A visit to Empress Road

December 22, 2019

Painter and conservationist Dr Ajaz Anwar has dedicated this dispatch “to my father’s friend, Mr Brown, who was a ‘fireman’ in NWR”

The vintage train engine.

The northern gate of Governor’s House, offered a clear view of the Lahore City Railway Station in those smog-free days. This was originally named Empress Road and not Shara-i-Shaikh Abdul Hameed Bin Badees, as was later decreed in frenzied attempts at changing names. It has five churches, three schools, the Qizilbash Palace, Radio Pakistan and PTV stations, the largest police lines of Lahore, Diyal Singh Majithia Hall (turned into a Haji camp), Press Club, US Consulate General, and the Railway Headquarters.

Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan lived there in a house located under one of the six banyan trees (all cut down to make way for the Orange Line train). Model Dairies was established there in 1919; it provided pasteurised milk. The second largest depot of Lahore Omnibus was also located there because all the buses visited the Lahore Railway Station except for Route Number 1. With the bus service decommissioned, its expensive land was given to a private bus stand.

Opposite the Qizilbash Palace is located the NWR headquarters, originally on long expired 99-year lease. In front of it is displayed a vintage train engine once run on steam to which the firemen colleagues of Mr Brown added the requisite fuel. Midway, over the Nicholson Road crossing, is Kinnaird School. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughters Salima and Muneeza were schooled there. Activist and TV artist Huma Safdar, a graduate of NCA, also attended the same school.

At the site of the present radio station was an old and dilapidated, crumbling villa camouflaged by tall vegetation. Craftsmen made bangles with recycled old glass in ovens. On one occasion, my father took me to the place; an old craftsman was pleased to mould a glass sparrow for me. It remained with me for many years until it flew away — or so I thought.

The Radio Pakistan building was inaugurated by Ayub Khan. Earlier, the station was located in a rented bungalow opposite Faiz’s house. Apa Shamim conducted children’s programme. Mohini Hameed, a frail-looking, petite lady, with the most enchanting voice, delighted the audience. Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, too, was on the staff. When Lahore TV was ventured in 1964, a place had to be found to house it. With no building of its own, TV started transmission from the backyard of the new radio station building. A shelter covered with corrugated, galvanised sheets was welcomed by pioneers like Agha Bashir and Aslam Azhar. Its own building was finally inaugurated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on adjoining land. It’s a purpose-built TV station, on Mahmood Ghaznavi Road.

The shrine of Baba Ghaib. — Images: Supplied

Next to it, the Lahore Press Club was supposed to be built. But, as luck would have it, at the allocated piece of land, there appeared overnight the shrine of Pir Ghaib. Suddenly, all the funds held in trust by Zia-ul-Islam Ansari vanished (or ghaib). But he was compassionate enough to marry the widow of his dear journalist friend, Ashraf. Soon he met his maker.

All the residents of the Journalists’ Colony in Jehanzeb Block, Iqbal Town, including myself, were subjected to an undeclared curfew, and day-time blackout, when Zia-ul-Haq visited to condole with his ‘sad’ step-daughter Rubina Ashraf, renowned TV actress who was then a talented fine arts student at the University of the Punjab. There were countless heads seen over the parapets under which must have been mufti-dresses covering bullet-proof vests. That day, my dog Tipsy barked really loud.

At the corner of Abbot and Empress roads was the bungalow of Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj and Hijab Imtiaz Ali, the country’s earliest lady pilot, parents of famous radio anchor turned PTV actress Yasmeen Tahir. It became a prime property because of the couple’s tragic demise. Their death was a mystery akin to the Anarkali episode authored by Taj. They must have intended to build a plaza after demolishing the ‘crime-scene’ bungalow, but the litigation process would not allow it. The place already excavated to depth far below the permissible level, could cause some terrible accident.

Diagonally opposite to it is a high mound, one of the many in Lahore, which was originally a brick-kiln. It was called Shimla Pahaari. It used to be the perfect adventure spot, and we under the command of Tariq Ali would venture up and down its various slopes, facilitated by wooden log steps and green areas at different altitudes. The pahaarri (hill) has been nibbled away by encroachments on the northern side.

Aziz Petrol Pump, which existed there, was recently removed in order to smooth the flow of traffic. The oil-change shop, however, has stayed, perhaps because of the lubricants. Across the road you now find tall plazas that replaced some of the most beautiful houses Lahore had ever seen. This is the couriers’ market. The traders indulge in narcotics’ smuggling. One of them is run by a convicted narcotics smuggler and a court absconder. This is a parallel post office, not sanctioned by law.

The other side of the hill was given to the Lahore Press Club, the magnificent building of which was inaugurated by Ghulam Haider Wyne shortly before his tragic death. On top of the hill stood two bottle palms, Lahore’s tallest. Of these, only one has survived, which points south to where Faiz lived and was arrested in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case. Now that its last surviving plotter, Zafarullah Poshni, has published his autobiography, they have all been vindicated. Akbar Khan stands proven right in assessing that Nehru would not honour his pledge to UNO to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir.

A little to the left, I wanted to have a last look at the northern gate of the Governor’s House from where I had started my visual journey to spot the railway station. But to my horror, I saw it heavily barricaded, a still higher fort-like gate painted black. US Consulate General is located there. Even the tyrant, Malik Amir Muhammad Khan’s bodyguards were more tolerant than the Kala Paani seals protecting it. This is political smog, I guess.

Note: The monthly last-Wednesday meeting of Lahore Conservation Society will be held at Nur Jahan’s Tomb, on December 25.

To be continued

The writer is founding member of the Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at ajazart@brain.net.pk

A visit to Lahore's Empress Road