Meandering through the bazaars of Lahore was sheer delight, and during the summer in Shimla one could forget all pain. These were tranquil times during the Raj...

When I got married just before the second World War, little did I know what fate had in store for me. Immediately after our wedding, my husband was transferred to Karachi. There used to be a regular ferry service between Bombay and Karachi. We took a cabin. It was tiny and exceedingly hot in spite of fans. I suggested we sleep on the deck like some other passengers; it looked so cool and breezy. My prim and proper husband refused. After a few steaming days in the cabin and red hot Goa curries at meals, we landed in Karachi more like wrecks than honeymooners.

Next posting was at Lahore. By that time we had acquired a brand new baby and a car. A bright red English Morris Minor costing all of Rs. 3,000 (India didn't make cars then). It had a canvas hood. In a sudden shower, by the time we jumped out, pulled the hood up, and adjusted the side panels, we were drenched. Thank heavens for today's push button technology.

To a newcomer from Bombay, Lahore's spacious country living, wide tree lined streets and well kept bungalows were very attractive. Strong horses drawing colourful tongas clattered along the streets beside a few cars. No stress, no hurry. For those, one went to the crowded bazaars uniquely different from others in India.

Rich variety

Lahore was lovely in winter. Our rented bungalow was the only house yet built on Canal Bank Road. It was heavenly to sit in the sun watching clean water flowing in the canal.

Carpet vendors besieged us. We were easy prey because we needed carpets desperately. They were so beautiful it was hard to choose. The bright deep reds with black geometric designs of Afghanistan. The lovely colours and patterns of Persian and Indian carpets. More expensive, but, oh so desirable. We compromised by buying one Afghan and one Indian.

Lahore's famous Anarkali Bazaar is one of the oldest surviving markets in South Asia. Named after Anarkali (pomegranate bud), a slave girl who was entombed alive between two walls by Akbar for having a love affair with Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir). This legend is so cherished that it has been the subject of literature, art and films, both in India and Pakistan.

My memories of the Bazaar are of a long narrow meandering street crowded with camel carts loaded with baggage and people. Sitting at a shop window among jute bags of walnuts, almonds, dried apricots and pistachios, it felt weird to be stared at by a camel at eye level ambling past. Horsemen clattering by, tongas and people everywhere. Beautiful men and women in colourful costumes bargaining, eating in coloured glass decorated, brightly lit eateries. Delicious smells of food and attar. Shops and shops on either side with exquisite handicrafts at unbelievably low prices. I wonder what Anarkali Bazaar looks like today.

In the evenings, we drove for fresh air and exercise to Lawrence Gardens (former Viceroy) later renamed Bagh-e-Jinna. Originally built as a botanical garden modelled on Kew Gardens, it is still the most beautiful and well managed park in Pakistan. It was so refreshing to drive through 176 acres of rare flora culled from round the world. The sweet scents released by blossoming trees after dusk were a great attraction to linger in the well lit park. It was in the gymkhana tradition that a cricket ground was built in the garden and the Lahore Gymkhana Club later became famous for Test matches played on its perfect pitches.

In summer families used to go to nearby hill stations. Shimla was a favourite. One remarkable summer there, I had an accident. A miscarriage. My husband called for an ambulance. It arrived after some time. We discovered to our dismay that the “ambulance” was a stretcher with four runners to carry it. The hospital was in the valley below and our hotel on top of the Mall. The stretcher was accompanied by a nurse. She gave me an injection and some pills, made me comfortable with blankets and cap and we started, husband jogging alongside. Once outdoors, the pain and trauma of the past few hours were almost forgotten. My whole perspective changed. A lovely summer day, being borne aloft smoothly, face upturned to the sky and clouds, admiring the tall tree tops alongside and revived by the fresh cold air, I was almost enjoying the trip down. The bearers were well trained and ran without jolting the patient. They wore clean white uniforms with a red cross. As did the nurse. The road was narrow. Only rickshaws could have negotiated it. I wondered where the Viceroy and his staff went when they were sick. Probably a special hospital somewhere near his residence. When we reached our hospital, it was small, clean and adequate. In a couple of days a rickshaw carried me home. At no stage during the trip down did I feel that this must be like a death rehearsal. Life was all around me, blooming and beautiful.

Back in Lahore, to a newcomer like me from Bombay, the Raj atmosphere was very strong. Even when invited, you just didn't barge in. You were seated in the anteroom by a turbaned bearer in spotless white. He took in your card and the hostess came out to welcome you. It was usually a women's tea party. The crisp lace or embroidered table cloth was itself a work of art. One was reluctant to actually use the lovely napkins. The silver shone, the pastry was home made and sandwiches paper-thin with loads of butter in the filling. A typical English tea party. Conversation was often about their doings at the Club (strictly for the British) which made one feel uncomfortable and wonder at their insensitivity. In the gardens there was often a croquet or miniature golf game going on which the family and guests enjoyed.

Surprise visit

One morning about 10 o'clock, I was in the garden, enjoying my session with the mali. I had much to learn and he liked teaching me. We saw a car pull up at the gate. A smart uniformed chaprasi helped a lady out. I said, “She must have come to the wrong house.” Mali said, “there is no other house within miles. Look, she's coming into the gate.” I wasn't dressed for visitors. I had on my favourite lounging attire of orange crepe-de-chine embroidered with huge black and gold dragons. And pyjamas to match. Before independence we often saw Chinamen stooped with huge loads on their backs carrying the loveliest handicrafts from China. Unusual and beautiful, they were irresistible. My astonished visitor introduced herself as Mrs. Chaterjee, the Collector's wife. Collector Sahib was like God. The servants had already recognised his car and we shot up in their estimation. I still don't know to what I owed this royal visit. As we chatted over coffee and biscuits she said, “My dear, I know you are young and new here but we are usually dressed and ready for callers before 11.” After that I was always scrubbed and dressed but alas, no other visitor appeared.

In the early forties, a favourite topic of conversation in all circles was the assumed romance between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. It provided endless scope for gossip. This was replaced by the somber reality of a looming Indo Pakistan partition with its growing carnage and brutality. Lahore was one of the focal points. My husband's Company recalled us to the head office in Calcutta and that became our permanent home. We were glad to have had this glimpse of the North because months later, the borders were closed forever.

The writer (age 93) is a freelance contributor to national newspapers and magazines. She can be contacted at silloo.mehta@yahoo.co.in

Keywords: LahoreShimlaBritish Raj

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