I was born at my Nani’s – maternal grandmother’s – house in Lahore at an address which sounds every bit as Indian as any across the border. It reads “Kailash Gali, Baghwan Bazaar, off Amratdhara Building, Gowalmandi.” I narrate my memories of the area in the late 1950s and early 1960s – an incredible six decades ago.
Gowalmandi is one of the earliest planned residential extensions to the walled city of Lahore. As one stands in Mayo Hospital Chowk (intersection) with their back to the Hospital, Bansaan Wala Bazaar lies on the left, leading straight across the Circular Road to Shah Alam Bazaar in the walled city. The bazaar, as the name appropriately suggests, has been selling bamboos for well over a century. Two roads begin in front of Mayo Hospital. The one on the left, called Railway Road, connects the Hospital with the Railway Station, while the one on the right is named Nisbet Road, and leads to the historic Lakshmi Chowk, once the abode of Saadat Hassan Manto and ex-Prime Minister Meraj Khalid. Mayo Hospital and its attached King Edward Medical College were the first such medical institutions built by the British in the region.
In fact, a ‘gentleman’ is derogatively dismissed in the tough streets of Gowalmandi as a ‘baoo’
Going along the Railway Bazaar – past an old shop on the right selling baqar-khanis and khund-khulchas – the first crossroad is the Gowalmandi Chowk of the eponymous Food Street. At this junction is located the famed fried fish restaurant, Sardar Fish Faroosh. This was originally an establishment owned by a Sikh family, who popularized the ‘Lahori fish’ brand that the local diaspora has propagated the world over. Next to Railway Road begins Main Bazaar that goes past the shrine of Shah Abul-Mali, terminating at the Qilla Gujjar Singh Chowk: the intersection named after Gujjar Singh Bhangi. He was part of the triumvirate ruling over the city in the later part of 18th century, the remnants of whose fort are still visible here.
Going about 200 meters ahead on the Railway Road lies Dawakhana Hakim Ajmal Khan in the Amritdhara Building, that was constructed in 1911. The Railway Bazaar continues straight through Fleming Road at Barafkhana Chowk to the Railway Station.
At the Amratdhara Building, Baghwan Bazaar branches off to the right and veering to the left, enters a small chowk where now we may find a small general store. It used to be a tailor shop from independence in 1947 until the mid-1960s, owned by master Abdul Razzaq, who was my maternal grandfather, fondly known to me as ‘nana abba’. Here, as a child and an adolescent, I spent many lovingly remembered afternoons and evenings.
Baghwan Bazaar has recently been rechristened or Islamised as Rehman Bazaar but is still recognised by the older name locally.
From the small chowk, the site of the now extinct tailor shop, a road named Ram Bazaar branches off to the right and terminates at the Main Bazaar. At the beginning of this road are two streets to the left. Both are called Veer Gali and are differentiated by their numbers – 1 and 2. Near the said shop, Kailash Gali stems to the right from the Baghwan Bazaar, intersecting the two Veer Galis. All houses astride the two Veer Galis have two openings: one in the front and the other at the back, allowing plenty of fresh air and sunlight, unlike the claustrophobic houses in the walled city, each of which has three sides walled off by neighbouring houses. My Nani’s (grandmother’s) house was also located astride these Veer Galis.
Zahid,known as Zaad-Chitta (Zahid the fair-skinned), was the most notorious – and certainly the most handsome – pickpocket of Lahore in his time
Gowalmandi has always been an incubator of criminals. Many of the leading ‘Mafiosi’ families and individuals of Lahore either belong to the area or operate in its side lanes. Think of any notorious name ending in ‘Gujjar’ or ‘Butt’ and chances are that he has interests in the area. Gowalmandi is a typical example of a rough-and-tumble locality where a nexus exists between business, politics and crime. The operatives at the Gowalmandi police station will bear testimony that they end up taking orders from the very same people that they have been hunting earlier. This cycle continues to be prevalent for the previous seven decades.
The culture of the area was such that the criminals were idolised by the people. As a child, I saw common people mourning the gunning down of Goga Badmash at the hands of a rival Gujjar. The deceased was eulogised for being physically hefty, tall, loud and fearless; the characteristics of an ideal ‘ghunda’ (thug). In fact, a gentleman is derogatively dismissed in the tough streets of Gowalmandi as a ‘baoo’ – a refined but weak person. Small wonder, then, that the area sustains the loud Punjabi Gujjar films – financed and viewed by the community – where the hero speaks, looks and behaves very much like the villain, and the heroine is amply endowed, both of them having been well fed on the milk and butter that the locality produced in abundance.
I came close to turning into something of a loafer myself. Before I narrate my brush with law, let me tell the story of how my maternal family came to live in this locality.
My Nana (maternal grandfather) was born in Amritsar around the turn of the century. His extended family, including my Nani’s ancestors, migrated from Kashmir to Amritsar in the middle of the second half of the 19th century. Kashmiris had been migrating to the neighbouring areas of the Punjab during times of food shortages. One of these great Indian famines occurred in 1877-79. The shortages were particularly severe in South India and Bengal, where about 5.5 million people perished. When the food shortages were felt in Kashmir, its people migrated to the land of plenty in the Punjab; the families of my maternal grand grandparents being among them.
Their family profession was tailoring. In my childhood, apart from my Nana, my mother’s mamoo – maternal uncle -, her two khaloos – husbands of her maternal aunts – and some other close uncles were all tailors. However, due to a process of getting educated or moved to other occupations, the tailoring vocation has discontinued in the family.
My Nana, who had a polio-induced limp in his left leg, was politically active during the freedom movement. Along with a close friend, Mohiuddin aka ‘Meela Halwai’, he was present in the Jallianwala Bagh when Brigadier General Dyer carried out his infamous massacre in 1919. The two were far too ahead in the crowd to see the army platoon marching in. They just heard the sound of firing from the northern gate at the back of the crowd. The two friends climbed over the eastern wall and took refuge in a nearby house.
Much later, my youngest Khala was married to one of the sons of Meela Halwai, who had migrated to Gujranwala and opened a sweet shop inside the Sialkoti Gate there.
When the security environment in Amritsar deteriorated, my Nana and his humzulf (the husband of his wife’s sister) Abdul Wahid, a.k.a. Wada-Paa, migrated to Lahore and found an abandoned house in Gowalmandi. The families of two sisters shared a house in Kailash/Veer Gali where all other residents were also refugees. Wada-Paa soon started a tailoring shop in Mohni Road while my Nana set up his shop near his home in Baghwan Bazaar.
In the pre-Partition Amritsar before 1947, these families had little inclination to have their children educated. They believed that education takes away valuable years from training for their family vocations. The value of schooling started to sink in a few years later. Resultantly, some of the children born in 1950s in my extended family are well educated while others are not. Both my mamoos were sparsely educated. They learnt the goldsmith’s trade instead and after a long struggle, ended up owning gold shops in Kuwait. However, having witnessed the rise and fall of many of my family members, I realise that wealth without education is transitory.
Wada-Paa and Haji-Khala had ten children. They were all extremely fair, freckled and light haired, and could easily be mistaken for being Europeans. They have had a vast variety of careers between them. While two of them were highly educated – to the Master’s level – and followed respectable careers in their life, others went to school for a couple of years only and had to contend with odd jobs. The youngest son, Dr. Jamshad Wyne, MD, graduated from the Allama Iqbal Medical College (Lahore) in 1989 and runs a heart imaging practice in Staten Island, NY, specialising in Internal Medicine and Nuclear Cardiology. He is affiliated with Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital and Richmond University Medical Centre. Additionally, he has been involved with Republican Party politics. Very social, he is extremely supportive of his family and of any relative or friend visiting him in New York.
The second child, named Zahid but known as Zaad-Chitta (Zahid the fair-skinned), was the most notorious – and certainly the most handsome – pickpocket of Lahore in his time. Though he had some apprentices, he never tried to recruit his brothers, cousins or nephews. At home he was extremely polite, kept his eyes lowered and talked to everyone courteously. In police circles, his reputation was otherwise. He also liked to throw away his ill-earned money on kite-flying and in the red-light district. We, the youngsters, were all very proud of being related to him. That was the culture of the area.
Keeping as good a lookout as we could, we would trap a chicken, put it in a sack and sell it in some poultry shop in the bazaar
I recall that once on the eve of a marriage in the family in mid-1960s, he stabbed his wife on both sides of the hips with a kitchen knife. On hearing her cries we – living on part of the first floor – ran towards their room on the mezzanine floor and found the woman flat on the bed, bleeding and in severe pain. Zaad was calm as usual. He told his brothers and cousins to take her to Mayo Hospital while he himself prepared to go to the Police Station.
“Why do you have to go there?” someone asked.
“They wouldn’t treat her without a police report. I will go admit my crime, get arrested and send the report to hospital,” he said, wearing his shoes.
“However, I will myself come [to join you] soon,” he assured them!
After many arrests and bloody fights with rivals, he died in a road accident.
The third son is named Shahid but is addressed by the strange nick name of Lola. He has been driving a rickshaw for the last few decades and is slightly older than me. He, along with the youngest son ‘Pappu’, who has done odd jobs and businesses throughout his life, continue to live in what has now become their ancestral home in Gowalmandi. It was with ‘Lola’ that I went on a spree of petty thefts for a short time, as I describe later in this article.
My mother used to visit our Nani’s home during the summers. During one of these visits, when I was about 4-5 years old, I learnt the whole dictionary of Lahori abuse and four-letter words whilst playing in the Veer Gali with local kids. On the slightest prompting from a grinning elder, I would rattle off my new vocabulary. Strangely, no one stopped me from using these words, instead everyone around would enjoy hearing expletives from such a young boy, who could barely pronounce what he was saying. That is another example of the Gowalmandi culture that I alluded to above.
However, my father’s firm admonishing put an end to my swearing career. It only surfaces on the rare occasions when I truly need to employ this weapon in my armoury!
During the next summers, I developed a close association with Lola who was about two years my senior. We would sneak out of the house in the morning and go to the streets of Krishna Bazaar, seeking out stray poultry feeding outside the houses. Keeping as good a lookout as we could, we would trap a chicken, put it in a sack and sell it in some poultry shop in the bazaar. It was era before Shaver chickens and mass industrialised poultry farming. A desi chicken, such as those that we caught, would fetch a fair price.
In between, we also tried our luck at catching pigeons at the shrine of Shah Abul Mali but we were unsuccessful. We successfully managed the chicken trick a few times before our luck ran out and we were caught in a far-off lane. The gentleman who caught us gave us the appropriate treatment for such acts and brought us to my Nana’s shop, where we were again treated to more of the same – let us call it ‘tough physical handling’. Thereafter, I was strictly forbidden from going out on the streets again. Instead, I had to go and sit in the tailoring shop and help the apprentices there.
My maternal family, being recent migrants from Kashmir, were steeped in the traditions of the valley. They would have Kashmiri green tea in the morning. The household was astonished at my father’s addiction to black tea. A small packet of black tea was procured whenever my father was visiting. Baqar-Khani and Khund-Kulchas were items of everyday use. Kashmiris cook a special Dal Channa, eaten with rice. Non-Kashmiris often confuse this with haleem due to its thick texture. It was, and continues to be, a regular and much-favoured dish in the household, consumed with relish in large quantities. We call it ‘dal-batta’ i.e. gram-pulse and rice. Rice was favoured over bread and the cold leftover rice from the previous night was accepted with pleasure for breakfast. In her late age my Nani couldn’t resist this ‘bayya batta’ (‘stale rice’) despite medical advice to the contrary. Gajraila – a slow-cooked sweet concoction made of carrot, sugar, rice and milk – was made in the winters. Cooking this product was an all-night affair. We children would remain awake late in order to lick the cooking pan after the cooked stuff was poured out to dishes. Sadly, some of these linguistic terms have become archaic, as Punjabi is losing ground to Urdu as a household language.
Even in early 1960s, Gowalmandi Chowk was a popular spot for buying fried fish, chicken tikkas, pakoras, naans, siri-payas and puri-halwa. We would make frequent forays to the chowk in the mornings and afternoons to buy these items. Hareesa was a regular delicacy at breakfast and the favourite shop for procuring it, then as now, is the Amritsari Hareesa shop on Nisbet Road. However, someone in each household also knew how to make this delicacy. All these Kashmiri delights continue to be consumed in our extended family, though with less fervour and frequency.
Over the decades, the area has not changed much in appearance. It is a dense cluster of houses that have non-plastered red-brick exteriors. The old eateries are all there, with many new ones having been added. The house tops are equipped with the ubiquitous blue plastic water tanks. The streets are paved and cleaner than I expected them to be. In my childhood, there used to be one motor car parked in the Veer Gali – there was none now.
There was not much traffic on the main streets and hardly any automobile parked in the side streets – implying that this one-time refuge of 1947’s Partition-driven refugees continues to be a lower-middle-class area.
I only hope its youth are more productive and peace-loving than they used to be in the bygone era that I have endeavoured to describe.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at email@example.com