Tempted, I listen to her. The voice is shrill, coming from a sore throat. And then occasionally she coughs. Constrained, I wish I could hand her a glass of water. But only then, she inquires about my name. I feel a certain kind of hesitation, not of the type that springs when a stranger asks you your name. I fear her stories, and perhaps, if she knows some of mine too. Those I have firmly buried, coming alive, again. Lost, she asks. I reply back with my name, stammering, still perturbed.
Offering a hand, she asks me to take the turn. The famous turn across the Office of Post Master General besides Nasir Bagh in Lahore and there in front of me lies Zam-zama, the gun that most like me grew up staring from our bikes and cars and bicycles and walking. I only came to know of the name through Ondatjee’s The English Patient. When I tell her that, she feigns she is angry. Chides, she. And I stare at the pigeons around that left over from the Colonial era, indifferently. Go, have a look, she orders. For once in life, I want to keep a dream, a dream. I decline, politely telling her that its going to stay, some other time, perhaps.
A discontented smile appears on her lips as she prods me to walk forward. By now she has started humming something. I fail to decipher the language. This time I anticipate a hit on the knuckles so I prefer not to ask her to explain. Instead I like an excited child, in his naivety, who tries to explain an elder the already explained point toward the Oriental College and NCA. I see a glitter in her eyes. I suspect she is falling in love with me. Museum, dearest, you forgot, she speaks in earnest dashing my fears (hopes?). And then adds, with a sigh, you forget history, always.
We don’t know when she were born. But we do know she were named twice. Today they call her the Shahrah e Quaid e Azam. And as is with names always, if they come to stay for long, they stay forever. And thus Mall Road remains the name that holds memories. For her, for us. I ask her if she felt offended when they changed her name. She passes a wry smile. I keep silence, an intimidating one. Her expressions plead me to speak. I refuse. Come up with a reply, I only whisper to myself. The pain that is hers, and I feel content. Finally, she musters an I-don’t-know.
As we cross the Anarkali, she invites me to have Falooda, or milk that has noodles in it. Milk and noodles, I look at her with disgust. She laughs a little and then pushes me to walk. I try not to resist, and succeed. Suddenly, for some reason, I don’t want her to end, to die, to finish, or just to get lost in another road. I think I am going to end up liking her, the way you love. Haha. Reminds me of the fairy tale where an angel falls in love with a human. A man with a road.
For some reason, she suddenly starts to walk quickly. I find it difficult to keep pace with her. Panting, I ask her to slow down. She looks at me, without emotions, doesn’t reply and continues to walk. Stuck in an uneven relationship, I despise her domination. Wait, I will strike too, the sadist in me whispers. And the moment we cross National Bank of Pakistan, her quick steps reduce to almost nothing. I take a deep sigh, a sigh of relief. The steps finally end at a another crossroad, a Chowk, a place where four roads give way to one another.
I am horrified by the traffic on this Chowk. When I tell her that, she comes up with a devilish smile. Even before she parts her lips, I am terrified of what may come next. And she doesn’t fail to disappoint. Go sit down between the chowk, and fold your legs in a chowkri, a local way to squat. Staring at her, I utter in a revolt like fashion, Bhainchod, yeh kiya mazaq hay? And in the next moment, I realize what I had done. But even before I can utter an apology, as if anticipating it, she puts to me, ‘Aesay thori naa kehtay hain.’ In that moment, I realize even a road can be incredibly cute. I suddenly feel like those characters from innumerable Urdu novels that trace ephemeral love stories born on the Mall Road. And that eventually die there.
And the next moment, she grabs me by the arm, and takes me, running, jumping, laughing amongst the honking cars and richshaws and buses and motorcycles, to the middle of the Chowk, her hair flying and untied make me wish I were an Urdu poet, or at least knew one’s lines. She sits first and then pulls me beside her. That, my dear is the Lahore High Court, she points toward an architecture made of red bricks and above which a green and white flag stands still. And then tears swell in her eyes. I scour my pockets for the tissue papers that I never forget. And I finally cling to one. When I try to hand it over, she scoffs and then asks to bring some salt instead. I stare. My jaws ajar. Coughing, she speaks. Tear gas, my dearest and memories, but more of tear gas, that brings these tears.
Adorable, she. I wonder about her, the time she has spent here, filling, tormenting herself with stories that she can’t forget, not pass, not smile at, not hold, and yet has to carry, to generations, after generations. She smells of something bitter, and dark and yet incredibly beautiful. Only when you forgive her, like the people of this land, for being what they are, and entirely not responsible for that, you can savour her. Perhaps like that ‘Khata Kinno‘ , that you can’t just put away for a sweeter one.
I walk toward her as the sun shines down on us. The skin of her, the only thing I can make up from behind, glowing in its reflection. Reaching from behind, her hands slip into my embrace. As if waiting since forever. Ice-cream, before I can explain, she points toward Chaman, . I almost laugh, and she leads me to the footsteps brimming with people. Some selling, some buying, and even more just looking on, from shoes, to wallets to belts, and then children here and there. You can even find cannabis, and a random eunuch for nocturnal entertainment.
This, dear is where I sit so often to sketch stories, and hopes, and wishes. Small ones, big ones, and the surreal ones. Some of them choose to promise themselves a new pair of Bata boots next Eid, others from Servis, some promise themselves a couple of ice-cream scoops next month, and still others, another night to survive. Just survive. Without Chaman, without Bata, without three piece suits, without cars, without motorcycles and without hope. Except to come again here the following night, to go back, to survive, and to come back again.
Her voice, filled with rage, chokes in the end, and she asks me to walk with her. Amazing that, she never grows old. I tell her, I am not the same as I was at the Anarkali. Or even at Nasir Bagh. I am old. I am grey-ing. I tell her in earnest. You are mortal, she speaks enraged and I have to carry the burden of history. Can’t delete, can’t relieve. Can’t die. Can’t flee. Her chorus, and her anger pushes me to drag myself. And then I ask myself, an endless journey this? The end is nigh, the end must come, I console myself. Her tales bore me. And her unending pain scares me. But every road ends, at one point or another. To another road, with another history. With other tales, with other aches.
Its interesting when you realize that the Provincial Assembly, the Alhamra, and the Governor House lie just beside each other, she speaks. On one side, they played a charade through ballot, and on another, through the strings of ‘baray abbu‘. A term she subsequently explains for the one who sits in Islamabad and appoints the Governor. Does it surprise you that the Governor House was built by a pahelwan, a wrestler, she winks, her rage vanished and replaced by a mood that borders on mischievousness. And in the middle of them lies Alhamra, the so called bastion of performing arts. Irony, she laughs to herself. And I laugh at her. Fairy tale.
The sun is now at our backs, slowly dying. And we feel a bit of it. But only once or twice. Because for the rest, the side way trees provide a luxurious comfort to talk, and to muse. Approaching the Nehar, canal, made immortal by Noor Jehan’s ‘Sanu nehar walay pul tay bula k…‘, I have a sudden craving for water-melons. Dipped into the cold running water of Nehar, one adorned with the saliva and piss and ecstasy of a jump during a burning June afternoon, they are sweetened by the ephemeral happiness of an overburdened life. Cut them through, take a bite, and with it, a taste of these lives.