Lahore used to be a fortified city of twelve massive gates, whose names have outlived the largely pillaged walls. It has been a great city for at least a thousand years; one ancient proverb claimed that if Persia’s Shiraz and Isfahan were united, they wouldn’t make one Lahore. It was conquered, manhandled, occupied and ransacked by the Sikhs when they took advantage of the Mogul decline in the eighteenth century to seize the Punjab. They held it as their capital until their wars with the British in the mid-nineteenth century, after which they happily settled down to being the most reliable and tough soldiers in the Raj alongside the Gurkhas. At Partition most Sikhs went to India, or died trying.

Old Lahore is the dense, tottering, bazaar-city of Kipling’s stories, and some of his titles, like The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows, could serve as name plaques every few steps. It was architecturally not as old as I’d imagined — this was because a lot of it got burned to the ground during Partition. Still, it was every bit as anarchic, boisterous, crammed, decrepit, exuberant, and aromatic. Clearly collapse had for centuries taken the place of city planning: lattices collapsed, towers collapsed, age-old balconies collapsed, roofs collapsed, entire buildings collapsed, and some makeshift replacement or other put up. The effect was of an eighteenth-century bazaar, with few houses actually that old. The wiring looked, on the other hand, totally original.

The Wazir Khan was a mosque entirely on a small scale: a beautiful squarish courtyard, four towers, and brick walls with a painted fresco work as ornate as the decor on trucks, showing trees, flowers, urns, and verses from the Koran in Persian.

Remove thy heart from the gardens of the world, and know that this building is the true abode of man.

Around it was an intricate jumble of old brick and stone work, the upper stories of Old Lahore — fallen-in roofs, lots of satellite dishes, and kites fluttering and swooping and attacking each other above the old city. Colorful paper kites were one of Lahore’s liberations. Popular throughout the country, they were an obsession here; Lahore hosts a huge kite festival every spring. The idea really was to attack: each kite string was made with ground glass, paste, and flax, and with great skill you could use your deadly twine to saw through another man’s kitestring and send his treasure plummeting to the ground. Many power failures came about when children’s kites flew into the rats’ nests of convoluted electric lines. In the rainy season people often got electrocuted, trying to untangle their kite strings from the naked old wires.

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The street heading down to Anarkali Bazaar, one of Kim’s old haunts, led from a tires bazaar into a bicycle and small arms bazaar, where one store sold ingenious wheelchairs, handcranked on both sides. I nearly feel into an open sewer when an old man on a bike let out a blast on his horn, which was attached to a bicycle pump that made it louder than all the cars. Throughout Pakistan I was constantly amazed at the complex melodies of the vehicle horns: they ran with great velocity up and down the pentatonic and whole-tone scales, or through intricate Oriental flurries. I was told of one that played Never On Sunday.

On the Mall a corner display had newspapers hung so people could stand and read for free, and along a sidewalk was a mini-bazaar of outdated foreign magazines. There was also a Jewelers’ Row, for much of Islam has a deep faith in gold bracelets and a deep distrust of banks. The paradox was that even though Pakistan economically looks pathetic on paper, worse off than India, to someone just strolling around, people looked much better off here. Perhaps there’s a more equitable distribution of what little money there is, for I was rarely confronted with the bone-breaking poverty I saw at all times in India.

A few of the old private clubs from British days, like the Punjab Club where Kipling was a member, do still exist, but they have been forced over the years to shift their premises from those embarrassingly grand edifices on the Mall to obsequious lesser quarters on side streets. The enormous white mansion that was the Punjab Club, where Kipling went to drink after writing the newspaper all day — “the old, wearying, Godless futile life at a club — same men, same talk, same billiards” is now a government staff headquarters a blinding block long. Men who might not have been permitted into any London gentlemen’s club could relax in one larger than any of them; it was here that the young sub-editor nearly got into a fist fight with O’Dwyer, the bully partly responsible years later for the Amritsar massacre.

Kipling’s years in Lahore (1882 to 1887), in his teens and early twenties before his big promotion to Allahabad, were spent on the staff of the Civil and Military Gazette. It was where he joined the Freemasons and also had his first encounters with Indian “courtesans.” As half the newspaper’s editorial staff, he had to painstakingly correct the Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs who set the type by hand and had little idea what it all meant. The building where he worked, like the large bungalow where he lived with his family, has been demolished. “Outside during the day everything is dusty and redhot,” he said once. “You drink there for the liquid, and not for the liquor, and the minute you drink it you feel it coming through your shirt.” There were the fans, too, blowing every piece of paper but kept “ceaselessly going to prevent suffocation.” And there was also the cholera, that killed foreigners off regularly. No wonder (although most of the Indians around him and in his stories were Muslims) that a core idea of Hinduism and Buddhism, the illusory nature of this world, seeped into his bones; Kim, with the lama’s spiritual quest on the GT, is saturated in it.

The best way to see how the British relaxed here was to visit the main public library on the Mall, whose staid white arches and columns look rather formal and parliamentary on the outside. Once the Gymkhana Club, it could easily be the national assembly of some medium-size country. Inside, though, the arches go up, up, up past five glittering chandeliers, the balustraded mezzanines of books look over grand lawns and tennis courts, the ceilings are a dreamy swirl of flowers and skylights and inset flower mirrors. It makes a serene and pretty library, warm with sunlight pouring in, full of English books and foreign magazines immaculately kept, and quiet reading nooks with standing lamps. You sit there trying to imagine it as the private club for a membership of several dozen, served by turbaned waiters and the rest. Or in later years, just before Partition, when Lahore was bull of bars, cafés, cabarets, theaters, and a fashionable red-light district; and when here in the Gymkhana Club under British auspices, according to one historian, “the distance between the communities was often reduced to the thickness of a sari as Sikhs, Moslems and Hindus rumbaed and did the fox trot together.” Then the muezzin goes blaring off outside and you are really not sure where you are, or where this ever was.
Aug. 5, 1997

Anthony Weller has won awards both as a poet and a foreign correspondent, including a Lowell Thomas Medal in 1993. His writing has appeared in GEO, Vogue, Gourmet, G.Q., Travel & Leisure, Pan, National Geographic, Condé-Nast Traveler and the Paris Review.


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