Shehar Lahore Andar - In the City of Lahore
My name is Bilal Chaudhary. I am 85 years old. I have had a happy marriage of 59 years with Hamida, my life companion and Mother to our three sons and one daughter. Our six Grandchildren are our pride and joy. They all live abroad and are doing well in their studies. Every summer, during the school holidays, they come to visit us and our family is together once more.
During her recent visit, Ayesha, our youngest granddaughter asked me about my own childhood - the games I played with my friends, my fondest childhood memory and a few other innocent questions about where I grew up.
I was born in a village a few miles from Amritsar - a city famous for its labyrinth of winding narrow lanes, and the holy Harimandar Sahib. I can still recall how the maze of alleyways reverberated with the sounds of hawkers and peddlers, all trying to sell wares from their baskets which were crammed with everything from metals, leathers, textiles, grains and cotton. You could buy just about anything in Amritsar.
Basant (Spring) was my favourite time in Amritsar. My fondest memory is flying a kite with Asif and Mohan, my childhood friends. We’d dart through the lanes of Amritsar as fast as we could, trying to dodge past the camels, oxen, and the crowds of pilgrims on their way Harimandar Sahib.
Another memory that is dear to me is that of Mohan’s Bebe Ji (Paternal Grandmother). I cannot ever forget the taste of the Parshad that Bebe Ji lovingly made for her family, and Asif and I, on special occasions. One such occasion was on Vaisakhi when Bebe Ji would send Mohan off to our homes with the Parshad placed in a Duna (a bowl made from dried leaves). The sweetness of the Parshad was indeed as sweet as the gesture itself.
On Eid, Ammi (my Mother) would send a large bowl of Kheer (sweetened rice pudding), sprinkled with flaked almonds for Mohan and his family. Mohan would always say that the Kheer made by Ammi was the best he ever tasted, and he would tease his own Mother about this too! Even Abu (my Father), who did not have much of a sweet tooth, looked forward to enjoying Kheer prepared by Ammi.
Abu often went to nearby Lahore for work. He would leave at the first sight of the early morning rays and arrive back home before sunset. As a child, I remember hearing Abu say, ‘‘Jinne Lahore Nahi Dekihya, Oh Jammiya Nai’’…If you haven’t seen Lahore, you haven’t lived. I often wondered what was so special about Lahore. Surely no place could compare to Amritsar with its sensory overload of sights, sounds and aromas!
I had never visited Lahore but Abu promised to take me that summer, provided that I passed my school exams with top marks. Well, I didn’t pass my exams that year. I was expecting Abu to scold me but for some reason he didn’t seem too concerned. In fact, Abu still kept his promise of taking me to see Lahore, even making it a point to take the entire family along too. As a child, I remember finding this extremely odd. Ammi was in tears, refusing to join us. Before long, Abu had managed to convince her and Ammi began to hastily pack a number of belongings for the trip, including her wedding jewellery. I couldn’t understand any of this and chose to put my innocent thoughts aside, all in the excitement of finally being able to see the city of Lahore.
I cannot forget that morning, in the summer of 1947, when we left the city of Amritsar by the first rays of dawn, just as my father had done so for many years on his way to work. Abu was trying to console Ammi who was weeping uncontrollably in the arms of Mohan’s Bebe Ji. None of this made any sense to me!
I must have fallen asleep during the journey because when I woke up we were in a place that, to me, looked very much like Amritsar. ‘Abu’ I asked disgruntledly whilst rubbing my eyes. ‘Have we reached Lahore yet?’
‘Yes. We are here’ replied Abu, with a tinge of sadness in his voice.
As I looked around, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Abu had made a wrong turn and lost his way. This city of Lahore looked no different to Amritsar. Maybe we hadn’t even left Amritsar at all?
As my senses slowly adjusted to the surroundings, I noticed a thick cloud of smoke billowing up in the distance. Menacing black crows were gathered on the rooftops of the tall brick buildings with ornate windows that looked exactly like the ones in Amritsar. As we traversed deeper into the City, a putrid stench suddenly became unavoidable. Later I was to find out it was the smell of rotting flesh. I remember feeling instantly disappointed. This is not at all what I was expecting to see in the city that Abu praised so much. I didn’t like this place at all and I was very much ready to head back home.
The air was alive with damselflies and crickets whose increased chirping suddenly alerted me to the fact that the evening sun was soon going to set. This made me question what we were still doing here, since Abu was always back home from Lahore by dusk.
‘Abu, when are we going home?’ I naively asked. My father, placing his hand on my shoulder, but with a gaze fixated into the distance replied, ‘Bilal, beta. This is our home now.’
And so it was – the Chaudhary family, like countless other families that summer, were never to return to Amritsar again.