Sir Ganga Ram was a well-known and rich Hindu landlord from Lahore. He erected many buildings in Lahore in the period between the two World Wars, like Ganga Ram Hospital, Ganga Ram Flats, Ganga Ram Buildings. His daughter married into a family of landlords in the rural area where there was no pucca road leading to the village. When his daughter complained about this to him once, not only did he build a road with his money but also laid down a railway line right up to the village. He also developed a new irrigation system for farmland in which water would collect at a high spot and then be released into the fields. All these endeavours fetched him the title of “Sir” from the British.
Ganga Ram Building on Mall Road in Lahore was the first of its kind and it even had a lift. It was made in 1919 and later it became the property of a trust. But when we came as tenants to live in Flat no. 11 on the third floor, it was known as Ganga Ram Buildings. This was after Pakistan came into being. To the left of this building was the High Court, facing it was Fan Road and to the right at some distance was Regal Chowk. In those days horse carriages plied down Mall Road. My favourite pastime was to stand by the fence and watch the traffic. Below the building, where cars are parked now, tongas used to wait for passengers. Some of the flats in the building were residential and others were used as offices. The offices of Mangla Dam, Burma Shell and Singer Machine were located there as was the Fazal Din & Sons shop. Going up and down in the lift, I would hold my breath for the black cables scared me so.
As though in a dream I recall these scenes from the days before martial law was imposed. I was about eight years old and my childhood was spent there. Then we left that house but the memories still linger. In my dreams I return time and again to this building, sometimes through the front gate and sometimes jumping in through the rear window. Our next-door neighbour was Atta Ullah sahib. He must have been around sixty then and he had a bookshop in Anarakali Bazar. He was not married and stayed alone in his house. He would go to his shop every morning in pristine white clothes and return at namaz time in the evening. Sometimes his mother, who lived with her other son, would come to visit him. She would call her son by his name and make small talk. She was a very old woman but was always well dressed like her son. And like her son, she would speak in the soft and sweet Punjabi of upstream Punjab. I liked to hear her talk. I also like Atta Ullah sahib very much. Now looking back, I think some things never leave one’s memory. I remember well that he lived alone, he had asthma and standing outside the railing of his flat, he would call out to me, “Squirrel, squirrel”.
I was very thin in those days and I probably reminded him of a squirrel. When I would go near him, I would hear his breath whistling. He would take me by my arm and say, “Little Squirrel, doesn’t your mother give you anything to eat.” He was tall and well built. He was reserved, had a fine manner and a fetish for cleanliness. He also liked to collect flasks. Sometimes when he was in the mood he would show me his flasks which he had kept on a high mantelpiece. I didn’t know about a collector’s passion at that time and that so much money could be spent on a fad. Of course, I too collected shells, flowers and colourful stones. But at that time I could not understand the common emotion that led us to this hobby. I would ask him, “Why have you bought these? What is their use?” He would tell me, “This flask is for keeping ice, this for water, this one for sherbet, this here for a lot of tea and this for a little tea.” This elaboration pleased me. Many times while talking, he would get an asthma attack would cough and the wheezing of his lungs got louder. Seeing him in that state, I would ask, “Why do you live alone?” He would say, “I have told your mother to find a bride for me. Why don’t you also tell her to do so?”
My father had a black dog as a pet. One day he was unleashed and he ran into Atta sahib’s flat. In anger Atta sahib rang our call bell and said, “Keep this animal chained inside your home.” He was polite even in anger. He carried out a strange ritual. Every Sunday he would empty out his rooms, get them washed, have fresh flowers put in vases and by evening all his things would be put back inside. His helper in the shop was engaged in this exercise. I would stand there to watch the entire proceedings. I would stand by the cast iron fence of Ganga Ram Building and watch the clock on the tall Ganda Singh Building. Whenever my mother would tire of me, she would say, “Go and see what time it is on the Ganda Singh clock.” I had not yet learnt to read the time. I would come back and tell her, “The small hand is on five and the long one on nine.”
Every year on 14 August, a procession went down Mall Road and the whole building was decorated with colourful festoons and lights. Whenever the Prime Minister or the President and King passed Mall Road, the building was decked up and people from far-off places came and lined the footpath. At that time Mall Road was a long fine road with big footpaths and gardens on one side. Now the gardens have been eliminated in the process of widening the road. On summer afternoons when everyone was taking a siesta, I would quietly leave the house. I would go to the road leading to the High Court compound. A little ahead on the road were the silk-cotton trees. I would go there to collect the flowers that had dropped to the ground. I would fill my shirt front with them. These were shaped like surmedanis, little bottles in which eyeliner made of ground stone was kept, and I called them by this name. I would bring the flowers home and would pull out the stamens which were so like suramchus, the needles used to apply the eyeliner. This was my daily game.
Then we left that house, forever. The house that had a tonga stand at the back and gardens in the front for children to play, where the date tree at the back was as tall as the building, where two people would sit in the verandah of the neighbouring house playing chess. The building had cellars with steps and ramps leading down to them. I would go to the back of the house and watch the spectacle of tyres being rolled down one by one from the road. This cellar was the Burma Shell godown.
Many years after leaving the place, I went one day to Anarkali and walked into Atta sahib’s shop. “Where is Atta sahib?” I asked. “Which Atta sahib?” I replied, “The owner of this shop.” I was told, “The owner here is Mohmin.”
“Okay,” I said and walked out quietly. Walking past the main Post Office and the High Court, I saw the Ganga Ram Building standing there in its splendour like a loving mother. I kept watching the building. Resting against the fence was an eight-year girl who was also watching the road. People were amazed to see a woman standing on the road and gazing at the building with her face up. I was looking for my childhood. In this building, Sir Ganga Ram, Atta sahib and I had left behind something of our being. I wondered at those times when Sir Ganga Ram, and Sardar Ganda Singh too, must have lived in this space on earth where I too had got a chance to live. With these thoughts, I moved on.
Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt.
Azra Waqar is one of the few Pakistani women writing fiction in Punjabi. She lives in Rawalpindi.