Monday August 15, 2022

What pride, what honour?

August 25, 2021

Since leaving Lahore 50 years ago, I have related with fondness and yes, even pride, stories about what made the city of my birth so special.

These memories are not so much about its scenic beauty, of the tree-lined roads, the full moon reflections on a silent canal or of the Mughal gardens and parks. But it has always been about the pride and honour that I feel of having lived amongst the first generation of Pakistanis, whose all-embracing influence of tolerance, dignity and decorum have made me the person I am.

Those early days were honest times when men and women from all walks pulled together to develop and build the small corner of the Subcontinent that was placed in their care to be the pride of generations that followed. The intelligentsia, writers, poets, professors and teachers, neighbours, the kulfi wallah, the bhishti, the lala who ran a stationary shop, the friendly mullah of the neighbourhood mosque and the sweeper -- all of whom commanded, and returned in equal measure, respect and affection.

For me as a non-Muslim female, who spoke differently, dressed distinctly, had an accent associated with comedy sketches, I wonder what fate awaited had the divides that now separate mother from son, sister from brother, father from daughter, been the moral high ground then? What interaction could I have realistically claimed as positive influences? Never once did I feel different or alienated because of religious difference or gender. I was accepted and respected because all those I knew then, also knew the meaning of acceptance and respect.

I was schooled at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, an elitist institution, and could very easily have lost the opportunity of meeting and forging friendships with the sons and daughters of those less privileged families, had I been born some years later. The society that evolved soon after Independence was egalitarian, tolerant, and inclusive. The migrant population from across the border were people who had lost everything and were in the process of putting their lives together. These refugees settled in the houses that were vacated by Hindu and Sikh residents of Lahore who had crossed the eastern demarcation lines to live in India. These new neighbours had a profound influence on me. My understanding of their traditions, hospitality and friendship enriched my perspective of my own place in this new post-Partition community. These are friendships that have endured despite years, and some might add cultures apart.

In those early days, following the trauma of Partition, people did not seek out differences in ethnicity, religious beliefs, and gender. The country’s first chief justice, A R Cornelius was a fellow parishioner at St Anthony’s Church, on Davis Road. The first minister for law and finance was Joshua Fazal Din, a scholar who read aloud his translations of the Bible in Punjabi verse to keep his children and their friends out of mischief. But for these sessions, I would never have come to appreciate the lyricism and beauty of the language and perhaps would never have been enlightened by the poems of Waris Shah and Baba Farid.

When I left Lahore in 1971 after a post grad degree at the city’s Government College, I took with me a love of English poetry, a deep insight into the works of Shakespeare and a gratitude to Professor Saddiq Kaleem who guided me through my years at my prestigious alma mater. There were such intellectual giants as Professor Gilani Kamran to whom I owe an understanding of literary criticism, and even an insight into dealing with the overtures of admiring fellow students. “Take no notice, he’ll soon get the message. He just needs time to mature a bit,” he once told me after I found it necessary to report a junior from another department.

When I recall those days, I wonder at the enormous chasm that divides the genders today. Lahore was not any less religious, nor was society overly liberal. It saddens me to see that decency and decorum have made way for thuggery and opportunistic criminality. And, as in all organised criminal behaviour, there are political or monetary motives -- usually both. The world sits on the sharp edges of divides that serve no one except those with agendas. It is up to authorities to ensure that these divides do not fester and become malignant.

As I look back, I see the benevolent face of the bhishti who carried heavy sacks of water from a nearby well to cool the ground outside our home. He knew I loved the smell of the cooling earth and would always call and wait patiently before sprinkling the water. I don’t remember ever thanking him for allowing me to punch the heavy mashks of water that he carried on his back. But I do know that he taught me a respectful appreciation for him and for his job.

This year, August 14 should have marked over 70 years of those fond memories. The earliest of which was after my third birthday when a religious and traditional neighbour allowed his four daughters to accompany their little brother to join in our Christmas celebrations. I remember how they participated in the festivities. Their clothes, the shining fringe tassels on their dupattas and the multicoloured glass bangles were celebratory attire for Eid and weddings. But most of all I cannot forget the pink dress with pieces of shiny gota decorating the skirt that the wife of the muezzin had made for me as a present.

These memories of my childhood hold so much significance today as I think about the horrific ordeal suffered by a young filmmaker who broke no law by filming in a public place. The recording would have been her memory of the 74th Independence anniversary celebrations at a monument to freedom for future generations to remember with pride.

Now all that has come crashing down, as I realise that this is not the country that I remember. These are not the people I can respect. What is more heart-breaking is that those who joined the mob have defiled themselves and do not even know it. They each hold individual responsibility for the calculated attack on a daughter of the country who was breaking no law in filming in a public park. Just as their behaviour as regular TikTok trolls made it as easy for them to find their victim, the same technology will help in bringing each of the perpetrators to justice.

They are not representative of the majority, decent, law-abiding citizens of the city, but who in their madness became accomplices to a wider evil of division which eludes their understanding. What pride, what honour is theirs to claim?

The writer is a journalist and writer living in London. She has been an editor and co-publisher of Eastern Art.