Lahore Stories: As it once was
By Ayesha Javed Akram
Lahore is different things to different people. To some, it is the Walled City with its betel-stained and winding roads. To others, it is the majestic havelis that take on their real colours during Basant. For a few, Lahore is simply the smell of sweet halwa, lassi and spicy nihari. But for me, Lahore has always been MM Alam Road – the way it used to be.
When I was growing up on this road, it was an address one had to explain to people. “Take a left from Hussain Chowk,” I would often hear my mother say to someone on the phone. By the time we left MM Alam Road, it had become a landmark. My mother would say on the phone, “We live on MM Alam Road,” and that would suffice.
I learnt to drive on this road. At that time, it was perfect for a new driver. The road was wide and spacious, yet didn’t see too much traffic. My incessant honking would only draw amused stares from passer-bys. But now, even good drivers balk at the thought of driving here. The traffic barely crawls, bumpers collide, and getting through is akin to handling a unicycle.
Eight years ago, the barbed wire at the back of our house used to look onto a tiled veranda where four teenagers lived with their parents. When I decided to learn to cook, they loaned me my first recipe for aloo ghost. Today, an office building has come up there, and the nameless faces that rush in and out don’t even exchange nods with the peeping children.
Offices and restaurants are the most common residents here. Freddy’s Café, Nando’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, they all used to be homes once, pulsating, breathing homes. The children used to play cricket on the side-roads, the mothers would walk up and down the pavement, and the fathers would sometimes share a smoke under a shady tree. Now, there are few such sights.
Before a petrol station came up on the corner near Hussain Chowk, a small kiosk existed there. We would get our treats for tea from there – sugary biscuits, pan masala, corn chips. At around four every afternoon, we would cross the street with our maid in tow, spend our twenty-five rupees and head back. Today, the sprawling petrol pump and speeding cars there have made it almost impossible to cross the road.
But the change that bothers me the most are the plans for the doongi ground, better known as Saint Mary’s ground. Once, this huge park was one of the city’s most treasured cricket grounds. Neighbourhood boys would gather in their shirts and multi-coloured shorts and hit the ball all day long. Everyone was welcome, there was no entrance fee, and a tacit agreement existed that the team that arrived first, had the right to play first.
Arif Khan, the son of a Pathan driver, once told me that on Sunday, his team would arrive at seven in the morning to ensure that they were the first ones on the field. When digging began on the doongi ground, I met Khan sitting on the side, morosely staring at the bulldozers. “It’s all gone,” he said, staring at piles of dirt.
Of course development comes at a price, and once cranes and concrete make an appearance, fond memories are usually replaced by towering shopping plazas, office complexes and bustling schools. But while welcoming development, let’s take a moment to remember MM Alam Road as a street where children once grew up, young brides left their homes, cricket matches were played and lost, and the ice-cream man was awaited. Today, it is a street that has no residents – only visitors.