Baarah Numbur

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

I am not sure what caused me to narrate this story, or whether to call it a story, a good idea at all? Perhaps, I have no more stories to tell. But then it’s the stories; good or bad, that keep us going. From the cradle to the old age, it’s the stories that we listen, and it’s the stories that we tell.

Perhaps this is not just a story but a small chapter, or may be just one page in the book. A book—that was a ‘house’ in reality, the ‘Baara Numbur’. A small world within the world, of its own, having a diversity of dwellers, whose lives were interwoven to become one huge extended human family. My memories of the house date back to the day I opened my eyes there. To call it a house is a travesty. It was more of a labyrinthine, its boundaries elusive, each corner harboring a small independent housing complex with a small kitchen.  Located in the shadows of Saint Anthony’s church, not more than two hundred meters short of the Lawrence road – Queens Road Intersection its main entrance, though without a proper gate, rested right on the Lawrence road. The driveway meandered through scattered trees that sprawled on an acre and ended at another entrance that was too, without a gate and which would usher into a spacious common lawn in front of a big verandah overlooked by balconies draped with grapewine. On either flanks of the lawn hung small campuses of accommodation. 

This is a tale, not a conventional story. A kaleidoscope of a kind, for so many souls, whose individual stories unfolds emanating from the same epicenter; just like the age old stereo type lexicon ‘Once upon a time on a land far, far away…’ the vibrant chapters of a house that witnessed the birth of literary giants, professional managers, Cinema and TV artists, thinkers, philosophers, mediocre and many nobodies.  It captures the essence of an era when evenings were adorned with verses, prose, and the intoxicating aroma of tea, echoing the cultural richness that defined the Lahore of yesteryears. 

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 stepped into the veranda, you were serenaded by the melodic Symphony of dozens of nightingales, their sweet tunes filling the air with an enchanting melody. Surrounding the house, ancient trees stood 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. The house, a microcosm of post-Partition life, echoed with stories. Each room held a fragment of someone's journey, a tale of resilience amid uncertainty. The sprawling lawn, adorned with fruit trees, witnessed shared joys and sorrows. 

The house had been allotted to the father-in-law of my father’s eldest sister, an aged gentleman Syed Ahmad who also happened to be my father’s distant uncle. He was fortunate to shift to this side leaving behind his estate in Simla and everything he had known along with his small family just before the 1947 partition carnage began to unfold. With him came a retinue of servants, who had served his family for generations. These loyal individuals became a part of the house’s history, their lives intertwined with the fate of the place. Following the partition of India in 1947, my father, then a teenager with his two unmarried sisters, and a widowed mother had migrated too towards the last few days of the year and became part of the house.   

As the tumultuous events of 1947 unfolded, it became a sanctuary for more and more families, close or distant, fleeing from India. The house, with its grandeur and imposing presence, offered a sense of security and stability in those uncertain times. Syed Ahmad, like a beacon of strength became a paternal figure for the influx of families finding refuge in the house upholding the semblance of normalcy. The house became a cultural melting pot, blending traditions, languages, and cuisines. It bore witness to marriages, births, and the ebb and flow of life.

Five years later my father’s eldest sister, daughter-in-law of Syed Ahmed, passed away succumbing to her prolonged ailment leaving behind a seven years old son and two years old daughter. Before his marriage, my father reveled in the charms of Lahore, particularly Lawrence Road. He cherished promenading on the Mall frequenting his favorite spots, something he became too addicted to. The iconic Maula Bakhsh Paan shop was a must for his Paan cravings. Imperial Book Depot, a haven for literature enthusiasts, witnessed him engrossed in a book while standing. The journey continued to the Cheering Cross, concluding at Lord's Restaurant for tea and his beloved patties. Feroze Sons beckoned him, leading to a visit to Hico Chalet for a delightful nick nack.

As years passed, my father transitioned from a merry man to the editor of the literary journal Mahe Nau. Despite relocating to a newly built home in Gulberg, his love for the Mall remained steadfast. 

Eighteen years later my father married within those walls, and my birth merely added to the vibrant chaos. Uncles, aunts, young ones—each found a nook in different parts of the house. The following year Syed Ahmed too passed away. His son, Ibne Ahmad, a graduate of Sherwood College Nanital and Aligarh University became the new patriarch.

My early education began at the YWCA, governed by British nuns, remnants of the Raj. My younger sister and I, escorted by our elderly Chitrali servant, navigated the strict YWCA routine. The Chitrali, a merry soul, often broke into impromptu dances, injecting joy into our tumultuous surroundings.

The YWCA's strict ambiance clashed with our tender years. Lateness meant enduring the sun for an hour. At break time the school offered us a glass of milk and an oversized cookie—a challenge for our young palates. The British nuns, despite our age, wielded sternness.

As I grew, the house evolved too—a living testament to adaptation. Its rooms became chapters, each narrating a unique story. The grand veranda, a silent spectator to decades, held the echoes of laughter and heartfelt conversations. Among the servants, the Chitrali, Ghulam Muhammad better known as Hitler (another potato shaped Bulti) and Hamid the chef was the constant presence, transcended the roles of servants. The dances of Chitrali provided the much needed solace in those turbulent times. His vibrant spirit, an antidote to the prevailing uncertainties, imprinted lasting memories.

The YWCA tenure followed by years at Cathedral School, though stringent, cultivated resilience and character and instilled an iron discipline that I still find difficult to part with. The strict nuns inadvertently taught life's rigors, preparing us for the unpredictable journey ahead. The house, resilient like its inhabitants, weathered storms and embraced new beginnings.

As I advanced in school, friendships formed in the house endured. The sprawling estate became a playground, witness to our youthful adventures. Each tree held a secret, every corner echoed with shared laughter. The house, a mosaic of memories, stood firm amid the passage of time. The post-Partition exodus, initially a tale of displacement, transformed into a narrative of unity. The house, once a mere structure, metamorphosed into a living legacy, embodying the resilience of those who sought refuge within its walls.

In the backdrop of historical turbulence, the house emerged as a sanctuary—a symbol of continuity and strength. Its architecture, a blend of past and present, mirrored the evolving tapestry of our lives. The veranda, once a stage for family gatherings, continued to host tales of the past and dreams of the future. And therefore, that insalubrious house stood as a testament to the indomitable human spirit. Its walls whispered stories of survival, adaptation, and the enduring power of shared history. And as time wove its intricate patterns, the house remained, an eternal witness to the ceaseless dance of life, its memories woven into the fabric of my existence. The colossal house’s grandeur was divided, revealing two personalities which were two worlds within its walls. On the right, as you entered the driveway, laid the dwelling of A.R. Khatoon, who became renowned for novels like Shama and Afshan. In the adjacent portion lived my Aunt Altaf Fatima, an unwed figure who would later to become a legend in Urdu literature.

 The house, once vibrant with families, gradually thinned out over time. As a schoolboy, I witnessed the transformation of our home into a literary haven. Aunt Altaf Fatima, a pillar of strength, not only played a crucial role in raising her elder sister’s two children, but transformed the house into a hub of literary activities. Evenings in the house became a literary club, where writers, poets, and artists congregated to share excerpts of their creations. Names that resonated with literary prowess—Mustansir Hussain Tarar, Bushra Rehman, Intizar Hussain, Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia, Qasim Jalali, Kishwar Naheed, and Zia Mohiuddin—became familiar fixtures. The house became a nurturing ground for aspiring writers and poets, drawn by the magnetic presence of my aunt.

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. 

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. Ibne Ahmad’s son too on completing his education left for United States to pursue his career while the daughter, too, after getting married had to leave Pakistan and settled abroad with her husband.

 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 Hamid the Chef, another widower whose son worked in Dubai, Hitler the Bulti and a Christian family resided in the annexed servant quarters. Though he was not alone in his sprawling mansion, as his sister-in-law and my aunt Altaf Fatima was still living in one of the portion, Ibne Ahmad’s life was far more solitary. He was a perspicacious man—a practicing Muslim who never lost cool, balance, and content at any point in life. He owned around 50 acres of land in Multan, a source of substantial income. During the same very days, my father got his posting to Rawalpindi. As I was well settled in my school, my father decided to leave me at Lahore with Altaf Fatima so that my studies should not suffer. 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, I would join this lively group, and over time, a deep camaraderie developed between us bridging the generational gaps. The old men, with my expert knowledge, delved into the world of modern technology and the intricacies of the game of cricket, while I absorbed the spicy tales of the past from these seasoned storytellers. Together, we became ardent cricket enthusiasts, eagerly switching on the TV to watch the Pakistan cricket team in action. He would wake me up at the time of morning prayers to pray together. He instilled into me the habit of long early morning running “not less than 6 kilometers” he would insist, while he would do some Yoga exercises.  

As the years passed, Mr. Ahmad’s friends slowly departed from this world, leaving behind memories and stories. When I turned 18, I was selected to serve in the military and had to bid farewell.  Ibne Ahmad, now was in the twilight of his life. 

I nevertheless, did not break the string and would visit him every time I came to Lahore on leave. Then, one day, Ibne Ahmad peacefully passed away in his sleep. His loyal servant, Hamid, 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, Hamid 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, his children made the difficult decision to sell the family’s legacy. The house, with all its history and memories, was sold remotely 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.

Baara Numbur (12 Lawrence Road Lahore), once home to so many 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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