By Ayaz Amir
October 28, 2014
Is there a more bewitching time of year than this? While the afternoon sun can still be slightly warm – it won’t do to stand in the sun – the air turns mild and soft as evening approaches. This is the only time of the year when you need neither artificial cooling nor artificial heat.
It is easy to work up a rage in the Indian summer. When the heat hits you from the pavements and the very walls are like ovens, your mood turns sour. And if the lights go off your mood turns ugly and thoughts turn to ripping up paving stones and letting them go at something.
But as the heat subsides and the Punjab plains begin to look different it is hard to work up the angry passions of summer. The very nature of the light is different. In summer you can’t look at the fields but as the season changes the entire landscape is inviting and your eyes are drawn to the grass and the fields. And you want to be out in the open air.
The heart softens and you find yourself humming long forgotten songs. For the last few days a song of Mukesh has been coming back to me. While trolling YouTube – one of my favourite pastimes, I have to confess – I came across this song some months back: Ek Tu Ke Sar Utha Ke Chala Dagh Dikhane. It’s from a 1940s film which was never released, Monika, the music by R S Banerji, who for this alone if nothing else deserves to be among the eternal shades. The lilt in it and Mukesh’s singing are haunting.
Lahore in summers is unbearable. No wonder the British discovered their hill stations and fled there during the hot months. Just as the Raj in its heyday was run from Shimla, Punjab, a mighty province then stretching all the way from the Indus to the confines of Delhi, was run in the summer months from Murree.
When we were in Lawrence College Murree was a different place, not the shambles it now is. On summer evenings all the beauty of Pakistan, certainly all the beauty of Punjab, was to be found on the Murree Mall, ladies dressed in their finest, seeing and wanting to be seen. Awkward schoolboys like us could only gawk from a distance. Just as we could only listen from down below at the live band playing at Sam’s – which you had to climb a set of wooden stairs to get to – on Saturday evenings.
But Lahore in autumn is among the most blessed places on earth. You then begin to understand why it was the favourite winter abode of the Emperor Jahangir and his consort, the peerless Noor Jahan. The great Akbar too spent much time here, the Lahore Fort which he built a lasting tribute to his memory.
Lahore has existed from time immemorial. If a Heinrich Schliemann – the discoverer of Troy, and for that reason immortal – were to dig through its foundations, how many cities would he not discover? But Lahore comes into historical focus from the time of the invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni who appointed his favourite, the one-time slave Malik Ayaz, as governor of Lahore. He lies buried in Rang Mahal. This is a well-known fact but I didn’t’ know it until Allama Tahir ul Qadri – yes, the Reverend – among other pleasantries in a telephone conversation, the Allama possessed of a sharp sense of humour, told me about it.
The Ashura procession before it reaches Karbala Gamay Shah, close to Data Darbar, passes through Bhaati Gate. Last Ashura I spent a long time there, I suppose just to soak in the atmosphere. That’s the best time to visit the walled city because there’s no traffic. You can walk at your ease. So this Ashura before going to Bhaati Gate it may be a good idea to first pay homage at the tomb of Malik Ayaz, the first Muslim governor of Lahore, who did much to rebuild and repopulate the city. During his time it became a centre of learning.
Utter the names of Sikandar, Changez and Taimur and in your mind rise images of riders on horseback and marching armies. Mahmud’s governor evokes a humbler image. As viceroy in Lahore it was his habit, as night fell and in the privacy of his living quarters, to stand in front of the mirror in the clothes of his poorer years, muttering to himself: “Ayaz, Qadr Khud Bashanas”…know thy worth, meaning to say don’t forget whence thou came.
It’s probably the weather which is making me sentimental. Again in my mind comes Mukesh’s song. Last week what kept humming in my ears was Hamid Ali Bela’s rendition of Shah Hussain’s unforgettable, “Maye Nee Mein Kenoon Akhan…” This is a timeless song and like all great poetry it has been sung over the years by many singers. Bela was quite the fakir himself. He makes you want to cry.
Vidal in one of his essays quotes a teaching of the Buddha that after the age of 50, after fulfilling your worldly obligations, you should take to the road. This is a fantasy I have lived with for a long time: to take to the road, going from shrine to shrine, living on the alms begged along the way.
More than 30 years ago I went to the urs, the annual gathering, of Lal Shahbaz Qualandar at Sehwan Sharif. I had nowhere to stay. A kindly assistant station master lent me the use of a room in his government quarter. For three days I walked the streets of Sehwan and sat in the courtyard of the shrine. Gypsy girls from all over Sindh, gathered for the Urs, would dance outside without the least inhibition. I was at an uncertain point in my life and perhaps what I sought from the bounty of the Qualandar was that vague thing called peace of mind. That experience remains etched in my memory.
I keep toying with the idea of making that journey again, all by myself, not just to Sehwan but to Bhit Shah as well…travelling not as a total fakir but taking my necessities – or what are necessities for me now – with me: books, my laptop, perhaps a bit of the stuff that cheereth for evenings more lonely than usual.
This mood which is upon me has been brought on by the weather. I am sitting in my Gymkhana room without even the need to put on the fan. And the view outside my window is lovely, the leaves still all green but something in the air which stirs the heart and gives wing to the imagination. I know of two old bookshops down on the Mall I feel like visiting today. I want to go out for a walk. If there was a music concert on somewhere this evening I would go but I know there will be none.
I love going to one of the restaurants overlooking the Badshahi Mosque, less for the food which can be quite indifferent than just to take mine ease – to echo Falstaff – and look around. Waitresses serve at table and in a corner stand a rather comely public relations officer, aware of the interest she excites. For food alone I much prefer Phaja’s place nearby in Heera Mandi – the fare tastier and cheaper, and the service, as you sit in your car, excellent.
When Heera Mandi was at the height of its glory our means were slender. The salary of a young army officer wasn’t much in those days, certainly not enough to make a splash amidst the splendours of the old city. As means have become slightly more substantial the lights have gone out from Heera Mandi. Of such ironies is life compounded.