At some point in Old Lahore’s life, cement won. Floors stacked like cardboard boxes, and filled only with cardboard boxes, sprung up everywhere. The sky which is hard enough to find, now simply hides behind slabs of grey loosely slapped into holes or onto bricks. When you see an older building, terror-stricken and shaky, you pray for its quick release. Let the past just vanish – this lingering is another long death.
Such were my dismal thoughts when I went to Urdu Bazaar – the motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic blocked from Shimla PahaRi onwards; everywhere the clamor against Load Shedding, everywhere the signs of impending protest. The heat, perhaps seasonal but none the less stifling, did not help my mood. I was hoping to get one particular poetry volume and my usually reliable source did not even offer me tea, let alone my desired object.
As I left the shop, I decided, to look for a poster that I had promised a dear friend. I asked my first randomly picked shop-keeper – he was studiously studying the Qur’an and I felt a bit odd interrupting him – who told me to go to Rajput market for all matters posterial. Off I went.
I walked, my mood began to lift. The crush of quad/bi/wheeled/peds and various other rotary beings in Urdu bazaar is overwhelmingly against any notional “walking”. Yet suddenly, I felt dodging things was fun! Such are the manic side of things.
In Rajput market, a plaza suffering along with everyone else in darkness due to the electricity shortage, I found a smallish man intently practicing his English on a slate. I asked him where I can find the poster, and he thought about it, then said, go to Lohari Gate. I told him that I was told this was the spot! He laughed and said, we only keep “educational” posters. I kept on, asked another shop. This guy brings out a mobile phone, then asks me to bring mine out. I comply. Yeh number dial karain. I do. He holds out his hand and I pass him my phone, completely mystified. He speaks to the person at the other end – and after a solid round of hail-fellows: Go to Tony’s on second left from the main at Barkat Plaza. Or to Old Anarkali. Or to Lahori Police Thana.
I stepped back out of the plaza building, careful to avoid plunging off the stairs in the dark and thought about my options. If I drew a big enough circle, I could walk to Old Anarkali, move out to Lahori Gate and then end back at Barkat Plaza. It would cost me an hour. I thought of my dear friend.
Off I went. Lost I got.
Up and down alleys which dead-ended, passing bright, glimmery Shadi and Mehndi shops, the dye and lye shops, the pharmaceuticals, the flags (the new Imran Khan flags are AWESOME). I walked up a flight of steps careening at near 90 degree and hacked out of the side of an older building, to reach a shadow-lit room full of 4 ft high posters of Shah Rukh Khan and Preeti (?).
An hour later, I found myself at a very old building – next to the Lohari Gate Police Station (a Station which was instrumental as the site of Migrant Registry in 1947 and which has a brilliant sign posted out front about proper disposal of dead bodies at the Station) looking at the poster. Except this poster was a rather vapid updated version and lacked the awesomeness of the original. I asked him about the original and after hearing my description, he shakes his head. Oh that was published for some newspaper and we never did it again. No one cares about those old style posters – which were made by artists. Also those artists are dead. The old masters. While Aleem is telling me this, an impassive, impressive older Gentleman with a rotund figure sits buddha-quiet behind the register. He is the owner. Aleem looks at me for a while, and says, well, we pulped a lot of posters a few years ago but maybe we have some left. He looks briefly at the owner, and then gestures me further back into the shop. When my eyes adjust for the darkness, I see a latticed wood roof and bricks that scream 1910 Lahore. How old is this building. Aleem shrugs – all I know is that we have been selling prints here since 1935. It used to belong to Hindus but when they left (he shrugs) it came to this family. I have been working here since mid 70s. He reaches through reams of frames and exposes a wall high cabinet. Inside pigeon-holes are sheets of paper covered in dust. He starts to pull out 11×8 in sheets, and amazingly, these are the individual portraits which made up the poster I sought. We start compiling them – Sher Shah Suri, Akbar (the Worst, he exclaims), Jahangir, Muhammad bin Qasim, Ghaznavi, Mumtaz Begum, Khilji, Mir Momin (eh?). He pauses after 10 or so. You want more. I nod. Soon I have a full set. What do you do? I tell him I teach history. He shrugs. These are fake you know? Khilji didn’t look like this. But look how beautifully the artist captured him. I counter.
We move out and I pay. The Buddha’s eyes flickering over my poster collection for a brief moment and then going back to the street outside. I stand in the foyer, having said my good byes, yet rooted. These sheets will also be pulped. Can you give me another set? Of the whole thing? Just one of everything? Aleem laughs. Sure, come on. Much dirt later, I leave.
Back on the motorcycle, I take a wrong turn – and as I try to not-move in front of a total gridlock, my thoughts linger on the old masters who painted Khilji, Qasim and illuminated history. All this while warehouses towered over me. Lahore is nothing but a huge Godown.
…to be continued