When I was little my father cried watching a TV drama “Matti aur Mashkeeza” (Pitcher and Dust) about an old couple whose job was to water the searing dusty streets of Peshawar every morning. This was before streets went concrete. Gallons of water in a camel skin sack would hang from the old couple’s shoulders as they splashed the streets at dawn to make them cooler. The drama showed their love, scarcity of money and their profession being phased out because of municipal development. My father, whom I had rarely seen cry, cried at the show. “Such stories are rare on television,” he said.
I was born in Garhi Shahu. It is a neighborhood close to the Lahore Railway station. Garhi Shahu was called Mohallah Sayedan under the Mughals before it was permanently named after a gangster, Shahu. In my childhood, stories of Shahu’s anarchic lootings was a way to scare kids during late night power-cuts.
. Lahore Railway Station (1940s)
The British laid a railway track in the area as part of growing India’s railway network to exploit its raw materials, and Garhi Shahu expanded for workers of the colonizer’s Railways, The North Western State Railway.
Top professionals and Christian missionaries living in the area were Goan Christians of Portuguese descent. Low-wage workers on the other hand were Punjabi Muslims and rural Christians--Dalits who embraced the Christian missionary promise to escape their untouchable status. They could not however escape casteism built into Punjab’s profession-based social system that designated them only to municipal jobs such as street cleaning.
After the British fled, and a new government stepped into the colonist’s shoes, The North Western State Railway became Pakistan Western Railway and my grandfather — hired as a mechanic under the Raj — retired as an engine driver.
With his retirement fund he added four rooms on his short four marlaproperty. Two of those rooms became my home, when I was born to his son, thirty-three at the time, arranged married to an eighteen year old Pashtun girl, my mom.
My own earliest memory of Garhi Shahu is around 1992, a few months before my grandma passed on. I remember grandma putting on a shuttlecock burqa to roam the Main Bazaar. Her children — my aunts and uncles — would gather in the house and blame each other loudly for having lost her. She had alzheimer’s. They had written our address on daadi’s wrist.
Somewhere in between their chai breaks, Sardaran Bibi would walk back home on her own and more often would be brought back by people who heard the missing person announcement in the masjid. A few years later, when I would watch the missing people announcement before the evening Punjabi news bulletin on Pakistan Television (PTV) in Lahore, and then on Doordarshan (DD) broadcasting from a tower twenty miles away in Amritsar, I would think of grandma. “Talash-e-gumshuda”(Search-for-the-missing) in Punjabi the announcer would say on PTV and “Gwache barey Ghoshna Suno” (Listen to the missing people announcement) in Punjabi on DD. Both state-run channels on either side of the Pakistan-India border ran a slideshow of passport-sized photos: “kanak pinna” (wheatish) boys and girls, often not of sound mind, poor and lost in melas (fairs).
My uncle whom we called ‘I’ (pronounced Aa.ee) lived in the other two rooms with his son. Aping his father’s career out of convenience, Aa.ee joined the yet again rebranded railways, now Pakistan Railways (PR) as a technician and ended up retiring as one. With his retirement fund he bought a Rickshaw and drove it six days a week, 7am — 2pm. Friday was a holiday. As we grew older, Aa.ee’s son took over his morning shifts and Sunday became a holiday.
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