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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Lahore: In search of 150, Anarkali

Lahore: In search of 150, Anarkali

Following a map of pre-Partition memories, shedding tears in a lost home in Pakistan and bringing back a piece of it to India

The Wazir Khan Mosque. Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)Premium
The Wazir Khan Mosque. Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

As an Indian Air Force kid, I spent my childhood changing cities, changing homes, changing schools. I studied in Kendriya Vidyalayas and convents, experimental and public schools. Across them all, one thing remained constant. Every year, you had to account for the delicious, elongated torpor of summer holidays, their voluptuous aimlessness, by writing an essay: “What I Did In My Summer Holidays".

Some children did the Heritage of India holiday, of course: visiting the Gol Gumbaz, the Jaisalmer Fort, the Taj Mahal and other such places that made India great. But the most liberally visited spot was a place called “Hometown", also known as “Native Place".

To my ears, other people’s hometowns seemed to be places both immutable and pure. They had Malgudi Days grannies, fruit-bearing trees, pickle jars, unadulterated language and houses where childhoods had been spent. It seemed people went to hometowns to replenish themselves with who-they-were, after the city had taken some of it from them. It was a place they were “from", not a place they went to.

My holidays were in Bombay or Delhi, the cities my parents’ families had moved to decades ago, from other places. Even within these cities, they had moved neighbourhoods and houses several times, and the homes did not carry for me any sense of eternal, accumulated memory. My own homes changed every three years with my father’s postings. Between that and being the child of two generations of mixed marriages, there was nothing unmixed in any part of life—not décor, not language, not the polyglot menus of our daily meals. As places, Delhi and Bombay were simply an extension of this miscegenation. This may have been the reservoir that gave me an adulthood of deep liberation, a different sort of hometown of the spirit. But as a young person, I definitely felt that my hometowns did not make the grade.

The closest I had to a hometown was one that I imagined into being: Lahore, the city of my father’s childhood, which he had left behind at 12, during Partition. For a while, I’m embarrassed to admit, I acquired a particular affectation. When people asked about my native place, right after they asked “what is your caste?", I would solemnly and self-importantly say, “We are from a place called Anarkali Bazaar, in Lahore."

My father’s recurring descriptions of Lahore were like the best of children’s films. First, the setting: “We would go to Mochi Gate to buy kites—Lahori kites are special—patangs and guddis. On summer evenings, we would be taken to play in Lawrence Gardens. To go home, we would go down the Mall, which was lined with white British buildings. On this side (he would indicate left with his hand), there was Faletti’s Hotel. And then you would turn right and pass the Neela Gumbad. Then go around and you were in Anarkali Bazaar, where our house was."

Anarkali Bazaar, named after the nearby tomb of Anarkali, dancing girl and lover of prince Salim, conjured up for me images of diaphanous, shimmery dupattas, extravagantly gathered salwars, perky jhumkas and bangles that were like water flecked with colour, translucent like falooda. It made me imagine Lahore as a magical place.

Anarkali’s tomb. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Anarkali’s tomb. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In this mythical city took place tales of derring-do, adventures of fitting glamour and mischief. Each episode involved intrepid and highly imaginative naughtiness, followed by discovery and (retrospectively comical) punishment—throwing ink in the school grounds after rain, only to be apprehended and locked up in the school bathroom with the school dog; throwing mango seeds at bald men from the terrace and being punished with kite confiscation; gouging out the sofa springs to stick to your shoes so you could jump like Fearless Nadia, only to break your tooth; stealing your sister’s brooch to give it to your class III teacher, on whom you had a crush, only to have your sister run into the teacher in Anarkali Bazaar, wearing said brooch, and send you, crying, to retrieve it. Yes, the same sister about whom people said meaningfully, “Vohra sa’ab ki betiyan badminton khelti hain (Mr Vohra’s daughters play badminton, hmm)."

For a perpetually anxious new girl in ever-changing schools, Lahore was a timeless place replete with stories of a carefree childhood—the ultimate fantasy that was made all the more so for being utterly elusive. I had never even seen a picture of it and would almost certainly never be able to go there.


I would not hear Partition’s painful and bitter tales till I was much older, and never from family, barring the stray allusion. In 1998, I began working with a Pakistani director on the script of a film called Khamosh Pani, the story of a woman abducted during Partition. When it was suggested I go to Pakistan, to get a sense of location and context and meet Shoaib Hashmi, who would render the dialogue in Saraiki/Punjabi, my heart stopped. At last the curtain would part to reveal the lost hometown.

I packed the mandated salwar-kameez-dupatta to the soundtrack of my father repeating his verbal map of Lahore, as if he feared I might get lost without it. We reached while it was still dark and the city just shadows. We awoke with a knock. A darban at the Lahore Gymkhana Club, where we were staying, wanted to give me a rose because he had heard I was a guest from India.

Most of the people I knew who had visited Lahore were peace activists. They always returned with tales of how similar our two lands and their people were. And, indeed, at first, I noticed the similarities too—how the textures, the shapes, the canals and colonnades, the Mughal, the colonial and the local dancing with each other in the streets spoke of a shared history.

But my overwhelming feeling was one of slight dissonance, of things being the same, yet different. For instance, the signage, everywhere in Nastaliq/Urdu, was impenetrable, impossibly foreign to me. Then someone would read the words, and of course they were ordinary and familiar ones—kapde, doodh, bandookh (there were quite a few gun shops).

A textile shop in Anarkali Bazaar. Photo: Alain Evrard/AFP
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A textile shop in Anarkali Bazaar. Photo: Alain Evrard/AFP
One of Pakistan’s many painted trucks. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
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One of Pakistan’s many painted trucks. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In contrast to the dense, predominantly masculine street life, the homes we went to were usually grand bungalows with nice lawns and a large staff. Going out meant fashionable places such as Cuckoo’s Den, a refurbished haveli, raggedly beautiful, decadent, once home to courtesans, in the red-light district of Heera Mandi.

One evening, we went to meet some actors at a worn, modest brick house on Temple Road. It housed a dusty Punjabi bookshop, Kitab Trinjan, on the roof. People gathered that night to sing Heer as it was the birth anniversary of Punjabi Sufi poet Waris Shah. They were artists striving to keep Punjabi alive, swamped as it was by the national language, Urdu.

As the harmonium played, the evening cooled and the moon rose. I thought how strange it was, to sit here talking about saving the Punjabi that my father prided himself on in its own hometown.

I had thought I might blend in more or less easily, but the dissonance was within me as much as around me. I too wore salwar-kameez, but they were different colours, earthy, not bright or light, ethnic, not printed; and unaccustomed to dupattas, I would constantly forget mine someplace. My unfeminine, hearty exclamations of “arre badhiya" to vendors and the Hindi in my Hindustani—such as chinta instead of pareshani—made me stick out.

But there was one way in which I felt effortlessly at home. It was in a certain Lahori humour, an angular affection, the tongue-in-cheek insults I was used to in my family—“inhein chaat khilao bhai, yeh ghareeb mulk se aayee hain" (feed her chaat, she has come from a poor country). It was a teasing sarcasm, the kind you hear in Punjabi wedding songs, used to signal apnapan or intimacy, to say, you are one of our own. The streets, the signs, the words, the pastimes may have felt different, but this rhythm felt just right. It was in the unspoken and implicit that I found a comforting familiarity.

In all this time, I kept wanting to go find my father’s old house and fearfully putting it off. What if I could not find it? What if it wasn’t there? Nevertheless, on my free day, I set off along the course of my father’s verbal map. As I started, excitement began bubbling up. Passing a big garden, I asked my companion: Is that Lawrence Gardens? “Yes, I think that’s the old name for Bagh-e-Jinnah," he said. As we approached the Mall, among its colonial white buildings, I looked for Faletti’s on my left. “It’s closed for renovations." Then we turned right, and yes, there it was, really, really there: the Neela Gumbad, a mausoleum converted over the years for many different uses.

Paromita Vohra is a film-maker, writer and founder of She also wrote the script of the award-winning Pakistani film Khamosh Pani.

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Published: 22 Apr 2016, 08:51 PM IST
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