The Sanctuary

The house, with its grandeur and imposing presence, offered a sense of security and stability in those uncertain times

Nestled in the heart of Lahore, the old house stood with an air of timeless elegance. The century old house on Lawrence Road had always been a place of whispers and secrets, its walls echoing with stories from the past. It stood tall and imposing, a three-story behemoth that seemed to have weathered countless storms. It was a relic from a bygone era, when Lahore was still part of the undivided India, and the horrors of the partition were just beginning to unfold.

The house was a sprawling estate with gardens, albeit unkempt, adorned with fruit trees that bore witness to the changing seasons year after year. As you step into the veranda, you are serenaded by the melodic Symphony of dozens of nightingales, their sweet tunes filling the air with an enchanting melody. Surrounding the house, ancient trees stand as silent witnesses to the passage of time. Figs, Guavas, Pomegranate, Sweet Tamarind…as ancient as the house itself. The grape fruit, Mulberry and Banana trees created a dense, seasonal Oasis. Their branches were heavy with fruits offering their sweet-smelling renditions. Among them, a pear tree was a unique treasure, yielding its sweet fruits on alternate years, like a well-kept secret of the garden. As the winter rains poured down, the house presented a unique spectacle; as if dancing in a soothing rhythm of its own, giving life to its inhabitants.

Thereafter the soft warm glow from the winter sun, casting a golden hue over the scene, making the old house and its veranda even more inviting and magical. During the scorching summer months of Lahore, it’s enormous veranda, adorned with a sprawling grapevine, provided a cool, shaded retreat, inviting all who entered to bask in its rustic charm. 

As the tumultuous events of 1947 unfolded, it became a sanctuary for families fleeing from India. The house, with its grandeur and imposing presence, offered a sense of security and stability in those uncertain times. The house was allotted to a man named Mr. Ahmad Ali, who had fled from his home in India, leaving behind everything he had ever known. With him came a retinue of servants, who had served his family for generations. These loyal individuals had become a part of the house’s history, their lives intertwined with the fate of the place. 

In the early years, the house became a melting pot of politics, love, hate, and flirtation. Families of relatives as well as from diverse backgrounds were thrust into close quarters, and the tension in the air was palpable. Political discussions often took place in the grand drawing room, where opinions clashed and alliances formed. Amidst the chaos, love stories bloomed, secret romances kindled in hidden corners and rivalries turned into lifelong feuds. Mr. Ahmad’s only daughter Amna, was the belle of the house. Her beauty and charm were known far and wide, and many young men vied for her attention. Amna however, had a spirit of her own, and she was not one to be easily won over. She enjoyed the attention and the adoration but remained fiercely independent. 

As the years passed, the world outside the grand old house continued to change. The political landscape of Pakistan was evolving, and opportunities beckoned the young and ambitious. One by one, the young men and women who had once called the house their home moved away, seeking education and careers. Amna, too, after getting married had to leave Pakistan with her husband leaving Mr. Ahmad alone with his loyal servant Rahim.

 The grand pre partition house, with all its the secrets of bygone eras, slowly started to get lonelier with each passing day. Now the only people who shared this spacious dwelling were the retinue of servants, including Rahim, another widower whose son worked in Dubai and a Christian family resided in the annexed servant quarters. Though he was not alone in his sprawling mansion, Mr. Ahmad’s life was far more solitary. He was a perspicacious man—a practicing Muslim who never lost balance, harmony and content at any point in life. He owned around 50 acres of land in Multan, a source of substantial income. His only company was his teenager nephew Adnan, more commonly known by his nickname ‘Andy’. Andy’s father, a government servant, had relocated to a distant suburban town in connection with his transfer. Due to the limited educational facilities there, he had little option than taking the painful decision of leaving his eldest son to stay in that house. More so, in those days it was not very unusual for young boys to live in boarding or with distant relatives for the sake of education. 

Mr. Ahmad’s days were brightened by the presence of his six close friends –all chatterboxes whose braggadocio saw no limits. A motley crew of widowers and bachelors, they gathered at his house from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Laughter filled the air as the friends, were brimming with stories, jokes, and colorful anecdotes, brought life to the old mansion. One of them fancied himself a baron, another claimed royal descent from Tipu Sultan’s family, and a third believed he was a relic of the British Raj, acting the part of an English gentleman. On weekends, Andy joined this lively group, and over time, a deep camaraderie developed between the elderly men and the young boy. They bridged generational gaps, sharing their worlds. The old men, with Andy’s help, delved into the world of modern technology and the intricacies of the game of cricket, while Andy absorbed the spicy tales of the past from these seasoned storytellers. Together, they became ardent cricket enthusiasts, eagerly switching on the TV to watch the Pakistan cricket team in action. As the years passed, Mr. Ahmad’s friends slowly departed from this world, leaving behind memories and stories. When Andy turned 18, he was selected to serve in the military and had to bid farewell.  Mr. Ahmad, now was in the twilight of his life. 

Andy, who was now a young Lieutenant visited Mr. Ahmad in the old house and continued to cherish their bond. Then, one day, Mr. Ahmad peacefully passed away in his sleep. His loyal servant, Rahim, who had been a constant presence at his side all those years, was unable to bear the shock of losing his master. In the quiet of that same evening, Rahim too, left this world, his loyalty to the old man enduring to the very end. The grand old house stood as a silent witness to the passage of time and the friendships that had once filled it with laughter and life. 

 Half a century later the once-grand house that had been a sanctuary for so many, and which had seen so much life and history was now eerily silent. With no other heirs present in Pakistan to look after the house, Amna made the difficult decision to sell her family’s legacy. The house, with all its history and memories, was sold remotely from London to a business group that saw in it the prime real estate’s potential. The grand old house, which had been a refuge for so many, was razed to the ground, its walls reduced to rubble and dust. In its place, a commercial plaza rose like a phoenix from the ashes. The charm of the century old house was lost forever, replaced by the hustle and bustle of modern life. The memories, the love, the hate, the flirtation—all were buried beneath the concrete and steel of progress. Lawrence Road in Lahore, once home to a house that had witnessed the partition of India, became a hub of commerce and activity. The old stories and secrets whispered by the walls of the decrepit house were forgotten as the city continued to evolve, leaving behind the echoes of the past. And so, the house on Lawrence Road which had sheltered so many in their times of need, faded into history, a testament to the ever-changing tapestry of life and the passage of time.

The author is a retired Cavalry officer. He has spent 27 years in uniform and has a published collection of short stories 'By the Autumn Trees' to his name. He is an avid traveler and also has ample of well-researched travelogues published in the leading newspapers of the country.

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