Katra Rehman Shah

Taking the example of a small neighbourhood of old Lahore, Mohammad A. Qadeer explores the religious and social mores of a city now almost unrecognizable

Katra Rehman Shah
“Do you think I don’t know who sends you milk and a bowl of malaai (cream) everyday?” This was the opening salvo of Sheeda’s mother’s verbal assault on Afzal’s wife in their hours-long exchange of invectives across the street from their windows. This not uncommon spectacle kept the small dead-end street, Katra Rehman Shah, buzzing with gossip. Innuendos about illicit romances, accusations of back biting and curses of ill-luck were traded between women neighbours on small provocations. Yet those verbal duels seldom turned into a permanent souring of relations, nor did they devolve into personal vendettas. A few days after that heated exchange across their windows, the dueling duo was to be found going to Data Durbar together for Thursday’s blessings. After all this was Lahore, whose city mores required that disputes not be turned into fights for honour.

Despite the verbal fights, the ethics of Mohalla Dari (neighbourliness) required mutual regard and empathy. I am talking of the 1950s and 60s culture of the neighbourhood where l grew up in this little piece of the walled city of Lahore. Our family had lived in the Katra for three to four generations, as had most others.

Lesisure and gossip by the old Zamzama gun
Lesisure and gossip by the old Zamzama gun

Katra Rehman Shah is a small cul-de-sac of 9 houses where, in the days of my childhood and youth, lived 15 families. This was a street of carpenters and woodworkers, with one family each of Jat, Sheikh and Nai (match-maker cum cook) castes. A majority of men were employed in the Railways’ Carriage Shop, or in the Makandi factory, which after Partition became BECO. Others included shop owners and two Babus (clerical workers of some means).

The affluent and the poor lived next door to each other and in some cases under the same roof. There could not have been any more mixing of proximate social classes than in this little street, though there were not any ‘elite’ households. Like many streets in the old city, Katra is imprinted with history but now only hints at its intriguing past.

The name Rehman Shah comes from a mystic named Baba Rehman Shah whose grave is under our ancestral house that by legend was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in reward for Baba’s miraculous cure of his ailment. It is flanked by a large bricked well that had been the main source of domestic water before the British installed the piped water supply in the city. Where the Katra opens into the main Bazaar on one side is a small mosque which was maintained by the Katra residents and some nearby shop keepers.

The short stub of the street opens into the courtyard and all the houses are arrayed around it; this is where the children played, young men sat together smoking and chatting in the evenings and women talked with each other across their windows. Families laid out cots in the courtyard to accommodate male visitors from whom the women of the households observed purdah. The courtyard was partly a front yard of homes and partly a passage to the houses. A window in the house was a perch for people-watching, observing happenings in the courtyard and conversing, as well as exchanging food, money and goods with neighbours. Little value was places on privacy, though people had secrets.

As my parents would not allow me to ‘play in the street’, one of my past times was to watch others play in the courtyard and to listen to the conversations among neighbours. Snake-charmers, monkey waalas and itinerant singers performed in the courtyard collecting flour or money as donation. My favourite were early morning alm-seekers who sang odes to the Prophet and reminders of the transitoriness of worldly life, all to arouse people for morning prayers. Once or twice a year, some touring theatre group set up a stage in the courtyard to enact Heer-Ranjha plays or give a recital of Saif-ul-Malook. The annual Urs of Baba Rehman Shah was another signature event of the year, where Qawalis were sung, Nan and Channa Dal (Bhandara) was distributed as a holy offering and some men of our neighbourhood with names such as Ghareeboo or Sain, broke into ecstatic shaking and rocking (Haal in Punjabi) at the beat of Qawalis. The spirit of Baba was supposed to have seized them. It was the highlight of the year.
Visibility, more than intimacy, was the bond among neighbours

Social relations

Undoubtedly everybody was on greeting terms with everybody else, but beyond smiles of conviviality, visiting and spending time together was limited to friends and relatives. Visibility, more than intimacy, was the bond among neighbours. And visibility was extensive in an enclosed courtyard, where neighbours could see what vegetables were bought by a household from a hawker, who had visitors or who went out when. This visibility afforded information about each other’s activities and gave a feeling of closeness. Maintaining privacy despite visibility required that one kept a bit of  distance to discourage others from being involved in one’s’ affairs. These were the mores of living in the city. That is why in a spat, long-bottled observations and comments were spilled to shame the adversary.

Of course there was a feeling of community, i.e. obligation to stand together in happiness and adversity in Katra and beyond. At marriages and deaths, neighbours came forward for unsolicited help. Adults kept an eye on everyone’s children, protecting and reprimanding them if they were getting into trouble. If someone had to be carried to a hospital, protected from violence, or was displaced, neighbours came to the rescue. Almost everybody knew who was jobless, hungry or ill.  An old widow, Mai Taban, whose only son had gone to Kenya for good earnings but had been out of touch for years, was provided lunch by one family and dinner by another. And this was not an isolated case.

Man smoking a hooka pipe as others look on – Lahore 1946
Man smoking a hooka pipe as others look on – Lahore 1946

In 1947, just before Partition, Katra Rehman Shah was on the front line of Hindu-Muslim riots. Our house formed the northern edge of Katra backing into a Hindu street wedged in between Muslim neighbourhoods. It was endangered by the fire that Muslim rioters had lit in that street in retaliation for the burning down of Raj Garh, a Muslim village on the outskirts. We were displaced for six months, refugees within our own city, returning to our house after the establishment of Pakistan. The neighbours not only saved our house from the fire that singed its back walls, but also took turns to keep a vigil night and day to ward off any retaliatory arson.

The year 1947 was a hard time for the carpenters, furniture-makers and blacksmiths of the Katra – the majority of working adults there. Starting in March, the communal riots and later the flight of Hindu businesses put Lahore in a deep recession. Most of the workers in our neighbourhood ended up becoming jobless.

Men hung around the bazaars in search of casual work, while their wives or mothers fed their families by scrounging for money and food from relatives, friends and neighbours. The well-off of the Katra themselves were not so rich to sustain families of the unemployed relatives and friends, and maintaining the dignity of the less fortunate was also a primary concern. Saving face was an important part of the old city culture, and disrespect was felt on being inappropriately spoken to or through the miscuing of gestures.

There were occasional brawls, not so much in the Katra but in the Bazaar outside, among grown up men on some perceived insult, dispute about money, property or intimations of romantic advances towards one’s sister or daughter. It was a sight to see grown up men tearing each other’s clothes and trading slaps and fists, sometimes sticks and bricks. At times such brawls could escalate into multiple fights, with brothers or friends of any or both parties joining in support. The bazaar wore a look of a battlefield, endangering bystanders. People gathered to watch but also to break up such fights. Yet those brought entertainment and excitement, provided fuel for many days of gossip.

In the neighbourhood, there were some fierce brawlers who were feared and recognized by the colourful titles attached to their names, e.g Jan Tali Wala and Lateef Hathora. A few of these characters ended up becoming hardened criminals, involved in blackmailing, stabbing and robbery. Yet they, by and large, spared the neighbourhood and behaved respectfully towards the elders of the area. I saw one of them being publically slapped by his father for talking disrespectfully with an old man. The ethics of neighbourliness were expressed in a commonly cited quote, “even a witch spares the two houses on the sides”.

Family and religiosity

The Katra was a microcosm of the culture of urban Punjab, particularly Lahore. Of course, it was a truncated slice of the Lahori social structure, without any representatives of the upper crust and not including a full range of religious sects and practices. Yet its everyday life was affected by their influences and offered a window into family relations, the life of the youth and the religious practices of  Muslim Lahoris.

Romance was close to a sin in the Katra. Even a husband and wife did not betray any affections in the presence of others. Newly married young men were teased by their bachelor friends if they spent leisure time with their wives. Real men did not take care of babies. It was a job for their wives. Yet there were undercurrents of romance that were part of the lived culture.

Romances did occur despite all the restrictions. Gestures of admiration and expressions of affection were exchanged by (some) boys and girls across windows from behind screens of reed lattice. The more daring ones would arrange a rendezvous on the roof at noon, when everybody was expected to be busy.  Some young men would even attempt to arrange a clandestine meeting by passing a note or verbal message through little children. Chasing a girl on her way to school was another mode of making contact. One that may or may not be responded to. A love-bond was sometimes forged between cousins, but it was hushed through cousin marriages, a common occurence. Proclaiming a young male as a fictive brother or cousin, with parents’ patronage, was another feint to justify a young man’s entry into a household and in the company of young females. This was a veiled way of enjoying the companionship of the opposite sex. It could lead to a marriage. Generally people would whisper about such relationships, but in an argument those ‘secrets’ became the ammunition for verbal fire. Romance was always a hazardous venture promising little fulfillment. Indo-Pakistani movies and now TV dramas have mined this cultural theme endlessly.

Everybody in the Katra was a Muslim. Islamic salutations and invocations were figures of speech for everybody. God’s blessings were invoked for daily routines and ideas of good and bad deeds were intertwined with notions of sin and God’s commands. On Thursday, oil lamps were lighted on Baba Rehman Shah’s grave and other saints’ tombs were visited for blessings. Collective Koran readings were arranged in times of need and for good luck. Yet our little mosque was seldom full.
Many a times a prayer could not be held in the mosque as there was nobody to join the Imam

Only a few men prayed regularly. Many a times a prayer could not be held in the mosque as there was nobody to join the Imam. Seldom would anybody ask others why they did not come for prayers, except as a general comment about the sinfulness of neglecting Islamic obligations. Shops remained opened and the Bazaar hummed with activity, while prayers may be going on in the mosque. Those were the days when mosques did not have loudspeakers.

The neighbourhood was predominantly Sunni, but residents organized Sabeel (stall serving free cold milk or water) for the Shias’ processions passing through the Bazaar during the month of Moharam. Similarly saint-worshiping Barelvis of our neighbourhood lived among Ahl-e-Hadith (Wahabis) and near their main mosque in Lahore (Masjid Cheenia) without any dissension.

In the neighbourhood around the Katra, a few Ahmadi families had lived without any distinction. In days of Ahrars’ railings against Ahmadis in public meetings outside the city gates, and later during the anti-Ahmadi agitation of 1953, led by Maulana Sattar Niazi from the nearby Masjid Wazir Khan, our neighbourhood did not stir to these calls. In religious matters, the common attitude was that ‘everybody will be answerable for their beliefs to God and only He is the judge of what is in anybody’s heart’.

Many children did not fully learn daily prayers as they quit taking lessons from the Imam after a few months of instructions. This was in parallel with their behavior towards school from where they dropped out after a year or two. Their parents lamented but did not strongly follow up on their education, religious or literate.

There was ritual religiousity but scant observance. Interestingly, fasting in Ramazan was more commonly followed than saying prayers. Yet even in the month of fasting, it was not uncommon to find men eating and smoking in private. Many Tandoors continued to bake Rotis and cook dal or curry and serve those who did not keep a fast, though observing the ‘sanctity’ of Ramadan by stringing a curtain  across their shop front. Women were generally more observant of religious obligations, prayers and fasting.

Religion was largely a personal matter, though periodically there would be a citywide proselytizing movement, which induced temporarily some piety or aroused residents’ sectarian sentiments for a short time. But they seldom brought about a lasting change in the rhythm of religious life, which was rooted in the experiential side of religious observances, such as listening to Koranic recitations, Naats or Qawalis, visiting saints’ tombs, wearing amulets and cooking special foods (Halva, Kheer) for distribution to beggars, neighbours and relatives on Shab-i-Barat, Meraj Sharif or sacrificing a goat on Eid-ul Azha. All in all, Islam was worn lightly and tolerantly unlike these days. The pluralism of religion was widely accepted. Talk of Jihad was unheard of.

Mohammad Qadeer’s recent book, Lahore In The 21st Century, has been published for Pakistan by Vanguard Books.