By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal
“And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.” (Marcel Proust)
Despite Proust, or perhaps because of him, the attempt to recapture past is not so in vain; especially if it can bring a certain degree of solace to heart in this age which has all but lost it. Soaking in blood, the post-9/11 world offers no respite from the daily dose of horror: one day it is the ubiquitous American drone which extinguishes lives of some innocent babes in a remote valley in the once idyllic north of Pakistan; the other day it is a car bomb in the midst of Mumbai rush hour, the third day it is the Pakistani security forces who have left a trail of blood in their vain attempt to reconquer their own land. And amidst the flow of this ever-present torrent of blood and violence, there is the distance past when the state of Pakistan was obsessed with “introducing” this land to the rest of the world.
Everyone knew India, but not many people knew where Pakistan was on the map and thus throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Pakistan’s tourism department was busy in “selling” Pakistan to the would-be tourists. Remember those beautiful passages describing the enchanting Hunza Valley and the picturesque north with its snow-clad mountains; the brochures about the charming Kalash valley and a Karachi that we have all but forgotten. Then, there was the imperial Lahore, where Mughals once lavished their genius of building and gardens.
Those were the days when the colonial charm of the nineteenth century buildings had not yet departed and Lahore’s Tolinton Market, its Kim’s Gun and its Town Hall were all symbols of a bygone era filled with nostalgia of Rajas and the Angrez sahib. There were still men who could remember the good old Angrez sahib with warmth, almost with love. I do not mean the educated class, but the ordinary illiterate or semi-illiterate man who had perhaps never come into contact with a white man in his life but who had seen his rule, from a distance: the on-time trains; the postal service, a lone man managing traffic on the Mall, which was still the Thandi Sarak, the Cool Road. And it was literally so. As soon as one went beyond the red building of the High Court, one felt a fresh cold breeze coming from the old trees which lined the Mall.
Even the nether side of the Mall, without that cold breeze, had its own charm. I especially remember the calm that seem to hang over the two roads which branched off the Mall from both sides of the National College of Arts; they were both sleepy streets; one led to the public library, which used to be one of the best in the country, and the other, starting at the corner of the Town Hall, went toward the MAO college. What I really want to recall, however, is an unnamed man—whose memory has invoked this “Quantum Note”.
We simply called him chaat wala admi, the man who sold chaat. He used to stand inside the compound of Town Hall, under the shade of a cluster of old trees. We used to stop by his cart on our way back from the college. At that time of the day, the heat of the sun was particularly strong and streets would be almost empty. The cart would have a white cloth over it and there would be no one around it. But as soon as we put our bicycles against a tree, the man would show up as if emerging from thin air.
His chaat always had the same taste: a lemony-sweat-and-sour taste which we would ravish in the deadness of the hot afternoons of Lahore of a bygone era! One can almost die with nostalgia for that calm and tranquil Lahore, where blood in public space was unheard of; it was an era before mass killings. Of course, there were robbers and murderers, but these were organized, old-fashioned, gangs, and they did their business with “professional ethics”: they had their own areas of operation, there were honorable exchanges between them and the police knew all of them and the underworld operated within a certain realm which seldom overlapped with the lives of ordinary people.
A minister in that era was a celebrity whose coming and going marked the high point of a shopkeeper’s life in the Tolinton Market, but if the President himself came, as Ayyub Khan did, it was a life-long memory for the entire area. I recall, with a certain degree of sorrow, the long vanished “Gol Bagh”, the public garden in front of the Town Hall, where Z. A Bhutto had his first greatest public gathering in Lahore. It was in that gathering that a new era was born. During that public meeting, the baaboos of Lahore Corporation were ordered to flood the garden, electric wires were then broken and thrown into the water and the crowd which dispersed in panic. That garden was renamed as Naser Bagh; both Naser and Bhutto are men of an era which no one can bring back.
That world is gone forever; the man who sold the delicious chaat is perhaps no more, but the charm of his noble face, the blessings of his daily honest living, the small universe in which he lived and died is worth a remembrance in this season of strife and blood.