Lahore Enchanted

A city of lights, love, and ancient lore.
By Bapsi Sidhwa


Lahore Enchanted


Lahore. If I toss up the word and close my eyes, it conjures up gardens and fragrances. Not only the formal Mughal gardens, with their obedient rows of fountains and cypresses, or the acreage of the club-strewn Lawrence Gardens, but the gardens in thousands of private houses with their riot of spring flowers. There is a carnival of jewel colors embedded in emerald lawns and hedges—a defiant brilliance of kachnar, bougainvillea and gulmohur silhouetted against an azure sky. And the winter and spring air are heady. They make the blood hum.

I have spent most of my life in Lahore, and the city of 11 million provides the geographical location of my novels. Its ambience has molded my sensibility and also my emotional responses. To belong to Lahore is to be steeped in its romance, to inhale with each breath an intensity of feeling that demands expression.

Above all else, Lahore is a city of poets. Not just giants like the Sufi poet Allama Iqbal or Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but a throng of them. Given half a chance, the average Lahori will quote a couplet from an Urdu ghazal or from Bulleh Shah’s mystical Punjabi verse, and readily confess to writing poems. In the West, Lahore is most famously the city that inspired Rudyard Kipling to write his novel Kim. An insomniac, Kipling explored the narrow lanes of the walled city, which forms the core of Lahore, and wrote about his observations and adventures.

The very spelling of this hoary city causes one to indulge in linguistic antics; as I did in my first novel, The Pakistani Bride: “Lahore—the ancient whore, the handmaiden of dimly remembered Hindu kings, the courtesan of Mughal emperors, bedecked and bejeweled, savaged by marauding hordes, healed by the caressing hands of successive lovers. A little shoddy, as Qasim saw her; like an attractive but aging concubine, ready to bestow surprising delights on those who cared to court her, proudly displaying Royal gifts.”

Much of this novel is set in Lahore. We observe the city through Qasim, a Kohistani tribesman from the Afghan frontier, as he wanders through Lahore with his adopted daughter, Zaitoon, perched on his shoulders. With them we stroll down Anarkali, the crowded bazaar named after the beautiful girl who was bricked in alive by the Emperor Akbar because his son Prince Salim was determined to marry her.

I was always uneasy with this story. It was inconsistent with everything I had heard about the judicious character of the gentle monarch. Mughal princes, after all, were almost obliged to fall in love with dancing girls—it was a rite of passage, a means of acquiring carnal sophistication and courtly manners. How then could Emperor Akbar call such a vengeful punishment upon a young girl whose vocation compelled her to seduce princes?

What I subsequently learnt gives Anarkali’s story a more credible twist. Anarkali (which means a pomegranate flower in bud) was neither a dancing girl nor, as some suggest, a handmaiden to one of the queens. She was in fact one of Akbar’s junior wives. This version gives a more serious complexion to the transgression—one that smacks of royal adultery and incest and thus liable to invite the dire punishment meted out.

There is a certain route I follow when I take outstation guests on a tour of my favorite Lahori landmarks. From my house in the cantonment we drive to Mall Road, grandly renamed Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam after the founding father of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. But old names like old habits die hard, and it is still commonly called Mall Road.

Shaded by massive peepal and eucalyptus trees, its wide meridians ablaze with seasonal flowers and rose vine, the avenue provides an impressive route for the dignitaries being wafted in their darkened limos to the Government House. Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam is also a part of the famed Grand Trunk Road that ran the breadth of India from Peshawar to Calcutta. At least I think it is.

Past the delicate pink sprawl of the British-built High Court and the coppery Zam-zammah, the cannon better known as ‘Kim’s gun’ after Kipling’s young hero, past the deadly little fighter jet displayed on the traffic island a little further along the road, our tiny Suzuki noses through the congestion of trucks, horse-drawn tongas, bullock-carts and scooter-rickshaws to Data Sahib’s shrine on Ravi Road. One of the earliest Muslim saints to set up shop in India, Data Gunj Bakhsh is embraced by all communities—including the Hindus and Sikhs before they fled Lahore at Partition.

I was regularly hauled to the shrine as a child. My mother had a committed and confidential relationship with the saint and was forever asking him to either grant her some favor or thanking him for having granted it. On those visits, prompted by her gratitude, she would insert crisp Rs. 10 notes in the collection box just inside the grills of the tomb window, and when I passed—to her and my astonishment—my matriculation exams, she inserted a Rs. 100 note in an extravagant surge of gratefulness.

It is alleged that the saint saved Lahore during the ’65 and ’71 wars with India. Sikh pilots are believed to have seen hands materialize out of the ether to catch the bombs and gentle them to the ground. How else can one explain the quantity of unexploded bombs found in the area? They can’t all be blamed on poor manufacture, surely. (I have woven these miraculous events into A Gentlemanly War, which will appear this spring in my new collection, Their Language of Love, being published by Penguin India and Readings Books in Pakistan.)

Lahore’s role as an administrative, commercial, and educational center brought migrants to the city from the hinterland and beyond. The British community secured its groceries and general merchandise from the Parsi and European traders, and was provided spiritual sustenance at St. James Church in Anarkali, the Anglican cathedral of the Resurrection, and the Catholic Sacred Heart cathedral. The racial superiority the British assumed, and their desire to engage in pastimes that made them feel ‘at home’ in Lahore, limited their interaction to elite native circles.

I like to think that the tiny Parsi community—to which I belong—played a small but significant role in Lahore’s development. Parsi migrants from Bombay, drawn to Lahore because of the commercial opportunities provided by the growing British presence, located their shops on or close to the Mall or in the cantonment, where the Challa family provided groceries and beverages for the British servicemen. A number of Parsis were wine merchants, among them my father, Peshotan Bhandara, whose wine shop  D. P. Edulji & Co. was located on the Mall next to the Tollington Market. The Cooper family founded the Parsi Agyari (Fire Temple), which celebrated its centenary a decade ago.

This, then, is the ancient city, described before Partition as the ‘Paris of the East,’ which insinuates itself in each of my novels and stories. After all, it is the city in which I grew up and inhabited longest. It is where my memories are lodged, and where the people who were dear to me lived—Godmother, Slavesister, Mother, Father, Dr. Bharucha. My books Ice Candy Man, The Crow Eaters,and An American Brat are peopled by them, and the Junglewallas, Toddywallas, Bankwallas, and a host of other -wallas.

The magnificent tombs, mosques, gardens, and the colonial edifices built by the British, all form only the essential background; it is the mixture of people who throng Lahore’s bazaars and streets and inhabit the city’s buildings that occupy central stage. And therein lies the emotional landscape of my writing, the memories I draw upon.


Sidhwa is an award-winning author, essayist, and playwright. Her books include Cracking India, which was made into a film, Earth, by Deepak Mehta. Junglewalla, the Urdu translation of her best-selling The Crow Eaters, was launched at the debut Lahore Literary Festival. This essay was published in Newsweek Pakistan’s March 1 & 8, 2013, issue.