Concrete Nirvana

Athar Ahmed Saeed remembers Lahore from a bygone era - rapidly disappearing

Concrete Nirvana
I took an Uber taxi from the Lower Mall to go to the Shadman. The driver was from Multan: a young student all set to go to America in the near future. He was unfamiliar with the routes in Lahore and relied on Google Maps to navigate. This was the day after the Lahore police had woken up to the unpaid tax liabilities of Uber and were calling up cabs on their smartphone app to impose a fine. My driver scoffed at the idea that the Uber could be stopped and commented that the wheeze would be over once the right amounts of money changed hands.

Google Maps directed us to Chauburji - the area where I grew up, where we used to pick mangoes from the tree in our front yard for our grandma to make chutney; where kachnar buds would be plucked and cooked before they turned to pink and white flowers; where I taught my younger brother to ride a bike; from where I went to school and college and where I got married, before we moved to England.
Houses with colonial architecture were built in the 1920s and 30s by the upwardly mobile mostly Hindu and Sikh middle class, moving out of the old city

We lived on the Rajgarh Road, the road leading to Krishan Nagar from Chauburji. There were big colonial bungalows on both sides of this road, up to four canals in area. These are slowly being cannibalised and converted into more profitable housing. Evocative names such as ‘Prem Nagar’ changed into ‘Zia-ul-Haq Shaheed Road’ and so on.

Ours was a double-storied house, the tallest in the area. It was great for flying kites and celebrating Basant. It was also great to soak up the balmy winter sun on the roof. There were three identical bungalows on the opposite side. One belonging to Chaudhry Ahmad Ali had great jaman trees. Once a year, the contractors would come to pick the fruit. It was a great spectacle: ropes and ladders, nets, and large sheets to catch the fruit. The next one, which belonged to Malik Ashraf, had a massive sumbal tree; it would bear red flowers in the season which would turn into a capsule, which would then pop - releasing lots of seeds, surrounded by fluff. These would waft on the waves of wind and another tree would grow wherever they landed. In the next house lived a gentleman who had impaired hearing but watched the street with the eye of a hawk. Nobody dared to throw rubbish in the street when he was around. A row of eucalyptus trees grew in the house belonging to Sardar Ali Sheikh, which would spread a refreshing perfume in the air, especially after a downpour. The tiny ripe fruits could be spun like little tops on their stems. Our cousin, Beeba, was the champion. Slingshots could be made with a frame hewn out of wood and slings, out of bicycle inner tubes. Dhrake fruit could be used as ammunition, with deadly effect on the sparrows.

These houses were built in the 1920s and 30s by the upwardly mobile mostly Hindu and Sikh middle class, moving out of the old city. They belonged to the distinct colonial architecture, now fast disappearing. Our house had a detached kitchen, an electric tube well, ‘servant quarters’, an overhead water tank, and verandas in the front and back. The verandas were covered with thick cane curtains, (chiks), covered with coarse white muslin on one side and blue on the other during the hot summers. There were bars in the ceiling which had been used in the past for manual punkhas, for the servants from a bygone era to operate. Water would be sprinkled in the yard during the evening. Charpoys would be laid out and a Climax pedestal fan would be turned on. There was very little light and one could see millions of stars. I don’t think this magical view is possible now, without a massive power failure.

Double-decker bus in Lahore from the 1960s - Image credits -

This house was demolished in 2004, after my parents moved out. Three smaller houses were built. Only one palm tree survives from the old house.

When I went to the Central Model School, we used to walk to Chauburji, to get an ‘Omni Bus’ to school. The Number 31 to Rang Mahal was a double-decker, leaning sideways at an implausible angle, due to the weight of the passengers standing in the doorways. My relatives, Shahida Baji and Kaka, were at the Khala Amman School and the Mission School, respectively, in Rang Mahal. So this was the route that suited us best. The bus ticket was six paisas, before it was increased to ten paisas and then abolished altogether, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the prime minister.

The other choice was to take a tonga. The tonga stand was between the bus stand and the Chauburji monument. The tonga wallah would crack the whip and we would be on our way. They had a wonderful repertoire of Lahori invective, deliciously scandalous to our middle class ears. They would often be in fear of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), known to them as “Be-Rehmi Walay”.

Shrine of Rustam Shah Ghazi

In the front, alongside the driver, one could listen to loud music from the newly fashionable cassette recorders - 'Sonay di Taveetri' from Noor Jahan or racy numbers such as 'Dil Sambhala na Jai' from Naheed Akhtar

This was before the minibus revolution. The minibuses were quicker. If you were lucky, you would find a seat in the front, alongside the driver, and could listen to the loud music emanating from the newly fashionable cassette recorders - ‘Sonay di Taveetri’ from Noor Jahan or racy numbers such as ‘Dil Sambhala na Jai’ from Naheed Akhtar. If you were less lucky you had to stand, bent over in the back, feeling the jolt of every road bump in your bones.

Chauburji had only three burjis, (towers). The fourth one had fallen and was rebuilt in the 1970s. The building, when it was first constructed, was a gateway to a sprawling Mughal garden, probably built by Jahan Ara, the daughter of Shah Jahan, in the mid-seventeenth century, although, it has also been attributed to Zabunnisa, the Emperor’s grand-daughter. It stretched westwards to the river Ravi, till the river changed course and wiped out most of the garden and its constructions in the nineteenth century. Aurangzeb is said to have built an escarpment to protect against the vagaries of the river. This must have proven inadequate.

View at a construction site for the Orange Metro Line in Lahore

Across the way from Chauburji, during colonial times, was a mansion called the Poonch House, where Lord Lawrence stayed with his punitive contingent to keep a check on the Khalsa Army, in 1849. It was here that a tribunal in 1930 tried the accused in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, including the ring leader, Bhagat Singh.

There is a tomb called “Zebunnisa’s mausoleum” nearby, in Nawan Kot. It is now completely surrounded by built up areas. It seems to have been built by Zebunnisa, although it unclear who is buried here. The gateway is very similar to Chauburji, and is called “Little Chauburji” by the local residents. This is another jewel, hidden amongst encroachments, the latest of which is the Metro Train - akin to an act of state sponsored vandalism.

Across Multan Road is the tomb of Shah Rustam Ghazi, the tutor of Zebunnisa, in an area now called Rustam Park.

Sumbal tree with characteristic red flowers in bloom

At the moment, the whole area is in transition. It is a sobering story of a philistine administration riding roughshod over its own rules in blind pursuit of technical progress and the heroic resistance of a handful of individuals who deserve our respect. One of them is Imrana Tiwana, whom I met last year. She is at the forefront of the legal battle and the social campaign to preserve the character of the environment and the rights of residents from the onslaught of the Orange Train. The Lahore of Akbar, Dara Shikoh, Bhagat Singh, Iqbal, Kipling, Leitner and Faiz is under attack.

The neighbourhood looks like a bomb site. It seemed to me that I had stumbled onto Ground Zero, after 9/11. There are massive concrete pillars with steel rods sticking out. These will carry the super electric train, as it will whizz past the monument on the way to the non-existent Jain Mandar, demolished, by the good citizens to avenge the Babri Masjid.

Mumtaz, as seen in her performance of Naheed Akhtar's hit number 'Dil Sambhala Na Jaye' in film 'Mohabbat Zindagi Hai'

Chauburji had commanded the landscape for centuries. It now looks forlorn and diminutive, cowering in the back ground; the gold, emerald and turquoise frescoes quaking in front of the power of the Guangdong Province. It is like inviting a gorilla for tea to a doll’s house. But then, who needs a creaky tonga, an ageing eucalyptus tree, or a Mughal fresco, if one can have a driverless train? This is the shiny new future of a concrete and steel nirvana, under which Lahore is dying.

Athar Ahmed Saeed is a physician and lives in Durham, United Kingdom. Send him an e-mail at