Chowk: Musings at a Crossroads

A vivid glimpse into the soul of Lahore
_____


It’s a soft, mellow Monday afternoon on Beadon Road, Anarkali, that time of the day when people have just awoken from yummy siestas on charpayees under shady peepal trees, when the white-capped muezzin climbs up to his balcony in the mosque for the Asr’ azaan as he does every day, and the mohalla stirs into characteristic evening hustle-bustle.

There’s a young girl sitting on the pavement, knees drawn up to her chest, wearing a large light pink something with no apparent shape, and a pink dupatta embroidered with little bits of mirror thrown over her black plaited head. Her eyes are black, iridescent with surma, her face wheatish pale.

Looking at her, she doesn’t seem incongruous, sitting there on that crowded, bubbly little crossing, but there’s something about her that tells you she doesn’t quite belong – like a seagull in a tropical forest. Maybe it’s her eyes, the way they wander, brightly, curiously, settling down fixedly on a particular thing, then taking wing again, with the raptness of a foreigner.

Right now she seems thoroughly preoccupied with that shop at the corner, the New Lahore Dry Fruit House. I always thought it odd the way people write English in Urdu script. Why not just write Urdu in Urdu? She reflects for a moment. Colonialism. Didn’t spare a letter. She shakes her head.

Dry fruit is really fascinating fare. There must be at least 20 different types of stuff here – peanuts, cashew nuts, walnuts, figs, raisins, pistachios, dried apricots. And then there are those that can’t really be identified in English – chilghozay, channay, phullian, choaaray. Dry fruit. How quintessentially sub-continent.

It’s a family business, evidently – a large gilded portrait of a middle-aged man with Kala-Kola hair and moustache embellishes the ‘entrance’. There isn’t an ‘entrance’, really, in any of the shops in this area, the makeshift ‘doors’ seemingly added as an afterthought. People just come and go without anyone really noticing or caring. Like bees, sort of. Moving around from flower to flower, without any ceremony. And none of it makes much of a difference to the flowers or to the other bees.

“Please do not touch. Please queue. No exchange, no return. Please do not walk on the grass…” Shopping malls and supermarkets.

The shopkeeper, a descendant of the Kala-Kola man in the portrait, sits complacently on a big wicker chair at the corner of the counter, in a balloony white shalwar kurta with embroidered collar, and two chunky silver rings on either thumb. There’s something in his demeanor, the blackness of his beard, the knottiness of his eyebrows, the slow, deliberated movement of his eyes, that lends him a natural authority. A local burgomeister, without the badge. And it works pretty well that way too, for you might have noticed the general apathetic character of badge- and uniform-wearing people. It’s like it gives them the liberty to do all those things they themselves are meant to stop.  How ironic. 

Like a policeman selling cricket match tickets in black.

Like a Security Council country sanctioning a war.

Like a mobile sock vendor drinking from a McDonald’s Coke cup?

He’s a dark, skinny fellow, not brown, but mahogany, a reddish-black. Like the earth. A rich earth, which grows purple anemones and Gulmohars, fakirs and burgomeisters. Reminds me of that story, about when God sent Azrael to collect soil from the Earth to make Adam with. His teeth are charred and yellow, from dubious smoking habits in dark alleys at night or maybe just a lack of toothpaste, but that doesn’t stop him from grinning. His cart is parked outside Babar Electronics Store, opposite the Dry Fruit shop – a strategic position, where everyone who walks into or out of the inner street is obliged also to walk past the rickety wheeled cart of the mozay-walah.

I almost envy him. Yes that skinny black sock walah. How free he is, how completely uninhibited. He doesn’t have to worry about getting home at night before the chowkidaar padlocks the gate, about getting insurance for his car and paying electricity bills, about tables and chairs and fridges and furniture, water filters, bird flu, bank accounts and jewelry lockers, security guards and burglar alarms, locks, bolts, gates, doors, chains, bars – nope, its just him and his peripatetic little rairha of socks. Socks he has a great variety of, blue, green, white, black, striped, polka-dotted, Polo imitations, Tommy Hilfiger rejects. He doesn’t know how many pairs he’ll sell today – maybe 10, maybe 30, maybe one. But he doesn’t let that bother him. If today doesn’t go well, there’s always a tomorrow,0020a new day, and a new place, a new chowk and a new dry fruit shop, a new burgomeister and a new Chaman Ice Cream, a new girl sitting on the pavement, a new malang roving the alleys.

Maybe even a new sock walah. Qui sait?

“Mozay ley lo Mozay! Rang barangay har qisam kay China imported mozayyy…”

Not juraabein, thank God. The particular Hindustani in me doesn’t allow me to use that term. Speaking of Hindustani, there’s the Amritsari Mithai Shop just around the bend up the street, on the left, though you can’t see it from here. But every ten minutes or so someone emerges from the street carrying an Amritsari-emblazoned lefafa in his hands, sometimes containing a box just big enough for two laddoos, sometimes a sizeable moon-mitha-karo rishta package.

So even if you haven’t seen it, you know its there.

Like snow on Mount Everest.

I want some pateesa.

A chippering flock of girls materializes from within the alley. At first glance they look almost ethereal, a magical starburst of glitter and bangles in that drab brown man-world. Goddesses of the ghetto. The pink girl on the pavement is studying the women as if they belonged to another race. Short-sleeved kameezes, with zips, and shalwars with buttons at the ankles, strappy heeled sandals, handbags, gold earrings, lipstick and net dupattas. She feels oddly out of place. Where are the burqay walis?

Not here, any one of them could tell her. Burqas belong to the new city, your city. The city where everyone needs something to hide behind, the insecure, distrustful city.

One of them is haggling with a knick-knack peddler for hair clips. Two are laughingly chomping through ketchup-soaked Bismillah Burgers. Another one is flirting with a lanky Chaman Ice Cream bera. Bearer. The girl smiles to herself.

The sky is purply-blue now, the color of asters. Evening even smells different here. The afternoon, it smells of, well, sunlight. Sunlight, and grass, and droning flies, and rickshaw smoke.  Smells, or sounds? It’s really all the same. Synesthetic. There’s something ineffably lazy about afternoons, so it feels lazy, smells, sounds and tastes lazy.

But the moment the sun dips below the horizon – like a paintbrush dipped in water – and the orange sky diffuses to blue, with a silver shadow of a moon shimmering through the dusk and sparkly stars winking awake, something happens to the chowk.

Yellow lights and neon signs spring up from nowhere, the alley illuminated like a miniature Las Vegas. Moths and mosquitoes surface from their shadowy nooks and colonize the night air. Flickering tube lights and gas lanterns, musical motorbike horns and multicolored cycle reflectors with Mickey Mouse stickers. There’s suddenly a man selling movie posters, to the right of the Dry Fruit Shop. Where’d he come from?

It smells – crisp. Like paan. A fat Sikh with a blobby shirt-tucked-in belly ambles around happily eating a Rocco Fiesta bar. The girl seems very interested in the poster-man. There’s a whole row of massive 5 x 4 ft glossy film posters hanging behind him, pinned to a sagging cable. Lord of the Rings, but with the titles in French; Pirates of the Caribbean, Alicia Silverstone, Shahrukh Khan, Star Wars, Tom Cruise, Ferraris, Persian kittens.  

The really good-quality ones, the kind you see framed on the walls of Hot Spot. Just that those would probably cost 4000 rupees apiece, while the poster-man on Beadon Road Chowk is more than willing to part with his at a rate of a hundred-and-fifty. Who says smuggling is bad?

There’s definitely more traffic here at night. Families particularly, droves of them, jolly curly-mustached men in flabby shalwar kurtas, with pretty, rosy-cheeked, sharp-tongued wives and handfuls of antimony-eyed children, boys in Itwaar Bazaar Superman T-shirts and shorts, girls in lacy dresses and hair bands. Chaman Ice Cream seems to be the mohalla Hot Spot. And what’s better, they serve you. What’s best, it’s cheaper than bottled water. What would you fancy? We have caramel, chocolate, vanilla, mango, pistachio, peach, and, the seasonal treat, strawberry. They don’t have pistachio at Hot Spot.

The street is littered with plastic cups, ice-cream spoons, lefafas, orange peels, stained with paan peek. But it’s not really noticeable. It’s not even offensive.

Really, just a part of the atmosphere.

Just like the peripatetic rairhay-walahs, the shoe-shiner, the Burger stand, the book-stall, the poster-man, the juice-walah, the khajoor-walah, the Dry Fruit shops and the paan-shops, the soft-drink shops and the Electronics shops, the hair-clip and kamar-band peddlers, the chinchis and the Sikhs, the peepal trees and the Indian-film music.

Like a painter’s canvass. Every color, every shade, every shadow, blending like music to create the living, breathing, pulsatingly perfect picture.

A man comes and sits on the pavement, a short distance from the girl. She turns around to look at him.

He’s a malang, wearing the distinctive green malang robes and scores of colorful beads around his neck, a scraggly gray beard and long scruffy hair. His tawny skin is creased with age and sun, like an old tree. Like a gnome. A Tree Gnome, a Leshy.

She glances at him hesitantly, but he’s not looking at her. Head hanging down, he seems to be staring at a spot on the cemented road. I wonder if he’s stoned, or something.

Suddenly it’s very quiet. It’s as if someone pressed the mute button on the remote control. The rickshaws and cycles careen past soundlessly. Mouths move, radios blare. But she can’t hear anything. The malang looks up towards her.

She wants to talk to him. But what can she say? Sitting a few hours at a chowk on Beadon Road won’t make her one of them, won’t make her a ghetto goddess or a rosy-cheeked wife. She doesn’t even speak their language.

The malang looks at her closely. He knows. She feels very strange. Where’s the driver? She looks around and sees her black Corolla parked in front of Servis shoes.

I should go now…she turns to the malang, almost apologetically…but he’s smiling. A crumpled, crack-toothed smile. A crumpled, crack-toothed, warmly evocative smile.

He’s smiling at her.

Suddenly it starts to make sense.

***

I once met a malang on a chowk on Beadon Road who told me, birds are birds. They may be sparrows, they may be seagulls, they may be pigeons or koyals. But they’re only just birds. They all make nests, they all lay eggs, they all have feathers and can fly.

Sort of like LUMS Social Science majors and ghetto goddesses. Or Defence and Anarkali. Or a tree and a malang. Or a chowk and a chowk.

 You just have to learn how to look.

 

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