The Abbott Road Club

December 15, 2019

Painter and conservationist Dr Ajaz Anwar has dedicated this dispatch to “Mr. Barret, a veteran British soldier who chose to stay back in Pakistan and was my P.T. instructor at Joan McDonald School”

The famous Abbott road.

As I took Mr Pran Nevile on his first trip to Lahore since partition, he was surprised to see the city so drastically changed, and he could not believe that it was the same Abbott Road he had seen in his childhood days. It was indeed the same, but had become over-crowded and over-built and many trees lining it had been felled. The road connects Lakshami Chowk to Shimla Pahari. On one side is situated the Odeon cinema that screened classics like Ben Hur and War and Peace. Over the crossing was dilapidated bungalow where the most modern cinema of Lahore was later built: it was called Gulistan. It was here that the annual film festivals were held showing uncensored movies, a different one every day when Abrar-ul-Haq was its manager. Nishat and Capital were on the other side. This is where Sahir Ludhianvi had lived along with his mother after they arrived on the city as refugees. Ibne Insha, their neighbour later composed the lament about Lahore: Iss shehr mein ji ka lagana kia.

More bungalows of the posh type had neat lawns. A rather narrow road on the right side sloped past a small plaque with Club 77 written on it. Further down was Janki Devi and Jamiyet Singh Maternity Hospital. Opposite the Club was a very vast, grass-carpeted ground on the edge of which was a rather big wooden hut-like structure. It housed a health club managed by Mr Altaf Bajwa, reverently called Ustad ji. His residence was behind it. Since this was the lowest part of the ground, it was occasionally flooded during the rains and the members would toil to drain out the water as part of daily exercise. Against a Rs 2 monthly fee, collected by the secretary Mr. Gill, the club offered training facilities. The simple, basic equipment included dumb-bells, bench-presses, steel bars with plates of varying weights, pullies and a big mirror. The young and the old would take turns training and straining. The more modern training machines had not been introduced yet. Nor was there any concept of an air-conditioned exercise hall with the stale air “recycled”. It was all clean, smog-free fresh air in the open. There was also no distinction between weight lifting and body building. The bare-foot members sprinted around the ground and after taking a few broad and high jumps and frog jumps, warmed up and finally started with the dumb-bells. A series of twists, up and down and behind the shoulders would swell the biceps and the muscles around the radius and ulna and the fibula and tibia and the femur, would all respond involuntarily. Some pulls at the pully would prepare the reddened perspiring bodies for more strenuous exercises like the bench-presses. These bodies were worthy of royal robes, as depicted by B.C. Sanyal, and could be the envy of Greek sculptors and Michelangelo.

Ustadji would train members by actively demonstrating and participating all along. In fact, he did more exercise while giving instructions as a hard taskmaster. He himself was very tall, stoutly built and muscular. Early in the morning even in the coldest of the weather, he would take a bath directly under the thick tubewell ferrule, stubbornly defying medical manuals while welcoming his bewildered pupils. Mr Altaf was from the police force, recruited on kabbadi quota of which he was the lead captain. But, he seldom donned the uniform. He was also a horse trainer at the race club. He knew Sir Muratab Ali. It may be pointed out that years later when the races were banned and the race club venue was converted into Ghulam Jilani Park (named after an accomplice of Ziaulhaq, who never contributed a single farthing towards it). The park was designed by Kameo Kondo who did know much about the ecology and flora of Lahore – but more about it later.

Ustadji would sit at the head of the bench, designed higher on one side and lower on the other. The pupil would hold the bar loaded with plates on both the ends and do the downs and ups. The bar was a simple iron rod not tempered, and there were no clamps to keep the plates in place. If a plate slipped off, the disturbed balance led quickly to other plates to follow causing the bare-foot members to panic fearing injury to their feet. On one such occasion he said that when you are tired, you cause the plates to slip through; he had a subtle sense of humour.

Sometimes the Ustadji would prepare sardai, an almond drink, grinding it painstakingly in a terra cotta kunda more efficiently than the modern day gadgets including the electric blenders. He was averse to brawls. When I punched a new entrant, his frown was sufficient to restrain me. My university routine did not allow me more time at the club. However my membership gave me some understanding of the human anatomy that helped in my drawing classes. I still remember his lifting the heaviest of the weights which all others failed to do. It was sad to learn that he had developed thoracic problem later in his life. The doctors forbade desi ghee for him but he did not comply. Now that the modern medical outlook allows, rather recommends the dairy product as a healthier alternative to other lubricants, he stands vindicated.

I happened to visit ‘my club’ years later. There were the same dumb bells, the same benches, the same bars and the same members (so I fantasized), taking turns. I too took my turn. Lying astride the bench, I held the bar with the same plates that I had occasionally lost the balance with, while my then colleagues would panic and imagined my mentor supervising me. I lowered the bar over my chest with trembling forearms and failed to push it up again. Ah, age makes the difference.

The ‘Ustadji’ had built another storey for his residence and had got the property transfer letter. But after his sad demise, things changed for the worse. The police station of the area was located behind the petrol pump where once I had to pay a mandatory bribe of Rs 10, while getting character clearance for my passport to the burly thanedar squatting on a charpoy. The police station moved to another vacant evacuee property across the road, opposite the health club. The clear view of the large lush green ground must have aroused their interest in the ‘unclaimed’ land. Blue prints for a high rise office for the deputy inspector general were prepared. Though the health club could have been spared, being on one side of the narrow sloping access road, it was also marked for demolition. ‘Ustadji’ had died long ago, his son residing there was ordered to evacuate. Being armed with a ‘stay order’, he did not panic. But the judge who had given relief was transferred. All access roads were barricaded and lady constables were called in. This time, the residents were given two hours to vacate.

Thus Mr Bajwa’s health club of that had produced a Mr Pakistan and a Mr Asia (Ch Mushtaq) yielded to the vagaries of time and history. Mr Barret who had opted to stay back in the newly carved dominion of Pakistan would have reconsidered his decision. ‘Rest in Peace, my mentor and trainer’, I wanted to whisper. But, how could he? SSP Shafqaat contemptuously tore up the stay papers, and hell was let loose on the family that night by the very force that was supposed to protect the lives and honour of citizens, his daughter Naila and son-in-law Soheil Chand told me. No policeman has ever been punished in this country. There now stand tall buildings that I repeatedly visited to get an FIR registered against a convicted narcotics smuggler running a dubious courier company near Shimla Pahari who pilfered my original painting depicting Basant.

Note: Free art all age groups; bring your own lunch.

The Abbott Road Club in Lahore