Friday, 30 October 2009

The Wild Side Of The Mall

Third world governments—more like dictatorships—always interfere with mass culture in the name of misplaced nationalism, and wrongfully insist on re-naming streets with unpronounceable long names.

To remind the confused citizens what the nation went through in 1947, today every town in Pakistan has Shahrahs (main roads) named after only a handful of pre-partition personalities: Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah (founding father), Fatima Jinnah (founding father’s sister, erroneously called ‘madre millat’: mother of the nation’), Allama Muhammad Iqbal (Shai’r-e-Mashriq: poet of the East), and Liaqat Ali Khan (founding friend of the founding family). Very few dare ask about the whereabouts of the remnants of the founders’ families, or how a brother-sister duo metamorphosed into parents of this land of the pure; Pakistan zinda baad.

The fact is that no citizen worth his machine-readable green passport can actually pronounce the official names of these Shahrahs and Khayabans correctly in their entirety—a sad state of affairs indeed—given the efforts that go into the formation of unpopular policies. The public continues to use pre-partition farangi names because, being concise, they slip off wagging tongues easily to nostalgically remind us of the British Raj days.

They changed the name of The Mall Road of Lahore to Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam years ago. I was too young then to object that if one must use the title of ‘Quaid’ (rhymes with Kuwait), it must be spelled Qai’d. And since old habits never die, I will—with a cynical smile—call the lifeline of Lahore by its old name: The Mall.
Masjid-e-Shuhuda, The Mall, Lahore
Comparing Lahore's dynamic Mall with Karachi's Shahrah-e-Faisal (previously Drigh Road) is like comparing apples with oranges. Why? Because every protest rally in Lahore only disperses once it has played a hide-and-seek innings with the baton-wielding custodians of law. The rowdy protesters, the law-enforcers, and the bored luckless shop-owners regularly combine their talents to provide free entertainment to the residents of adjoining localities. And located midway between Upper and Lower Malls is the famous Masjid-e-Shuhada, a white marbled structure raised in the memory of the martyrs of the 1965 Indo-Pak war; it regularly serves as the kick-off point for the unique sport played between the law-breakers and the law-enforcers.

The Mall and the mosque are only two sides of this love-hate triangle. The third one is the Civil Lines police station where uniformed men await—only at stone-throw distance from Masjid-e-Shuhada—to display the sole talent they possess: to expertly crack open human skulls with humble bamboo batons. It is rumoured that the only question an interviewee need answer correctly during the selection interview is: did your father beat up on you as a child? If the answer comes in an affirmative, the recruit is immediately selected to dish out the same treatment to the rotten eggs of society, all without the added expense of specialised training.

When my father was young he could take a quiet tonga-ride on The Mall without blackening the face with pollution; of course, the sole risk of having dried horse-dung irritate his paternal eyes was always there. Back then, instead of the noisy rickshaw, all one heard was the tonga-wallah's commentary on the latest political turmoil, accompanied rhythmically by the clang of horseshoes on imperfect roads, and interrupted musically by the ringing of bicycle bells. All the man did to make the lean animal gallop faster was produce a staccato kukk-kukk sound with distorted lips, threaten it with a circular motion of the horse-whip, and merrily one went past the motorised sahib bahadurs.
The Land-Cruiser of the public

By contrast, in my youth, motorised silencer-less Japanese two-wheelers became the preferred means of riding into imaginary sunsets. While we boys had 80, 100, or a maximum of 175 cc motorcycles, the law wielded six to eight times the horse power. The rudimentary survival strategy on The Mall was: avoid the strict traffic sergeants. Whenever they indulged in a chase—as if cutting us down to size with their monstrous Harley Davidsons—there was nothing the offices of our respective fathers could do. That was true rule of awe.

Historically, survival on The Mall has always depended on various factors; take it from someone who has spent years living near the thandi sarak (cool road) of Lahore. In the present age, if either one’s timing is wrong or one sports a beard, one may end up taking a ride in a police car to the nearest vacation spot—located across the Plaza cinema hall—the dreaded Civil Lines police station. The populace knew that those on duty at the Civil Lines never spoke politely nor asked one to have a seat for doodh-patti and biscuits from a cheap bakery. There was nothing civil in their demeanour formed by hurling insults at the scum of society destined to swing to Jailhouse Rock in the lockup.

The only way to retain one’s self-respect was to respectfully avoid even having eye-contact with these esteemed government functionaries, for to ogle at them was to court nothing but unadulterated trouble.
Mad as hell or heaven?

One will eventually reach The Mall whether approaching from Hall Road with its blaring loudspeaker noise, via the narrow Beadon Road, through Lawrence Road of Maula Buksh Paan Shop fame, or through Temple Road where yours truly resided. In a way, it is like going to Rome as all roads lead to The Mall. But it happened on 24 September 1998 when my poor accident-prone Osama look-alike friend Karam Dad Khan—affectionately called K.D.—drifted from the straight path of The Mall.

SSP (Sipah-e-Sahabah: the army of the companions), whose secret aim as an organization must be to reduce our population to a manageable number, recently lost four valuable souls during a sectarian rivalry tournament. After the body count, the SSP called on the membership to gather for a strong protest at the famous Masjid-e-Shuhuda. The police got wind of the plan and, with a surprisingly smart manoeuvre, made history for their sense of humour in the national press. This is the true story of their happy reaction.

Before proceeding further, there is one more location I must introduce to those not born in Lahore: Lawrence Gardens. This beautiful location on The Mall, now called—you guessed it—Bagh-e-Jinnah is a symbol of undying love to luckless lower class couples. On 24 September 1998, the law sent fifty bearded policemen in plain clothes to join the SSP protesters at this amorous location. Posing as SSP Lahore chapter members, they lured the unruly mob towards the charming Lawrence Gardens for a bit of judicial romance. Once there, an overcome SSP membership found the iron hand of law stuffing them into police vehicles for a joyride to the nearby Civil Lines. In the meantime, the police combed buses approaching Lahore from far-flung areas and turned hotels near the Lahore railway station upside down in their search of SSP-supporters heading for The Mall.

At 11:45 a.m. the innings reached its zenith when the SSP protesters realized that the balls were—metaphorically speaking—tampered. But they did not go quietly, and despite a baton-charge, bravely pelted stones that re-arranged the tastelessly decorated glass showcases of The Mall shops. This activity forced the police to retreat temporarily and call for an early lunch break. The force returned shortly thereafter—toothpicks visible—with a fresh supply of tear-gas shells. In the ensuing battle, the residents and nearby school students received a free dose of the gas. The SSP protesters—wet handkerchiefs in hand—scaled the mosque's walls as victors, while the law followed—with boots on—and lovingly baton-charged them inside God’s house. That morning, the Lord indeed chose to move in subtle ways.

The police 'giving it to them'
When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. While the SSP-men, armed with sophisticated weaponry, were promptly arrested, innocent passersby such as my bearded friend K.D. got trampled like the grass. All the poor soul wanted to do was get to Temple Road where yours truly awaited his arrival for a modest lunch. When he failed to show up, I correctly assumed he was rounded up for intense questioning, and enjoyed the company of the Civil Lines’ sub-inspector as an esteemed guest of the State.

Regular traffic—always a mess— remained suspended at The Mall till 4:15 p.m. on that fateful day of September. Shop-owners, fed up with the damaging nuisance, pulled down shutters and headed home to kick pet dogs, abuse wives, and thrash the children for imaginary disobedience. When business is bad, fathers do lose all composure.

To add more to the comedy, the SSP protesters played their final trick: they accompanied a fake funeral procession from Anarkali Bazaar. An old man volunteered to lie down on a rented funeral cot after he was promised that if he died in police custody, the sacrifice would entitle him to an allotment of a plot of unimaginable dimensions in heaven.

Efficient informers of the Special Branch out-manoeuvred the fake funeral, and thus it all came to naught when the police intercepted the mob that insisted on offering the funeral prayers at (you guessed it again) Masjid-e-Shuhuda. Amidst ear-shattering slogans and verbal insults justifiably hurled at the rulers, the protesters suddenly found themselves surrounded by the law. They had seen riot police in battle regalia before but not with grins over their faces; something was not right in the state of Denmark.

Then all hell broke loose, a severe baton charge followed, and more tomato ketchup oozed out of the skulls of SSP protesters to flow over God's green earth. The fake dead man, wrapped in a white burial sheet, wasted no time in taking to his heels. Normally, tear-gas shelling alone made Lahorites cry; this time they shed additional tears induced by laughter at the sight of a dead man escaping a police baton-charge. The moral of the story for that day was: even dead men take to their heels at the sight of Lahore police.

The police, for the first time, took photographs and paw-prints of activists. A video film was also shot to help identify future repeat-offenders. The police blamed the SSP leadership for failing to guarantee a peaceful protest. In turn, the SSP leadership mercilessly cursed them for taking un-Islamic photographs for recordkeeping.
The 'law' will always bite at your protesting tail

Miraculously, Karam Dad Khan—good for him—entirely missed the cruel party at The Mall. I brought the shaken soul home after arranging for his bail, and after an early dinner followed by tea, I asked him to reveal the torture marks of a real man. Disappointingly he had not a single love-mark or police tattoo on his entire hairless torso. My mother asked K.D. if he wished he had no beard. “My beard surely got me in trouble auntie but during interrogation, when I thundered, ‘my name is K.D. Khan, don’t you know who I am?’ the sub-inspector became respectful. This time we all laughed until more tears flowed out of our eyes.

And there remains till this day, no doubt in our collective consciousness that the threat of ‘don’t you know who I am?’ always works in this Land of the Pure.

Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium. This article was originally printed in the daily DAWN newspaper.
Tongawalla photo by APP/Dawn
Masjid-e-Shuhada photo

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