I am honoured to have been featured alongside Pakistan’s novelists, barristers, journalists and milkmen for a Cover Story on “Letters to Pakistan” to commemorate our 65th Independence Anniversary. My piece is a nostalgic one, about my childhood in Lahore in my Nani Ami’s; maternal grandmother’s home, near the Canal Bank with the weeping willow trees on the bamboo trees street; bhanson wali sarak.
NB – The magazine accidentally changed my phrase bhanson (bamboos), to bhainson (buffaloes) – which is wrong.
It must be white-hot right now, your sun shining strong above the canals of Lahore, where children come to wade in the brown water to cool themselves off. Summers remind me of siestas in my Nani Ami’s home on the bhanson (bamboos) wali sarak, when all the bedrooms would turn ink-dark by pulling down the bamboo blinds after a long, lazy meal of her spicy ginger-laced chicken stew, scooped up with light-as-air tandoori rotis from nearby Dharampura. I would love to have mangoes from your fertile Punjabi earth, those fragrant chaunsa mangoes, egg- yolk yellow from inside, through which my knife slices like butter, the juices running down my arm with each bite, seated at my grandmother’s dining table. Or maybe one of your anwar ratols or the parrot-green skinned langras, all reminiscent of my childhood in my city of birth, Lahore.
Do you remember when I used to walk alongside my Mamoo in the evenings, grasping his hand, under the shade of the bamboo canopy outside Nani Ami’s home? I so wish you had not cut those bamboo stems down to widen the road. Our local samosa wallah used to be seated under that shade, forming triangular pastry parcels with his dexterous hand, pushing and pinching in cumin-spiced mashed potatoes, then frying them in his orb-like karahi. I loved watching them bobbing up and down in the musky oil. He sold them hot and steaming in a khaki paper bag, to be taken home and enjoyed with our afternoon tea. But after you cut down those bamboos, one by one, all the food hawkers in Nani Ami’s neighbourhood disappeared, and with it, so did our evening walks.
Even on the canal bank, I wish you had not decided to cut down your beautiful willow trees. Don’t you remember the challi wallah on the canal bank near Aitchison College? He always sported a yellow and white checkered scarf, resting lazily on his left shoulder, and a perfectly-starched kurta, even when your sun shone almost unbearably. As a bemused child, I remember looking on as he fished the challis out with his bare hands from the smouldering heap of coal dust. After removing the husks, he took half a lime, dipped it in chili and salt and smeared it all over the golden, blistered challi. And surely you remember that across the street from the challi wallah were those weeping willow trees lining the canal bank, drooped and in prostration, praying for the monsoons to come. I was very saddened to learn you had given people permission to chop your trees down last year. I hear the children have no shade to shelter them when they come out of the water from their swim. And the challi wallahs are also long gone. When I arrive in Lahore this year, as our car drives along the bank, the canal will be bare and naked.
I hope you don’t continue to change, because my family and you, well, we go back a long way.
I wanted to wish you a Happy 65th Independence Day and thank you for the childhood memories. In your honour, I’ll slice through a sindhri from a desi store here. And I’ll even add a dollop of clotted cream in place of the malai I had in Nani Ami’s home all those summers.