Arvind came visiting . . .
House in a
He went around Lahore, in search of a yellow-washed house
By Salman Rashid
I met Arvind Gangal by email. That was in 2007 when I wrote a weekly column for another newspaper. He read my pieces evidently with great avidity and either commented on them in a learned sort of way or had questions to be answered. Over time a sort of friendship developed and though I gave off writing for that other paper, our correspondence continued.
Sometime late in 2009, Arvind wrote how he had always wanted to visit Lahore. He, a native of Thane near Bombay, a Maharashtran since generations, had no connection with my city, but there was something that drew him to it. And there was something else that also lured him to Pakistan, he wrote. It was a recurrent dream of being in Lahore and walking down a street to a yellow-washed house.
We continued to discuss his desire to visit Pakistan. But the way things are between our two countries, we both knew his getting a visa was next to impossible — because he had no relatives in Pakistan or any connection with our country.
Early in 2010, during a school reunion (I attended St Anthony’s); I got talking with Zahid Malik. His brother Shahid, two years my senior from school, I knew was our High Commissioner in Delhi.
I got his contact details from Zahid and thought it would be worthwhile to ask Shahid a very special favour.
But first I wrote to Arvind and inquired if he was really serious about the trip we had so long been talking of. When he said he was, I called our High Commissioner in Delhi. When I said who I was I got a cheery, "Oh, hello! How are you doing?" Pleasantries followed and then I told Shahid I had a rather ‘irregular’ request to make. "Go ahead," he urged.
I explained about Arvind, told him where he lived, how we had become friends and his wish to come to Lahore. Shahid asked if I had a contact number for my friend. I rattled out the number and heard him say, "Mr Gangal?" I thought he was asking me to confirm the name. But it turned out that the good Shahid Malik had Arvind on his other line. "My friend Salman is on the phone from Lahore and he tells me you want a visa to visit our city." And then I heard him tell Arvind to follow the visa formalities.
When Arvind was finally able to get to Delhi, Shahid was away. Nevertheless, he had instructed his staff beforehand. Since he did not fall in the usual category of visitors and there being no such thing as tourist visas between India and Pakistan, the visa officers had a hard time deciding what Arvind should write in the column ‘Purpose of Visit’. After much deliberation, he was told to put down, "To visit Salman Rashid." When he told me of this, I did not know whether to be smugly pleased or wryly say something like "what a sorry pass the country has come to that two-bit writers like yours truly have begun to matter."
And so, one day when December had not yet turned bitterly cold, I was at Wagah to collect my friend who I had never seen. He may have recognised me from my mug shot in the paper, and there being no milling crowd of incoming tourists, I knew Arvind immediately.
The first stop as planned by Sono Aunty (Rehman) was Raza Kazim’s Sanjan Nagar School for the children of daily wage earning labourers. The children who greeted us in English floored Arvind. His question as to how the average person felt about people from across the border was answered when the principal announced that Arvind was from India. Several children put their hands together to say a respectful namaste to him. That then is what a child feels — until we destroy the inherent goodness of the human spirit with state-sponsored propaganda.
Sono Aunty also took us to her own LACAS (Lahore College for Arts and Sciences) so as Arvind could compare children from the upper end of the social stratum to what he had seen. Then we went looking for the house that my friend has long dreamed of. It was a two or three-storeyed, yellow-washed house that he saw repeatedly in his dreams. When he woke immediately after the dream, Arvind said, he would have tears in his eyes. The kind of house he described could be anywhere in, say, Temple, Mozang or McLeod roads but all of which had been destroyed as we bowed to the gods of greed and ostentation and replaced with monstrosities. So I took him to the old city to show him the few that still remained.
Arvind did pinpoint one old house not far from Sonehri Mosque. He also told me how he approached the house in his recurring dream. But it was later as we drove along The Mall that he thought the YMCA building was more like the one in his dreams. In the end we remained undecided about the house that he knew from a past life — something that I have still not come to grips with.
As a man who works on computers, Arvind knew much about Lahore from the internet. Ali Hajveri’s shrine, Nila Gumbud, GPO, Jehangir’s Tomb and Model Town were on the itinerary next. I told him that a native of pre-partition Model Town (as indeed from anywhere else in Lahore) would probably weep at what we of a single generation riches have done to this wonderful city. The old mansions with an acre of gardens all around in Model Town have been parcelled out to make tiny one-kanal houses and only few survive in their original form.
From past experience with suspicious residents, it was with a bit of trepidation that I took Arvind to one of those old houses in Model Town. The family had moved into it in 1947, having just migrated from across the new border in this ancient land. But they were surprisingly friendly and permitted Arvind to film the unkempt and dilapidated building.
Four days went by in a blur. And less than a month after Arvind returned to India, I have only a vague memory, like that of a film in fast-forward, of our time together in Lahore. But Arvind was a trifle disappointed with the city. Having read my friend Majid Sheikh’s articles in Dawn, he had a certain image of Lahore. Sadly, the city was no longer the same. The highpoint of the visit for Arvind was the invitation to Gymkhana for tea by Majid, where he also signed a copy of his book on Lahore, Tales without End.
When Arvind had made known to his family his desire to visit Lahore and the possibility of it materialising, his family had thought he had taken leave of his senses. His friends and colleagues at work did not approve. His wife and father thought it was just one of those schemes that never come to fruition. But as time came for him to leave, they were concerned. His elder daughter studying in the States had taken it with some equanimity, but the younger one in Thane had pleaded for him not to go. She threw tantrums and wept. What with everyone running around wearing suicide vests, he would be in grave danger in a country crazed with hatred for the rest of the world.
On the first evening, Arvind called his family in Thane to tell them of his experience. Priyanka, in her teens, could not believe it. Later, I got a very sweet thank you email from her. Now Arvind has been back home for three weeks and he is another Indian who knows that not everyone in Pakistan is a demented misanthrope out to push the world back into the Stone Age. He knows, and he will tell dozens of his friends, colleagues, relatives, and acquaintances that Pakistan too is peopled by real human beings who only want to get on with life. In distant Maharashtra, this may well be a new beginning for us after the horrible events of that Black November two years ago.
Postscript: People domiciled in Hunza and Gilgit acquire a paper from the Home Department in Gilgit on which they can travel to Xinjiang. Likewise, those Pakistanis living in areas of Balochistan bordering on Iran get a similar rahdari (right of passage) from their local assistant commissioner and travel to Iran. And in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, if you look like a Pukthun, you can simply saunter across the Torkham checkpost. What is it that we, the Punjabis of both sides of the border have done to be denied that same facility? Since Arvind has been here, I have been asking myself this question.
In this second of the two part series, a trip to Nankana
By Haroon Khalid
As I sneaked through the heavy cordon of the police officers, with all their metal detectors, and sharper-than-eagle-eyes, and numerous security officials in plain clothes, sitting on a table right in front of the entrance, I entered the second most important gurdwara of Nankana Sahib, Gurdwara Tamboo Sahib. This is a huge complex, with one Gurdwara, two hostels, and a building for langar. After chit-chatting with the pilgrims for a good 15-20 minutes and taking pictures profusely of the various rites and rituals at Gurdwara Saacha Sahib I moved towards my next destination — inside the hostels of the pilgrims.
Safely on the rooftop of one of the hostel, unnoticed; (well to be fair) there were a couple of young Sikh pilgrims who looked at me suspiciously. I got what I had taken all the risk for — a panoramic view of the city. A middle-aged police constable protected the rooftop. He realised that I didn’t belong here. So, within no time, and perhaps enchanted by my charm, he allowed me to enjoy my moment of victory a little while longer —which he had originally threatened to.
In the midst of the city, among freshly painted gurdwaras and abundant houses, I noticed a cone-shaped structure, well-preserved (however not as good as the gurdwaras) protruding from within the houses. I asked the constable, who was a local of the city, if he knew what it was. He told me it’s one of ‘their’ gurdwara, but I knew it wasn’t. It had to be a Hindu temple.
So once again I donned my invisible cloak; dodging, through the treacherous streets of Nankana, the numerous security hurdles (and two more gurdwaras) on the way, I reached the doorstep of the Hindu temple. The wooden door at the entrance was well preserved. Decorated with complex geometric patterns, it was a spectacle of a high aesthetic fulfillment, with a symbol of Om on the upper end of the door. Neighbours gathered to see the clown with a ‘P’ cap, backpack and a larger-than-face goggles. They suggested I knock on the door and request to see the temple from inside.
As I began to knock the door using the attached iron chain, I thought of what I would possibly tell the resident of the house… Was I going to be a pilgrim from India, or even better England, or should I say I am a journalist.
While I was deeply engaged in the exhausting process of role playing, promptly, the door opened, as if it was waiting to be knocked on, and, emerged Professor Amjad in his white cotton shalwar kameez and pleasant smile. "Please come in", he offered, without waiting for me to give any kind of an explanation.
"Our family moved to Nankana from Gujranwala. We are originally from Amritsar and migrated to Pakistan during the Partition. This temple has been our home since the past 30 years. The main temple is upstairs, please follow me," Amjad guided me through the narrow staircase that led to the top of the temple. The cone-structure rested on this floor. Opposite this structure was a small dome, under which an idol of Hanuman in orange was sculpted in the wall.
"This is the first intact idol I have seen in a non-functional temple," I told Amjad trying to suppress my excitement.
"Well we don’t worship here, so I don’t see any point in destroying it," he retorted.
Then he took me inside the main room. The niche facing the door was adorned with tiles and an intricate wooden framework.
"The statue was gone when we came here," Amjad sounded apologetic.
He also explained that the previous residents made a few markings on the wall with pen and pencil. The rest of the frescoes in the room, which included floral and geometric patterns, were intact. "Over all these years no preservation of the temple has taken place," Amjad clarified.
The wooden door of the room was similar in design to the main door. Same motifs were used here. The small corridor that led into the room was decorated with similar frescoes as found inside the room. In addition, it had Om written on the walls with a few other Hindi words. The frescoes on the ceiling of this passageway also showed no signs of aging at all.
Professor Amjad told me that following the destruction of the Babri Mosque rioters gathered outside this temple, demanding its razing. However, his father, who was an influential person of the city, dissuaded them. He told them that this is not a Hindu temple but their residence. (I wonder how come this did not cross the mind of the Maulvi, who lived and ran his madrassah inside the Sitla Mandar of Lahore, which he led in the destruction (Sitla Mandar). The madrassah still functions in the terribly damaged, precariously placed, structure of the temple).
A professor of Physics, Professor Amjad teaches at the Government College of the city. He tells me that he happily shows the temple/residence to the Sikh and Hindu pilgrims coming to gurdwaras. "All of them appreciate my effort of keeping intact the original structure of the temple," he said.
He further said he needs to preserve the temple — because it is a sacred shrine. Also, he believed, his action would inspire the visitors to look after the rundown mosques in India. (Concluded)