Lahore, Delightful Concubine

Lahore is a city of mosques and gardens. Warrick Page/Getty

Lahore. If I toss up the word and close my eyes, it conjures up gardens and fragrances. Not only the formal Mughal gardens, with their obedient rows of fountains and cypresses, or the acreage of Lawrence Gardens, but the splendor of thousands of private houses with their riot of spring flowers. The winter and spring air are heady. They make the blood hum.

To belong to this Pakistani city of 11 million is to be steeped in its romance, to inhale with each breath an intensity of feeling that demands expression. It is a city of poets—and not just giants like Muhammad Iqbal or Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Given half a chance, the average Lahori will quote from an Urdu ghazal or from Bulleh Shah’s mystical Punjabi verse, and readily confess to writing poems. In the West, Lahore is most famously the city that inspired Kipling to write his novel Kim. An insomniac, Kipling explored the narrow lanes of the walled city, which forms the core of Lahore, and wrote about his observations.

The very spelling of this city causes one to indulge in linguistic antics. Lahore: the ancient whore, handmaiden of dimly remembered Hindu kings, courtesan of Mughal emperors, bedecked and bejeweled, savaged by marauding hordes, healed by the caressing hands of successive lovers, an attractive but aging concubine ready to bestow surprising delights on those who care to court her.

The impressive Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam artery (still commonly called the Mall), is shaded by massive peepal and eucalyptus trees, its wide medians ablaze with seasonal flowers and rose vine. And if you venture down it, past the delicate pink sprawl of the British-built High Court and the coppery Zam-zammah (the cannon better known as Kim’s Gun), past the deadly fighter jet displayed on the traffic island a little further along the road, and through the congestion of trucks, horse-drawn tongas, bullock carts, and scooter rickshaws, you will arrive at a shrine in honor of Data Sahib.

One of the earliest Muslim saints to set up shop in India, Data Gunj Bakhsh is embraced by all communities. I was regularly hauled to the shrine as a child. My mother had a committed and confidential relationship with the saint, and was forever either asking him to grant her some favor or thanking him for having granted it. On those visits, prompted by her gratitude, she would insert crisp 10-rupee notes in the collection box just inside the grills of the tomb window, and when I passed (to her and my astonishment) my matriculation exams, she inserted a 100-rupee note in an extravagant surge of gratefulness. It is alleged that the saint saved Lahore during the ’65 and ’71 wars with India. Sikh pilots are believed to have seen hands materialize out of the ether to catch bombs and gentle them to the ground. How else can one explain the quantity of unexploded ordnance found in the area?

the-city-lahore-bapsi-sidhwa-OM05-secondary An ancient city, once described as the "Paris of the East". Daniel Berehulak/Getty

I like to think that the tiny Parsi community—to which I belong—played a small but significant role in Lahore’s development. Parsis from Bombay, drawn to Lahore because of the growing British presence there, located their shops on or close to the Mall or in the cantonment, where the Challa family provided groceries and beverages for British servicemen. A number of Parsis were wine merchants, among them my father, Peshotan Bhandara, whose shop D.P. Edulji & Co. was located on the Mall next to Tollinton Market. The Cooper family founded the Parsi Agyari, or Fire Temple, which celebrated its centenary a decade ago.

The magnificent tombs, mosques, gardens, and colonial edifices built by the British all form only the essential background; it is the people who throng Lahore’s bazaars and streets who occupy central stage. This ancient city, described before Partition as the “Paris of the East,” insinuates itself in each of my novels and stories. It is where my memories are lodged, and where the people who were dear to me lived—Godmother, Mother, Father. My books are peopled by them, and by the city itself.