A Hamid’s Lahore
After reading A Hamid’s first story, Saadat Hasan Manto said in his sharpshooter style, “What rubbish! One look at an electricity pylon, and A Hamid goes all romantic.” The year was 1948. A Hamid has since written millions of words – travelogues, novels, short stories, children’s books, detective fiction and more. And what Manto said fifty-five years ago, remains true today. A Hamid is our only consistently romantic writer.
His two collections of reminiscences of Lahore in the early years of independence are to be treasured because there is little of that kind of writing in our literature. He writes about the city and he writes about his friends and those he came across in a long career devoted to writing, both serious and journalistic. To have lived by what you write is in itself remarkable in a society where writers receive little respect, and even less money.
The two books, Lahore ki yaadain and Chand chehrey, are like periscopes through which we can relive earlier times and catch a glimpse of the men who made the city what it was. That Lahore is no longer around, though some of its old denizens are, such as A Hamid himself, Intizar Husain, Ashfaq Ahmed, Munir Niazi and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. But sadly, far too many of them are gone, Ahmed Rahi and Abdulla Malik being the most recent losses. But they all live on in A Hamid’s world and we are in his debt for allowing us in.
The Pak Tea House, which survives despite its owners’ best efforts to close it, was the gathering place of Lahore’s writers and artists, as was Zelin’s Coffee House and Cheney’s Lunch Home across the road. The last two were boarded up many years ago.
Books never made anyone in Pakistan rich – except the racketeers who produce textbooks – so the one means of sustenance for Lahore’s writers was Radio Pakistan. It didn’t pay much for scripts but it paid better than anyone else. Nasir Kazmi, who worked in radio, loved to walk the streets of Lahore late into the night with Intizar Husain and, when Intizar went home, with A Hamid. After the tea places on the Mall shut down for the night, these two distracted young men would walk all the way to the railway station where the tea stalls remained open all night. Until the middle 1960s, Lahore roads did not have much traffic, and it dwindled to almost nothing at night.
A Hamid remembers Akhlaq Ahmed Delhavi, whose unforgettable voice will remain forever associated with the Lahore station of Radio Pakistan. He always wore a solar hat, even at night (against moon-stroke, he would say). He was too polite not to shake a hand that had been offered to him, but always said later, “God knows who invented this annoying practice!” It was his theory that handshakes transferred germs. He loved Lahore but was once sent to Karachi from where he wrote to a friend, “Karachi! Bad water, bad air, bad climate. Yes there is a breeze but it always comes from the wrong direction. Water is rare and when found turns out to be bitter, which is why they have a Khara Dar but no Meetha Dar.” He bought a cycle once and it remained his sole means of transport till he retired. Whenever he rode a tonga or a rickshaw he paid the driver more than he had asked for. When the driver looked puzzled, he’d say, “It was quite far so what you asked for doesn’t seem enough.”
A Hamid takes us to the Coffee House and we see Maulana Charagh Hasan Hasrat surrounded by friends, waiting to be served. Someone asked, “Maulana, is that white-bearded waiter the one who took your order?” “His beard was black when I placed the order,” replied Maulana.
Roads, writes A Hamid, change and become unrecognisable, as Lahore’s Davis Road has become. “Those who remember it as it once was will recall the brick footpaths that lay on both of its sides. In those days, there was very little traffic on it. It was a long and silent road. There were not many cars in Lahore then. In winter, on a clear day, with white pigeons flying in droves in the blue sky, Davis Road would shimmer in the sun, assuming a strange air of mystery. It remained quiet even during the day, but at night it lay blanketed by a profound and peaceful silence. When I look at this road today I feel that the Davis Road that I knew once lies buried under the noise and pollution… There is so much traffic now that you can stand on one side for an hour and not find an opportunity to cross it safely.” Lahore, he writes, has become a big city but it is no longer a city in which you can walk. The footpaths, where they exist, are parking places. There is commercial pandemonium everywhere. No one seems to know anyone. Everybody is in a rush, running, running, running. A Hamid asks: will the Lahore of those deep and peaceful silences ever come back?