Wednesday, February 1, 2006

A Pilgrimage to Childhood

A Pilgrimage to Childhood
By Narendra Luther

Last month we made an unusual pilgrimage -- in search of our roots. Both my wife and I belong to the part of India that is now called Pakistan. I was raised in Lahore while she came from a landed family from further west, Bhalwal and Malakwal. Smaller places, but a richer family – at least that’s why I had been told by a woman who wasn’t rich by any standards when I married her. She had often talked about the vast lands and the cotton ginning factories, which her families owned before the partition of the country.

The flight from Delhi to Lahore takes only 45 minutes and since the Pakistan Standard Time is set half-an-hour behind India’s, we were there in fifteen minutes.

Loitering in Lahore

I had distinct memories of every place of my childhood in Lahore. I looked for my grandfather’s house on Infantry Road in the cantonment area. It should have been easy. There used to be just two largish houses facing empty fields. Now there was a congested area with houses all around and no trace of fields. We asked a number of old people but no body could help. When we were about to give up, a young man asked me if it was a light yellow painted house. I said yes. He said his uncle had bought a house and was demolishing it to build a complex there. Then he took us across the road and I saw a quarter of the house still in tact. He said if I had come a week earlier, I could have seen the whole house. Then I went to the canal where I learnt swimming. After that I saw my old school, the college where I would have gone in due course, the road which we took to the Mall, the Lawrence Garden, now renamed ‘Jinnah Garden, and Anarkali, the which used to be the best bazaar.

We saw the famed Lahore Fort built by the Mughal emperor Jahangir and the Badshahi Mosque built by his son Aurangzeb. At the foot of the mosque lies the mausoleum of the poet Iqbal who is considered the spiritual father of Pakistan. He also composed what is now India’s informal national anthem – ‘Sare Jahan se acchha...’’. The Fort later became the seat of power of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. His mausoleum lies just outside the fort and by its side is a Sikh Gurudwara dedicated to the fifth Guru of the Sikhs who was executed by the Mughal emperor, Jahangir. He composed the Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs which incidentally has a number of compositions of Muslim saints. It was heartening to see a Sikh temple in the shadow of a mosque.

Jahangir & Noor Jahan

The Mughal emperor Jahangir is also buried across the river in a grand mausoleum. Not far from him is his queen, Noor Jahan’s mausoleum. It presents a stark contrast to her husband’s grand mausoleum who, according to his memoirs, had bartered away his empire to his beloved queen in exchange for a daily heavy drink from her hand.

The Government has preserved the garden city character of Lahore. The people give credit for that to the former Prime Minster, Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif who was the Chief Minister of the Punjab. Some beautiful new colonies have come up with spacious single-storey mansions. We did not see many high-rise buildings. Lahore used to be called the Paris of the East. I am inclined to call it Venice with the canal running through most of the city. They also have not changed the old Hindu names of buildings and colonies. ‘Dharam Pura’ where my father had a house was unrecognizable but retains its name. I can’t resist the temptation of dwelling longer upon the city, but I must leave some space to my wife.

After a week of nostalgic trips which included two receptions by the writers of Lahore, we left for my wife’s ancestral places about 150 kms away

Wife’s Home

The journey began with a surprise. The car soon got out of the city and started on a motorway. It is a magnificent eight-lane highway just like the motorways in the United States. The car ran at 120 kmph without our feeling the speed. All the drivers including ours observed the rules of highway driving, as I had seen in US.

We went off the motorway to reach the town where my wife’s family owned cotton-ginning factories next to the house of Sir Feroze Khan Noon who became the Prime Minister of Pakistan later. The old sleepy town had changed dramatically. The over 100 year-old red brick mansion where my wife was born stood there somewhat neglected. A board proclaimed it was now ‘Paragon Model School’. The comely headmistress took us around and the whole place was abuzz with excitement that the original owner of the house, an Indian had come to visit. While we were going round the building we got a message that some people wanted us to visit them. That was a family of the daughter of the maid who worked for my wife’s family. Her father-in-law was the labor contractor for the factories. The family had done well and she insisted that we stay there for the night. Not being able to do so we had tea with them. When we were leaving she put a bagful of ‘fruiters’ -- a new hybrid citrus fruit in our car. Her son told us that the area no longer grew cotton but an abundance of ‘fruiters’ and so was called the California of Pakistan.

As we approached the next town where my wife had spent her adolescent years, she eagerly looked for chimneys of the factories which they had owned. None was to be seen. From outside the town a steel shop owner offered to accompany us. On the basis of cues provided by my wife he took us to the house. It was not only in tact but was being lived in by a large joint family. The head of the family, an old man of 85 rattled off the names of my wife’s grandfather, father and uncles. My wife wiped her tears as she bowed down to touch his feet. I felt a lump in my throat as I witnessed the scene. What happened to so and so and so and so? All of them were dead!

The family took us round to each room -- and then to steel safe embedded in the floor of the bed room. It could not be removed because it weighed five quintals. Of course there was nothing in it to which my wife could lay a claim.

I could write a whole book on this journey – and our respective childhoods. We got so much affection from the people there that both they and us wondered why the country was partitioned?
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