A fifth-generation merchant of Tollin’ton

January 19, 2020

The fact that Tollin’ton still exists is thanks only to Haji sahib’s efforts and his ancestors’ blessings

“Gambit”: Tollin’ton in its heydays, as painted in watercolours by the author.  Images: Supplied

On the fateful night of November 8, 1994, the merchants of the original market were frantically removing their wares and merchandise on a few hours’ notice by the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) and the Metropolitan Corporation (MC). Squads with demolition machines stood alert. Men in a police jeep pulled me in.

I spotted a familiar face. “Don’t worry,” someone said in a low voice. It came to my mind that it was the person I had once stopped from leaving the Urdu Ka Aalemi Mushaira, organised by Musharraf Ali Khan, grandson of Liaqat Ali Khan. Renowned Punjabi poet Abuzar was reciting his Puls Muqbla. He had seemed to really enjoy the satirical verses that hit his own department.

Soon he had left without thanking me, maybe out of fear of being spotted by double agents. There he was, assuring me that in spite of his orders, no harm would come to me, if I stayed put in the jeep. But, as a founding member of the Lahore Conservation Society (LCS), I had to see what was happening to an imposing landmark of Lahore, where all the ‘first ladies’ of brown sahibs once shopped, while the drivers parked their official cars in the service lane, at the back of which were “chains for the dogs.”

But here was a different pedigree having a free hand.

Haji Fazal Karim (1923-2020).— Images: Supplied

While most merchants had fled the battle scene where their fathers and grandfathers had served the elite of the town with milkshakes at Tangiers’ Milk Bar, rich modigliani soup, and burgers of all kinds, fish from Karachi arrived by air-conditioned trains, and choicest mutton, beef and hunter’s beef were available from a secluded area.

But Haji Fazal Karim, his sons Shoaib and Bilal, and grandsons sat there confident and composed because they were armed with stay orders. Yet they remembered their golden time when they were suppliers of fruits to one of the leading airlines of the world i.e., PIA, and were ordered choicest fruits for the Summit leaders in the largest gathering of Muslim leaders in 1974: OIC.

Haji sahib had graduated in pre-partition days. His English was impressive and he knew names of all local fruits and vegetables in English. Only this Eastern wing i.e. the fruit and vegetables section had been spared for legal compulsions. Haji sahib’s great grandfather had been allotted this outlet in the colonial days. As I rang up the founding members of the LCS at various landlines (in the early cell-phone days!), most were not available and many expressed their inability to do anything as so much water had blown under the bridges.

The following morning this prime property measuring 17 kanals and 10 marlas presented a desolate look. Whatever was left behind by the merchants had been torn apart by the scavengers.

On a non-claimed piece of land, on Jail Road, a “new Tollin’ton” market had been built. The displaced shopkeepers were allotted new shops to be paid for in installments. Haji sahib offered to pay in cash to avoid an interest-bearing loan. It turned out that all 104 claimants paid only the first installment, and got possession right away. Even those selling poultry “spare parts” were allotted shops.

In the original market on The Mall, there were hardly two dozen shops. Haji sahib had a claim over five shops but his file somehow disappeared. Another stay was sought from the court, and duly granted.

The building itself was constructed in 1864 as an Exhibition Hall to showcase the arts and crafts of the region. It was built following the pattern of the Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, London, 1851. The plan was developed at Rourke. The artisans showing their skills were retained and their products were put on permanent display. This was the beginning of the Museum of Lahore and Lahore School of Arts. This stretch of the Mall was (until recently) called the Exhibition Road. It developed into an educational district, while the museum, the art school and municipal buildings were built to commemorate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria and hence called Jubilee buildings.

Earlier, Lord Mayo had been assassinated by Sher Ali Afridi in Andaman Islands in 1872. Hence the art school was rechristened after him. (Andaman Islands were also called Kala Pani, not to be confused with Black Waters.)

A new function had to be given to the Exhibition Hall. Thus, in early 1920s, it was renovated by Sir Ganga Ram, and converted into a market. The place was named after the then secretary to the Punjab government HP Tollin’ton. It became the first super market of Lahore, where all provisions could be had under one roof. Since various Nawabs and other rulers had their homes in Lahore, it became a prestigious shopping area for the elite. Being designed in pre-electricity days, it had natural daylight and ventilation.

Soon after Partition, the financial wizards ogled at it lustfully. “Where is Tollin’ton Market, uncle? I have some dirty linen to wash,” quipped Nanna, sometime in 1970.

It was thanks to the efforts made by Khawaja Zaheer-ud-Din, the LCS convener, that the Punjab Special Premises Act was passed in 1986. A list of protected, built cultural property was drawn. Tollin’ton was at No 13.

It mysteriously disappeared from the approved list, but never faded from public memory or from the sight of those who had designs on it.

Without consulting the civil society, plans were drawn and butter-papered by renowned architects of the day. A 13-storey plaza, with two basements, was envisaged.

It may be pointed out that many architects are quite vocal against built environment, perhaps because they get projects on demolished sites. There were Trojan horses, when the LCS organised a protest march, many of them were sweet enough to join in: “pasbaan mil gae Kaabay ko sanam khhanay sey.”

Plans to build a plaza failed only because the banks demanded ownership papers for mortgage deed. It dawned that the property was owned by nobody. It was like the one-eyed monster in Ulysses. The Khasra number too turned out to be 420! What we discovered was that it had been military property all along. The precious material, however, was auctioned for mere Rs1,350,000 to a dubious party from Misri Shah.

On my appeal, the then president Farooq Leghari ordered an inquiry. Earlier, as luck would have it, I was awarded a largely symbolic Pride of Performance, in consultation with my wife, (whom I must name to avoid any confusion: Sabiha), I used the money to publish the calendar: Save Tollin’ton.

Many prominent writers of the time contributed material to the calendar. These included Pran Nevile.

At the back of each page were documented press clippings highlighting the conspiracy. The calendar project hit where it hurt the most. Now the powers that be decided to restore the vacated building. Haji sahib’s stay order had kept that eastern façade intact: he was allotted five shops in the Jail Road market, to be kept sealed till the time Haji sahib would vacate his Tollin’ton market shops.

He vacated upon the verbal assurance by Kamran Lashari, now WCLA director, saying, “I believe you!” He never got the promised possession.

The case has been in the courts for 26 years now. He has left for his heavenly abode, his eldest son Shoaib, also an LCS founder, died six months earlier, the other son and siblings must get a new inheritance certificate which is a long and expensive process. The only solace is that Tollin’ton stands today only due to Haji sahib’s efforts and his ancestors’ blessings.


This dispatch is dedicated to Asad Ali Shah,a friend of Haji sahib

The writer is a painter, the founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and the former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Note: Free art classes at the House of NANNAs on Sundays. No age bar. Guest of the week is   Farrukh from Melbourne


A fifth-generation merchant of Tollin’ton