Lahore, Delightful Concubine

Article excerpt

Byline: Bapsi Sidhwa

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. …