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Parvez Mahmood depicts his family rebuilding their lives after their 1947 migration from Amritsar

15 January 2017

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The Friday Times - 09 Dec 2016

Picking up the pieces

Parvez Mahmood

A new beginning

In earlier editions of The Friday Times I wrote an account of my family’s background and its migration from Amritsar to Lahore in August 1947 at the time of the Partition of India. These narratives appeared in the issues dated the 1st of July 2016 and the 26th of August 2016, and were titled ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Requiem for an Ordinary Life’ respectively. I now describe how we confronted the difficult task of making this alien but friendly land our home.

My father was serving as a draftsman in the Railways Workshop Amritsar when the Partition of Punjab forced him and his family to migrate to Pakistan. After settling in, he started looking for a job but he couldn’t find any. He commuted between Rawalpindi and Lahore, looking for a suitable vacancy. The private sector was completely uprooted due to mass migrations and riots. The hastily set up national government was barely functioning and was deploying all its energies and resources in grappling with the gigantic task of finding shelter and food for the refugees. In despair, he tried to set up a cloth business with two of his uncles ­- one maternal and the other paternal – but a lack of business experience combined with mutual suspicions to force the closure of the venture.

The author’s mother and siblings in front of the room that his family lived in, during the 1960s

His application to a vacancy in the Irrigation Department of Punjab bore fruit and he was appointed as a tracer – the entry level position – in the drawing section at the Montgomery office in March 1948. Later in the year, he was transferred to the Balloki Headworks, about 65 kilometres from Lahore, off the Multan Road. He didn’t like going to this secluded and lonely place but he had no choice. He got married whilst there to my mother – whose family had also migrated from Amritsar to Lahore. He was to continue this service until 1970 and was to serve in Jhelum, Gujrat, Lahore and Faisalabad.

I was born in 1952 in Gowalmandi, Lahore, at my maternal grandparents’ home, when my father was stationed at Jhelum. I started my schooling while we were at Gujrat in a local Municipal Corporation (MC) Primary School, which was a ‘Tat School’ (instruction took place with the students seated on the ground). While I was in class 3, in 1959, my father was posted to Lahore. As he couldn’t afford a separate house, we moved with his maternal uncle in his room in a building owned by my father’s phupha (husband of his paternal aunt). The room that we shared measured 12 x 10 feet and lacked a kitchen and running water. We had a community latrine.

The building was located in a mohalla (neighbourhood) that was named ‘Pani Wala Talab’ – after the still functional and elaborate system of water supply established by the British Punjab Government headed by Lt. Governor Charles Aitchison, who served from 1882 to 1887 and was an industrious administrator. He established, among other institutions, the Central Model School and the Aitchison College. He built this water supply scheme, which was the first running water system in the Walled City of Lahore, with connected tube-wells, water pumps and pipelines to individual houses. The actual storage, the Talab, was built over nearly 14 acres of land that is about 50 feet higher than, say, the Bhaati and Shah Alam gates. Before that, people were solely dependent on private as well as community ground water wells. Some of these wells survived till the 1970s and may still be in use.

The water supply system was constructed for a small population. We started living in the area in 1960 when the population of the area had substantially multiplied since the late 19th century. Nevertheless, we were living on the fourth floor where there was no provision for any washroom (ghusal khana), or water lines or proper drainage. The room was a barsati meant only for sleeping in the humid monsoon season – to avoid the oppressive heat in the closed lower floor rooms that had little air circulation. We had access to one of the bathrooms on the ground floor to shower and to fetch water. However, its use was quite tedious as it was in the portion occupied by another family. We would keep track of the water availability timings, knock at the door of that family and then walk through the charpoys and other household objects that lay in the courtyard to reach the washroom. The arrangement was unpleasant for us as well as for them and fraught with unpleasant incidents. We didn’t get to use it regularly.

We were, therefore, constantly short of water. We progressed in family size from four children when we moved in to eight when we left in 1973. There was an ever increasing demand for water, especially in the summers. When we got up, we needed to go to the toilet. We needed to wash our hands and faces – yes, just that – before going to school. A full bath was a once- or twice-a-week luxury. There was cooking and dish-washing to do. We needed it for drinking and laundry for our large family. To store water, we had bought a large faucet-fitted drum and placed it in a corner of our small room. There was a small drainage hole in that corner of the room that was connected to the external drain pipe. The corner served for dish-washing, bathing, hand rinsing and washing clothes. I don’t recall ever brushing our teeth. The drum was also regularly filled by water carriers, the mashkis, who charged about ten rupees per month for one ‘Mashk’(waterskin) per day, or by us by fetching water from the ground floor washroom. One mashk can carry about 30 litres of water. Because the water carrier had to climb six stair cases – 56 steps in all to reach our floor – he would sometimes cheat by carrying less. We had to be watchful to ensure that he had brought the full load. After all, we were paying for it with our scarce cash. We used to get three or four loads every day, depending upon the cash we could spare. Even then, this amount of water would run short in summers. We, therefore, had to fetch water ourselves, pail after metallic pail, from the ‘Sarkari Nalka’ (Municipal Committee public water tap) two streets across in the Maiya Bazaar, where water supply was more regular. (On my recent visit, I found this tap surrounded by vendors but still operational.) As technology had not yet placed the now ubiquitous light-weight plastic utensils within the reach of common people, we had to use the heavier metal ones. When we started living in the building, I was only about eight years old and had started helping my father in this vital chore of collecting and managing water. My mother still recalls that once I was standing in the window late at night and that I shouted ‘water’. She was startled before she realised that I had seen people fetching pails of water from the ‘Nalka’ (tap). I picked up two buckets and ran down (remember, 56 steps), across one street, round the left bend in to the other street and across the Maiya Bazaar to the community water tap – with my father trailing closely behind with two more buckets – where there was already a queue of thirsty neighbours. We took two turns each for a total of eight buckets that, to our delight, nearly filled our drum. There had been a water shortage for the previous day or two, hence our celebratory water run.

A view of Gujjar Gali from the window of the author’s old room
The author’s old lane in front of the Talab

My father remained an early riser throughout his life. He mentioned that while in Amritsar, he used to go the local mosque to have a bath. He started this routine in Lahore as well. There was a mosque in Gujjar Gali near Cha??a Bazaar. The mosque had a well and a hand-operated mechanism for drawing water. My father used to get up well before the Fajr azan and take me along to the mosque for a bath. There was a shower room in the mosque with a small water tank and a tap at a height of about six feet. The tank was accessible from the outside so that it could be refilled by drawing water from the well. My father would fill the tank with a ‘boka’ (leather bucket) and let me have a bath. Then he would fill it and bathe himself with me replenishing the tank, standing on a wooden crate. With morning prayers held at about 4 a.m. during the summer months, we must have been going to the mosque at about 03:30 am.

Even now, five decades later, having been a resident of Islamabad for about 25 years in an area where we have never run out of water and for a time having been in-charge of the complete water supply system for about five thousand people in a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Base, I still have anxiety about running out of water and constantly check the ground and overhead tanks of my house.

I have pleasant and happy memories of my time in that small room, yet, even at that tender age, I was acutely aware of our economic difficulties, constant shortages of everyday supplies, want of better physical living, cramped living conditions and exposure to the elements.

I developed a desperate desire to break free of shortages and wants. I was aware that I had to succeed in education because that was the only escape available. I had seen my elders not applying themselves seriously to education and settling for vocations of tailoring, jewellery or carpet mending. A slight weakening of resolve would have taken me to those professions too – and there would have been no one to write these accounts. I felt standing on the edge of a precipice, where the only chance for survival was to keep climbing. I have never felt secure enough to rest on my oars. This feeling grew stronger as my hard work – with a great leap of ambition, faith and conviction of my father – gained me the first sweet smells of success in September 1965, as I will explain later. Two decades later, when I was appointed a ‘Selector’ for the prestigious Inter Services Selection Board – the institute that selects officer cadets for the three armed forces – the senior psychologist, having access to my psychological profile, briefed me that fear of failures was a trait that dominated my personality. I couldn’t tell him that this fear got instilled in me at a tender age, at a critical phase of my life when I didn’t have any room for failure.

In our desperate struggle with life, my mother’s little pieces of jewellery – a few thin bangles, rings and a locket – were mortgaged for school fees, books, food and clothes

Luckily, for all us brothers, my father was a firm believer in good education and sacrificed every bit of personal comfort and material wellbeing for sending his children to the best possible schools. My mother supported him in this undertaking through every ordeal. For most of that decade and a half, when we were in a desperate struggle with life, her little pieces of jewellery – a few thin bangles, a ring or two and a locket – were mortgaged to meet the necessary expenses like school fees, books, food and clothes. She thought she would never see her gold items again but our refusal to back away from those challenges was to be rewarded. She was anyway working the longest hours; waking up before anyone else, going to bed after we had gone to sleep and remaining busy each minute while taking care of a large family with meagre resources.

As I was studying in a ‘tat’ school in Gujrat, I had to shift to a similar school in Lahore. I was admitted to a ‘tat’ school in Masti Gate, near Begum Shahi Mosque. Walking to school a kilometre or so away wasn’t a novelty because most children in that era did that. The roads appeared quite wide at that time, the only traffic being bicycles, tongas (carriages) or carts with an occasional Vespa scooter or a very occasional motorised four-wheeler carriage.

My father soon realised that the school didn’t impart much of an education and would adversely affect my studies. His search for a compatible but better school took him to another MC School in Papar Mandi Bazaar, on the right side of the Shah Alam Bazaar as one walked from Rang Mahal Chowk to the Circular Road. This school was better organised, had desks and the teachers were regular. I completed class five from here with good grades but without learning a single word of English!

The Lahore that I lived in

I got admitted in Muslim Model in class six in 1962 and stayed there until I finished class eight. To go to school, I used to go to Rang Mahal Chowk, board a double decked bus, get down at Urdu Bazaar and walk its length to my school. Later, I developed a good friendship with a boy named Muhammad Nawaz Qureshi from Androon (Interior) Suter Mandi and started walking to school with him. His father owned a butcher’s shop in the area. I would walk past Gumti and take the left turn to Suter Mandi Bazaar to his house, from where we would go through Lohari Gate, cross the Circular Road, enter Urdu Bazaar (which is opposite Mori Gate) and thus reach school. It was a walk of a little over one kilometre. Nawaz remained a good friend throughout my stay in this school. I visited his house a few times after leaving the area but haven’t seen him in a long time. To rephrase US General MacArthur, old friendships, like old soldiers, don’t die; they just fade away.

I would leave my home at 07:00 to reach school at 07:30. Before that I had to go to the bazaar at 06:00 to fetch breakfast, consisting of yogurt, Kulcha and Channay. I recall that the shops serving breakfast used to be full of clients at – what now appears to be – that early hour. Yogurt was four Aanas for a kilogram, the smaller ‘Kulchas were an Aana each or five for four Aanas, whereas the bigger Naans were double this price. One do–Anni (one eighth of a rupee) worth of Channas (cooked grams) proved sufficient for the whole family. In winters, we used to have Paratha’ with Channas or with whatever was left over from the previous night. Eggs were rare, as was chicken; both being out of the financial reach of the lower middle class. Mr. Shaver’s trick of mass breeding poultry was yet to come. We didn’t have lunch in winters because dinner was consumed early at sunset and we were in our beds soon after it was dark.

The municipal nalka from where the author fetched water

For the initial two years that we lived in that ‘barsati’, there was no electricity in the top floor of the building. Life without electricity wasn’t something unusual in the early 1960s. Summers were hot at the top floor; in fact very hot. In the second summers, my father bought two ‘khas ki tattis’ (water-based air coolers) and hung them on the two external windows. I recall a heavenly cool feeling seeping through those reeds when they were watered. When we finally got an electric connection, my father bought a fan made by ‘Muhammad Din and Sons’ – a fan that is currently whirling blissfully in the store room of my mother’s house in Gulshan Ravi Lahore. He also bought a Telefunken Grundig AM/SW radio and we were introduced to Radio Ceylon, the Geet Malas, Talqeen Shah and Tajdar-e-Haram.

It was the norm of the era to sleep and rise with the sun. In the absence of refrigerators and electric appliances, the days were busy with various household chores. After walking back from school at about 02:00 pm, I used to take the kneaded flour that my mother kept ready to a Tandoor in the Maia Bazaar run by an elderly Urdu-speaking gentleman known to us as ‘Baray Mian’. Normally I used to get 10-12 breads. Sometimes, I would take some ghee to make tandoori parathas that, when eaten fresh, is one of the most delicious breads that I know of. We could either pay a few pennies for this service or, if we didn’t have the money, leave one or two breads that Baray Mian could sell to some other client and earn his cash. That is the last of the barter systems that I have seen in my life. The tandoor survives in a better shape and caters for tea and food for the thriving Rexine wholesale market in the bazaar.

One do-Anni (one eighth of a rupee) worth of Channas (cooked grams) proved sufficient for the whole family

In summers, in the absence of refrigerators, we had to get ice from the Maia Bazaar, especially at lunch and dinner times. Our favourite was the shop called Moton ki Dukan (shop of the fat people), owned by two Kashmiri brothers who were very fair and very fat. In summers, they would be down to their lungis and nothing else, with their wide bellies hanging over. They also sold milk and yogurt. I have recently learnt that mother of the tall-pencil-thin wife of one of my younger brothers is the maternal grandniece of the fat brothers!

I used to get vegetables from a shop owned by ‘Billu’ in Gumti Bazaar, whose owner ran a similar shop in Amritsar in the pre-Partition days in Katra Karam Singh, where my mother lived. One day my mother passed by his shop and recognised him. He was also delighted to see her, inquired about the ‘Master’, my maternal grandfather, whose marriage he had attended. The vegetable shop has survived over the decades in the same form, as if frozen in time, and operated by Billu’s son, who sits in the same place and in the same pose as his father used to do fifty years ago.

The Maia Bazaar continues beyond Gumti Chowk as a narrower Awami Bazaar, going past the street leading to Haveli NauNahal, named after a grandson of Ranjit Singh, and terminates at Mori Gate opposite Urdu Bazaar. Muslim Model School stands at the other end of Urdu Bazaar. I would sometimes take this route to my school, especially when Nawaz was on leave – or when we two were not on speaking terms, as was occasionally the case!

My brothers and I had to make numerous trips to the shops in the Gumti Bazaar for buying meat, vegetables, ice and other items. Our run to the Bazaar was not simple. It was always 56 steps down, to the local shops and then back up the same height. We would descend on the trot, two steps at a time, and fly down to the ground floor in seconds. Returning home, we would run up the stairs all the way to the top. When I started working in Air Traffic Control in PAF, I would negotiate the long wooden stairs to the tower in the same thumping way and everyone in the building would recognise that it was me.

The Lahore that I lived in was alive with three legacies. The underlying tones of the walled city were the relics of Sikh rule. Instead of 21st century ‘streets’ or Islamised ‘Shahrahs’, there were only Bazaars. The streets and havelis named after Sikhs and Hindus were ubiquitous such as Bazaar Hakeeman (named after family of Sikh court physicians), Haveli and Kucha NauNahal Singh, Qila Lachman Singh, Qila Gujjar Singh, Barood Khana, Kucha Faqeer Khana (named after the foreign minister of Sikh Court), Kucha Balli Ram, Chitram Road, Kucha Shamasher Singh, etc. The Samadhi of Ranjit Singh vies for grandeur with the adjacent mosque and fort. The address that I was born at read: “Kailash Gali, Baghwan Bazaar, Amritdhara Building, Gowalmandi, Lahore” – pure Sikh-era nomenclature. Ranjit Singh occupied the Fort as his residence, helping it to remain in immaculate condition. The artefacts in the fort museum pertain entirely to the Sikh era. The Sikh empire was vast, stretching from Landhi Kotal in the north-west to Kashmir in the north-east and the River Indus in the west. River Sutlej formed its boundary with the British India in the east and with the State of Bahawalpur in the south. The capital city of this empire showcased well-built havelis for its ministers and generals, and trading activities proliferated in its elaborate bazaars. The Shahi Mohalla, Kinari Bazaar, Moti Bazaar, Chatta Bazaar, Suha (Sarafa) Bazaar, Shah Alam Bazaar, Dabbi Bazaar, Kashmiri Bazaar, Suter Mandi, Akbari Ghalla Mandi and many others testify to a rich, thriving economy during the Sikh rule.

The second, earlier legacy was that of the Mughals – but the structures that they constructed were already in decay and only those survived the ravages of time that caught the fancy of the Sikhs. However, we can see the grandeur of the Mughal rulers in the shape of Diwan e Khas, Diwan e Aam, Sheesh Mahal and Moti Masjid, all in the Lahore Fort. The Shalimar gardens, the mausoleums of Jehangir, Noor Jehan and Asif Khan, Chauburji, Wazir Khan Mosque and scores of other stunning structures remind one of the great Mughals’ interest in Lahore, which served as a second capital of their empire. One could discern, from the still current names, the route followed by Mughal imperial entourage to Delhi. They would leave the Fort at Akbari Gate (with wide shallow elephant steps), through Chuna Mandi and Kotwali Bazaars, past Masjid Wazir khan (built during Shah Jehan’s reign) to Shahi Guzargah (the Bazaar section from the confluence of the Kashmiri and Kotwali Bazaars at Wazir Khan Mosque to the Delhi Gate), past the Shahi Hammam (another Shah Jehan era structure) and out of the city through the Delhi Gate on to Sher Shah Suri Road.

The third legacy, and perhaps the mightiest, is that of the British colonial rule. Apart from a few developments like the Water Works, movie houses in Shahi Mohalla, Mission High School Rang Mahal, etc., all reminders of the British rule are outside the Walled City. In fact modern Lahore and its entire industrial, educational and literary heritage are of the colonial era.

The British rulers converted many of the old Havelis in to schools and colleges. Mission High School is established in the Rang Mahal of Nawab Saadullah Khan; the Victoria Higher Secondary School in Haveli NauNahal Singh; the Girls’ School Masti Gate – now Womens’ College – in the Haveli Asif Jah; the Muslim Model School in Natha Singh Haveli, the Government Girls High School in Haveli Kabli Mal and many more.

Strangely, there appear to be no structures to indicate the Afghan and Persian presence, even though from 1738 (the year of Nader Shah’s invasion) to 1769 (the year of Ahmad Shah Abdali’s ninth and last raid), their presence in the Punjab was persistent and continuous. The Afghan hold over Lahore formally ended in 1799 with coronation of Ranjit Singh. The absence of any developmental or architectural remnants from this Afghan era indicates very clearly that those rulers were raiders and looters for the most part. Strangely, one monument of this time, Sunehri Masjid along Dabbi/Kashmiri Bazaar in Rang Mahal Chowk, is of Mughal origin, but in Sikh style. I imagine the Abdali Afghan rulers left no mark, except memories in the Punjabi folklore of being cruel, greedy marauders.

When we were old enough, around 11 years, I along with my cousins Zahid and Inam, would often go to the Lahore Fort for an evening outing. From our building, we would walk to the Talab and turn left on Kali Bheri Bazaar towards Heera Mandi. From the Shahi Mohalla Chowk, we would turn right to follow the Bazaar straight, across the fort road intersection, to the elegant Roshnai Gate that is the entrance to the vast expanses of Hazoori Bagh with the Sikh Baradari in the centre, the massive Alamgiri Gate of the Fort on the right and the stately gate of the exquisite Badshahi Mosque on our left. From the fort road intersection, facing the Roshnai Gate, the road on the right goes along the southern fort wall, whilst the road on the left goes along the Shahi Mosque and is now converted into a Food Street.

On our way back in the evening, the Shahi Mohalla would begin humming with activity. Close to Nau-Gaza Chowk, the first houses on the left, towards the Barud Khana, were of the nautch (dancing) girls. We could hear the music and the songs. When we gathered the courage to take a peep, we could catch a glimpse of swirling girls and their patrons. Sometimes, an odd door would be slightly ajar to reveal the full view. The lady in charge and the patrons would look askance at us – the young prospective clients!

Parvez Mahmood retired from the Pakistan Air Force as a Group Captain. He is now a software engineer


The above article from The Friday Times is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use