‘Grieving for Pigeons’, the book has his 12 representative stories which had appeared in a Punjabi collection ‘Kabootar, banere te galian’, which received the inaugural Dhahan prize in the Shahmukhi script. Of his oeuvre, he says “Listening, day after day, to my mother’s pre-Partition stories, the writer in me came alive. I started painting with words, my experiences, the people around me and of course Lahore, the city I was born to.”

An old house standing witness to change in Krishan Nagar. (HT)
An old house standing witness to change in Krishan Nagar. (HT)

Painting different strokes

Indeed, Ahmad paints Lahore and its life with the finest yet distinct strokes that are very gentle at first sight, but have storms raging within. Commenting on the storytelling of Ahmad, translator Murphy says, “The stories invite us into a world of remembrance. The world is defined by the sights and sounds of Pakistan in the 1970s, yet it is inescapably entangled with the trauma of Partition of India and Pakistan, which shattered the Punjab region.”

Indeed, Ahmad tells his stories in the first person, employing the method used by the narrators of Punjabi folk tales to create unforgettable characters from his school, the bazaar and his neighbourhood of Krishan Nagar — which was renamed Islam Pura after the creation of Pakistan. The old name, however, still persists. The first-person storyteller often narrates the tale looking out at the old houses around him and their inhabitants.

As for his penchant for creating memorable characters, one can turn to Riaz, the old postman who sits in his house by the window watching incessant rain that refuses to halt. Soon we get to know that although he retired many years ago, he remained much in demand when the government started giving Islamic names to old Hindu colonies as he knew the old neighbourhood well. Younger postmen started coming to him when letters came bearing old names like ‘Arjun Road’ or ‘Shivaji Street’. In the bargain, the reader also comes to know that his strikingly beautiful wife ran away long ago with Khursheed the rickshaw wala and took her four children with her. Not just that, the reader learns Khursheed was a mere means for her getting back at an old lover and thus unfolds a story within a story flowing out of Ahmad’s pen.

Ahmad adheres to the Albert Camus quotable words — “fiction is a lie through which we tell the truth” and says “I have no hesitation in saying that my stories are based on real life and first-hand experiences.” While writing, he keeps the elements of fiction in his mind, but the end result is completely spontaneous and his words flow like a river.

Lahore is his canvas and he does justice to it like never before in thoughts, phrases and lines from his story ‘The Estranged City’: “The city of Lahore continues to change. Familiar things have gone missing and its strangeness is everywhere... But a few old corners are just the same. They are unchanging, and they fill one’s heart with memories.” These memories are what truly make the fiction of Ahmad remarkable.

He harks back to the haunts of the ‘70s like The Pak Tea House, Peju Cafe or Capri and Cabana restaurants, the remarkable — all of which were popular with Urdu and Punjabi writers. And there is also a going back to exciting times when all of Krishan Nagar stayed awake to know the result of elections as Bhutto’s PPP fans or his participation in Left-wing groups and Punjabi activism, which had been denied its place in Pakistan. There is much to be found of the times the writer passed through in this anthology of short stories that took some six years to be put together with Murphy in touch with Ahmad — lest even a little word go awry.

Return of the exiled

The last story in the collection is the visit that Ahmad makes to Batala in 2005 in search of his mother’s home. ‘The Wall of Water’ is a complex story of reaching out, living his mother’s joys and sorrows and anxiety underlying each moment. In the days prior to her death, his mother would say over and again: “There is a horse on one side and a lion on the other”. In Batala’s main bazaar, the writer sees two turrets of a gate on one side, a horse and the other a lion. The secret was unveiled: she was harking back to her childhood in Batala. Her home, however, is not found even as he walks back and forth uphill. The house from where his mother had fled in her henna suit with her family after his uncle’s body was brought back with the threat that the family leave at once, is not found and is perhaps gone forever.

Ahmad does find a hospitable family of jewellers who had migrated there from Pakistan’s Sialkot who won’t let him leave until he has broken bread with them, for he has come from their “homeland”. And so he sits with them, shares a cup of tea and ends his journey to the lost home. He returns to Amritsar and has to cross the border next day on foot. That night he dreams of his mother in the same henna-coloured dress, running through the bazar leading up to her home where the elders sat smiling and sharing a hookah! Had 1947 ended in that dream?

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