Although I have known Mustansar Hussain Tarar for ages, every time I meet him I discover a new facet of his personality. An exhibition of paintings, titled My Lahore, held at Co-opera earlier last month, which Tarar kindly consented to inaugurate, was another such occasion.
With many invited guests cramped in not-so-spacious a gallery, filled with post-monsoon humid air, I thought it best to look up Tarar at his residence and talk to him about his early days in the city.
It wasn’t difficult to locate his residence. Even though I didn’t know the house number, I was earnestly guided to his place by the friendly people in his neighbourhood. Once there, I was ushered by his personal attendant into his drawing room where I was stupefied by Tarar’s collection of art, chiefly the Gandhara sculpture pieces. A couple of Sadequains, Bashir Mirza’s Lonely Girl, portraits by Saeed Akhtar, and a landscape by Khalid Iqbal were a treat to the eyes. The shelves filled with books written by him were a bibliotheca in themselves.
I was offered tea along with some delicacies, but I was more interested in browsing through his books, published by Sang-e-Meel, his sole publisher.
Tarar often says that he’s a labourer, and that his pen is his tool. All his books are travelogues, in which he’s penned accounts of his many travels abroad as well within Pakistan, including the Northern Areas where he was a familiar visitor riding his Honda 175. A lot of his books are about his visit to the interior Lahore. Yes, Lahore is his Heart, with a capital H, of course.
In our meeting, Tarar told me that he was about seven years old when Pakistan got independence. His early memories about Partition are all very sad. At that point, the late Qamar Yurush came to my mind. Yurush, who had been in his teens then, had refused to share his memories with me, saying he wished he hadn’t gone through what he did.
Tarar’s father came to Lahore from a small city near Gujrat, on foot. As he couldn’t afford to stay at a hotel, he started working as a waiter at Baboo Hotel in Landa Bazaar where he eventually was allowed to sleep in a ‘cosy’ area close to the tandoor. To this day, Tarar pays respect to the descendants of its original owners.
His family and folks weren’t refugees; they already had a place of their own on Chamberlain Road where Tarar’s father famously ran a shop selling seeds for flowers. Their house was right across the road, in an enclosure, amid non-Muslim residents. The so-called pluralistic society suddenly developed a feeling of insecurity. The Tarars had to hire two retired soldiers armed with guns to watch over their rooftops. At times they would fire warning shots in the air.
Riots erupted, and there was a forced exchange of population — or exodus, the biggest of its kind in the history of the subcontinent. Haji Fazle Karim, the original fruits and vegetable merchant of Tollinton Market, once told me that Lahore used to be a peaceful city and it was because of some conspiracy that unrest had been created, with the arrival of the destitute refugees from Amritsar.
According to Tarar, though, as riots engulfed the city, Shah Alam Gate, all of whose residents were Hindu at the time, was gutted. The fire lasted several days. The soot and burnt paper particles kept raining down for several days. For several weeks the area retained the heat.
Nothing survived in this settlement. Tarar says he saw a corpse lying with a trail of fresh blood as he tried to cross the Circular Road. As he had enrolled at Rang Mahal’s Mission High School, he’d enter the city through the Mochi Gate or from Shah Alam Gate. He remembers vividly that this gate was a smaller version of the Lohari Gate.
Although many of the evacuated houses were available, his family never occupied any. It was only in 1952 that his family moved to Lakshmi Mansions on The Mall, near the Regal crossing. His teenage years were spent there, a phase that has been discussed in a previous dispatch.
(This dispatch is dedicated to Prof GM Asar)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association and a former director of NCA Art Gallery.He can be reached at ajazartbrain.net.pk