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Book of Lahore

I had always known of 11Temple Road. My mother, who was the eldest of Daddyji’s seven children, never spoke about it, never described it, and I never asked.

11 Temple Road, Lahore. I was born in the front room on the right of the veranda. Photo courtesy Aleesha Hamid. (All captions by the author.)

Book of Lahore

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

to the memory of
Begum Badar Hasan of Panipat
and Amolak Ram Mehta of Lahore

11 Temple Road

On the Temple Road land, Daddyji built a house, which was three stories high and was made of bricks and cement.

Ved Mehta, Daddyji (1972)

I had always known of 11 Temple Road. My mother, who was the eldest of Daddyji’s seven children, never spoke about it, never described it, and I never asked. All I knew was that I was born in that house at a time of suspicion, rumour, fear, stabbings, and riots. ‘On April 16’, Ved wrote in Face to Face (1957), his first book, ‘a child was born to Pom, a fine, healthy boy. Yet the times had their due, for no festivity, no celebration greeted him, even though he was the first grandson.’ There is, in The Ledge Between the Streams (1982), a subsequent volume of Ved’s autobiography, a graphic account of the same event, and it is similar to what my 94-year-old aunt, my mother’s only surviving sibling, told me the other day when I asked her what she recalled of my birth. ‘You were born in the side room that opened onto the veranda,’ she said. ‘It was Daddyji’s study. You were premature and Daddyji had to rush out in his car to get Dr Ansuiya Bhagat who did the delivery. You had no heartbeat and weren’t breathing. She gave an injection straight into your heart before we heard your first cry. At night we heard shouts of “Allahu Akbar”. We could see the fires from the roof. Your mother feared for your life and even thought of sending you away with a close friend of the family. He lived in an area that was said to be safer than ours.’

On a visit to San Francisco I was introduced to the writer and librarian Moazzam Sheikh. He is from Lahore. On his next trip there, he said, he’d go to Temple Road and tell me what he finds. He spoke of the city’s Punjabi writers and mentioned some names. A few months after we met I received an email from him:

I was in Lahore in July, and one day my wife, my sister-in-law and I managed to drive to Temple Road (under life threatening heat). It was a tough task as the faces of some of the houses had withered or altered or converted into commercial buildings, but we tried our best. Still we couldn’t pin down what might have been 11 Temple Road. Then, out of curiosity, my sister-in-law entered a by-lane and realized the alley too was part of Temple Road and there we saw the house you were born in. We took photos of the neighbouring houses as well. The marble plaque on the side of the gate came out blurry but it has a ‘Hindu’ name still. I vaguely remember the last name was Mehta. I will ask my sister-in-law to visit the house again when the temperatures are cooler and take a photo of the marble plate with the name on it. I wish you can visit Lahore sometime in the near future.

The by-lane that was part of Temple Road would have been ‘Mehta Gullie’, which is a chapter title in Face to Face:

. . . The Mehta Gullie, or street, was separated from the main house by a five-foot wall.
    Climbing this wall, we would find ourselves in a completely different world, for behind it and within a radius of two city blocks lay the houses of all the Mehta families, comprising a clan of some fifty persons. These houses opened on the gullie, which was off the Temple Road and formed a square. Our house was not included in the square, since it had been built before the planning of the Mehta Gullie, but it was only a block away.

Moazzam sent the photos with the email, including the one of the ‘blurry’ name on the gatepost. But, for me, the house still remained a blur, both architecturally and emotionally.

In 2012, three years before I met Moazzam, my mother had fallen on the veranda of our house in Dehra Dun – the one she had brought me to from Lahore when I was four weeks old – and broken her femur. With the help of a walker she was able to move around again but it wasn’t the same. I’d give her the newspaper to read with her morning tea, even though I knew she could not follow what she was reading. There were times when it felt like she was losing her memory. I became preoccupied with other things and forgot about Temple Road. The past can disappear quickly. It can, as I was to learn later, just as quickly return.

*

On 29 July 1993, on a visit to Lahore, Adil Jussawalla went looking for the past in the same area and for the same reason, to locate ‘an ancestral house’. He bought a pair of pathanis at English Shoes and casually made an enquiry of the middle-aged salesman if he knew about a house in Temple Road where the Jussawallas once lived. The salesman looked at the customer with wide-open eyes. The Jussawallas, he said, were very well-known and the house must still be there. ‘It may have been, it may still be, but I never found it,’ Adil says in ‘A Place in the Sun’, the essay on his father I’m paraphrasing from. His father, Jehangir, had spent part of his childhood in Temple Road. ‘He couldn’t remember the number of the house; no one, to this day, can tell me. He, his mother and his three brothers left that house in 1914 and settled in Poona.’ His father was seven years old at the time.

*

I got to know Anjum Altaf through his book Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (2019). He lives in Lahore and before long I found myself telling him about 11 Temple Road. One day he sent me a link. Somewhat to my disbelief, it was the review of an art exhibition Imagined Archives – Residual and Remembrance that had been held there (https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/917564-a-house-after-its-first-residents) A search turned up more reviews, one of them by Zohreen Murtaza of The Karachi Collective (https://thekarachicollective.com/discomfiting-memories-ancestral-homes/). Through their website I contacted Fatma Shah, the exhibition’s curator, and learnt about the subsequent history of the house that Daddyji built.

After the family of Amolak Ram Mehta moved out, that of Begum Badar Hasan, to whom the house had been allotted, moved in. She came from a prominent Shia family of Panipat. The poet Altaf Hussain Hali, who was Ghalib’s disciple and first biographer, was a relative. Fatma is married to Abbas Hasan, Begum Badar Hasan’s youngest grandson. It was during the 2020 lockdown, Fatma wrote me in an email, that she had ‘the idea of reopening the family home’. It had not been lived in since 2005. Something that also made her think of reopening it, and ways to reopen it, was the death the same year of her husband’s uncle, the engineer, politician, and bird watcher Mubashir Hasan (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/mubashir-hasan-pakistan-peoples-party-dead-6316034/). The idea, that till then she had only been dreaming about, now became something more specific: ‘an excavation of history and collective memories associated with the residents of the house and Lahore.’ Her quest, she said, ‘began while reorganising the family’s present library, and I came across a book, signed by “Raj Kanwar Mehta, B.A. Class, Govt College, Lahore”, and began thinking about lives interrupted in 1947 & families displaced.’ The book was Mount Helicon: A School Anthology of Verse and bore the stamp of the ‘Mehta Home Library Lahore’. On the title page was the first stanza of R. L. Stevenson’s ‘Bright is the ring of words’.

More things surfaced: a hand-crank ice cream maker; a drum of galvanized tin with a lid and stand, used for storing water; a wooden chest. In a separate email to Ved’s wife Linn Cary she wrote

We’d love to pass on the few objects that we have now noticed in the house, most significantly two large metal serving platters or thaali, with [Ved’s] father’s initials. The gate still says Amolak Ram Mehta — as really nobody ever felt the need to erase history, is my guess.

Apart from the undying objects of daily use, the two displaced families, the Hasans and the Mehtas, had left behind in Panipat and Lahore a shared past that went back several centuries. They could easily have passed off for each other. Unbeknownst to them, what lay in the future for the families was not without common threads. ‘It is almost uncanny’, Fatma wrote to Linn

that Dr Amolak Ram Mehta and my father-in-law Dr Shubbar Hasan (Mubashir’s elder brother) would have an almost identical career path. He also qualified as a doctor from King Edward’s Medical College, though much later (around 1942) and after his post grad work in the UK and the US worked with the public health department in Punjab to build the infrastructure for the control of infectious diseases especially tuberculosis in Pakistan!

Raj Kanwar. The name sounded familiar though I could not put a face to it. Once again I opened Daddyji as I would an encyclopaedia. He turned out to be Daddyji’s younger brother. ‘Raj Kanwar’, Ved writes, ‘passed his B.A. on the second try. He came to Daddyji with the good news, and said, “I want to join the police.”’

Fatma Shah’s Imagined Archives exhibition was dedicated to Ved and Mubashir Hasan.

The photo of the gatepost that Moazzam had sent showed not only the ‘blurry’ Mehta name but also the rust coloured hinged gate. On both its leaves was a bright blue signboard that read

PAKISTAN INDIA
PEOPLES’ FORUM FOR
PEACE & DEMOCRACY
11 TEMPLE ROAD LHR
Pakistan Secretariat

Between the first two words, PAKISTAN and INDIA, the signboard painter had squeezed in a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak. The board has since been removed. In some recent photos that Anjum Altaf sent I spotted it leaning forlornly against an inside wall. One of the founders of the Peoples’ Forum in 1994 was Mubashir Hasan.

'On both its leaves was a bright blue signboard.' Photo Courtesy Moazzam Sheikh.

*

My mother’s bedroom had always been sparsely furnished. It had a Godrej steel almirah with a mirror, a bed, and a built-in cupboard with three shelves. The bulb socket inside the cupboard held a 10-watt bulb that was used as a night light. The switch malfunctioned. For cheerfulness, there was a framed picture that Daddyji had gifted her. I had seen the same print in his house in Delhi. He would have picked it up on one of his visits to Germany in the 1950s. I have never looked at the print in any detail, though it now hangs above my bed as it did above my mother’s. I moved into her room after her death. Most likely it is a Renaissance Madonna and Child.

In the cupboard my mother kept her puja things, not that she was religious. She never visited temples, prayed to no gods. I have an early memory of waiting for her to return from the Cosmopolitan Club. She played rummy, but played the harmonium just as enthusiastically and led the bhajan singing. In winter a ball of wool would follow her around as though it had been trained to do so. She liked putting the cable design in the pullovers she knitted. My mother’s puja things consisted of a joss stick holder, a packet of joss sticks, and a box of matches. There was a souvenir shop terracotta replica of a temple, though it may well have been of a palace in Rajasthan. In a stainless steel thaali were prayer beads, a bell with a long handle, toy-sized brass utensils that I never saw her touch, and a creepy looking seashell with my father’s name painted on it in red and green. The shell would have been presented to him when he retired from the Bhilai Steel Plant. One of its spikes had since broken. There was a framed photograph of her guru under whose spell she had come in her middle age, the frame propped against the back wall. A photograph of the guru’s wife was in an adjoining frame. The photographs, too, were souvenirs but given to my parents rather than bought. The guru family had its ashram in Jabalpur and its prime disciple, Brijmohini Sarin, had set up an ashram of her own in Deep Mandap, Agra Road, Mulund, Bombay. It’s where I lived for the two years – 1966 to 1968 – that I was studying for my MA degree and brought out, from the same address, the mimeographed magazines ezra and fakir. It was also around then that I got to know Adil and Arun Kolatkar.

The cupboard, though quite empty, looked crowded. On one shelf was a rectangular Kashmiri box. Made of walnut wood and intricately carved, I’d never shown any interest in it till I noticed there was a termite gallery along one side. When I lifted the lid I found the box was full of white ants. While they had left the box reasonably intact, the termites had, barring one or two things, almost completely destroyed its contents: documents, letters, cards, horoscopes. I saved what papers I could and put them out in the sun, as though they were wet pieces of cloth. Looking at the condition they were in, many of them did not seem worth keeping but I could not throw them away either. They were my mother’s memorabilia. She was then still alive.

Of one document I could not make out more than a few incomplete words: ‘de’, ‘more’, ‘ent’, ‘ore’. It was like looking at a papyrus fragment or hearing my mother’s incoherent speech, the half erased words in her mouth that she was trying to make whole, give communicative shape to. She died last year and how quickly I’ve forgotten the period when she was in decline. I had forgotten her attempts at speaking, though to herself she would have thought that her speech was as clear and authoritarian as it had always been. I would pat her cheek as though to tell her that I understood everything that she said. With the help of a search engine I figured out the document. It was my father’s bachelor’s degree from de Montmorency Dental College, Lahore.

*

Till the other day Lahore had been barren of memories. ‘I wish you can visit Lahore. . .’ Moazzam had written. More than this, my wish now is to live out my years in the city of my birth, a birth I had not thought about until now, never imagining that it had anything to do with me. One is born. Big deal. I used to collect stamps and my album has pages for Andorra, Danzig, and Tannou Touva. Another album, my father’s, has more pages for Indian Native States – starting with Alwar and Bamra and ending with Travancore and Wadhwan – than for the United States. Countries keep disappearing off the face of the map or changing their shapes or their names, but a piece of land remains where it’s always been, fixed in geography if not in history and schoolboy stamp albums. Perhaps this is why Indians, when they return from abroad, make the gesture of bending and touching the soil then bringing their fingers to their foreheads. It is not, as they believe, the soil of a country that they touch but, symbolically, they are kissing the earth. They have returned home.

*

Congratulatory telegram sent to 11 Temple Road, Lahore, at the time of my birth, by my father (Kaka) in Dehra Dun.

Lahore

Unterrestrial, ungoogleable, unreachable,
landlocked city that erupts from the sea
and disappears in the sky;
whose birds sing in the dawn to come;
the walled city without walls, Lahore.
Behind razor wire, the home town
next door, the Temple Road address
to which I cannot ask my way back;
the city of a thousand names and one:
it can only be Lahore.
Men of the hinterland arrived at its gates,
slow moving men with keen eyes bringing bales
of cloth, marking the doors to knock on. They knew
their sums and flourished as seeds do
when the ground is virgin, waiting to be clothed.
Then when nations rose like party balloons in the sky
to be sold by balloon men at street corners, they melted
into trains. Their houses stand, their names
still on gateposts, they themselves dead. Asked
for the blood group, I extend a finger called Lahore.

‘Caught up in someone else’s story’

Caught up in someone else’s
story, travelling in opposite
directions by rail or road
across a line drawn to meet a deadline,
were two families. One of them,
in haste, had abandoned a house
of many thresholds, as had the one
that arrived to live in it.
Unknown to each other,
they had a house in common, an address,
and clothes, an idiom. Memories
dry up like short streams, fill up
like trenches, or are demolished,
but history is easier said than undone.

‘Doors have ears’

Doors have ears
but also mouths,
eyes that see everything.
This one, a screen door,
opens onto a wide
veranda. If you had eyes
you’d see it smiling
as it watches us
from a bay window
we look out of.

‘Whatever became’

Whatever became
of Raj Kanwar Mehta
of Government College?
He left behind a book,
that did better than him.
He inscribed his name
on the flyleaf,
which is where he survives,
remembered by someone
who never knew
Raj Kanwar Mehta.

‘Kept in a kitchen basket by the window’

Kept in a kitchen basket by the window,
a few loose papers damaged by white ants,
the holes, brown at the edges, like small
or large islands seen from an airplane.
Among them, her matriculation certificate;
her wedding invitation;
an Eid card, a minaret in the background,
a woman’s hands lifted in prayer, the face European;
a horoscope, the colour of the inks unfaded;
a handwritten note from her teacher
at Presentation Convent, Rawalpindi;
and congratulatory telegrams
sent to Lahore when I was born.
Undecided whether to bin the papers or keep them,
I leave them where they are – my mother’s ashes.

*

Eid card found among my mother’s memorabilia.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s most recent publication is a pamphlet Ghalib, A Diary: Delhi 1857-1858 (New Walk Editions). ‘The Book of Lahore’ is from his new collection to be published by Shearsman Books in 2023.

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