This series is very close to my heart because I love stories from the past – especially stories that help us make connections. In this case, the connection is a very special one – between a beautiful Begum and the world that needs to hear her stories. I am proud to present this story of Lahore in a blog series that we will also publish as an EBook. I cannot wait to hear your take on this Lahore Blog Series. The beauty of Begum’s storytelling lies in the fact that she marries her sense of nostalgia with her very modern sense of humour and a genuine yearning for all things that come from her roots. I now proudly hand you over to Brampton Begum for a journey that you will possibly, never forget and a wealth of knowledge that will add layers of literary magic to your life!
Devangini Mahapatra, Editor in Chief And All Publishing
My grandmother from my mum’s side was from Lucknow. I remember as a child being fascinated with the hem of her petticoats. They would always be edged with the most exquisite eyelet lace. She was very particular about it, and sometimes when the petticoat got older the lace would be detached and attached to a new petticoat. The lace was handmade by a very select group of women, and it took them months of painstaking labour to produce each yard. I would hear the word “chicken” for that type of lace, and I grew up hearing the word and calling it that. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned the correct word is chikan. From the word chik, which is a type of screen, or blinds made from finely slit bamboo to cover windows or doorways, for privacy or from sunlight. Because it’s a lace that allows you to get a peek but never a clear picture. Quaint and whimsical!
Post partition, the beating, pulsating heart of Lahore was its Anderoon Shehar or the inner city. Punjab in its early years was the “farmers” city, with simple hardworking folk with basic needs. The elite were the landowners or “Chowdhuries”. With their money and their taste for the finer things, they rose in ranks to virtual gatekeepers of culture and even thriving trade in Lahore. The finer things included beautiful women, and the Red Light district had no dearth of entertainment. These women needed beautiful clothes, shoes and jewellery. Their music ensemble needed tuned instruments.
The migrants came with their dreams and they came with the most valuable thing of all, their crafts and craftsmanship. Be it the embroiderers bent over a piece of fabric, stretched taut over a frame, and adorning it with Zari (gold thread), sequins, beads or pearls, or the cobbler stitching and decorating Jootiyaan or Khussay. Sometimes the Tabla, Harmonium, or Sitar needed to be repaired at urgent notice for a Mehfil (gathering) that evening, or the jewel of every dancer’s trade: her Ghungroo. Metal bells that varied in weight and size and had to be sewn onto satin. These bells have been calibrated with such accuracy that the dancer can either make a single bell tinkle, or have a crescendo of 200 bells. These craftsmen were like a doctor on call, available for any emergency from the fitting of a Kameez to the tightening of ropes on the tabla.
Along with the craftsmen, came the cooks, the Khansaamas who set up their establishments. The finest chefs with years of cooking for Royalty, some trained under English chefs who themselves were once staff of the Queen’s kitchen.
The patrons needed to be wined and dined, and the inhabitants of this strange place kept odd hours. They had no time to cook.
The new migrants found a niche to set up their trade and they thrived. Their children learned the trade and for many years, things went on in this way. The secret of a fine craftsman are his secrets. Secrets they took to their graves because their children and their customers no longer cared for their art. People wanted cheap tawdry things, and bit by bit the craftsmen and their secrets all but disappeared.
Then the machines came, churning out fabrics of all sorts, with matching lace, chiffons, and silks. The men and women who made their income soon lost the race. You can still find embroiderers, jewellers and makers of shoes in the winding alleys of ‘Bano Bazaar’, in Anarkali market – a market that caters to bridal wear and to the dreams that grow in the eyes of every little girl who knows she will be a bride one day.
Many of the stories I know are stories I tell my children. That is how stories stay alive and that is the only way we can preserve our heritage. The world must move ahead and it should but not at the cost of our ancestors. This is the reason why I will cook typically Pakistani food at home. I am old school; for me if my child does not know the difference between a Nihari or Paya, then shame on me. There is an endless variety of world cuisine cooked in my home, because that is who I am. That is the lesson I want to teach them, the imprimt I will leave behind for the next generation. Be part of the world but also remember who you are.
A thing very typical of Desis of a certain age group (particularly those who immigrated at a later stage in life) is their nostalgia. I did not grow up in Pakistan, and I have lived in many different countries, Whether it was this constant state of being transient that made me this way, or whether it is just me, is hard to say. I suspect it’s the stories I grew up hearing and not really listening to, that sowed their seeds deep in me. Nostalgia too, must be some kind of seed then, that thrives in special soil. I have no tangible memories to tie my nostalgia to. Other than a few memories with my father for all of my four years that he was alive, when we lived In Rawalpindi.
When the lockdown took place and people hoarded toilet paper, and then I saw Desis doing it, I was perplexed. We all use it, but hoarding in such apocalyptic volume was a bit much. The fact I have forgotten what that funny fat-bellied pot with the spout thing in the bathroom is for, seemed unbelievable. With all that toilet paper elitism, there is seldom a Desi household that does not have a Lota. Why is it okay to want to wear Shalwaar Kameez but disown the Lota? The old ways are the blueprint to survival. You forget them and you forget your identity.
Another bizarre thing that took place was that flour, yeast and other baking supplies completely disappeared from supermarket shelves . For the longest time, these commodities became Blackmarket notorious .
All the bakeries were closed.
So were people really baking at home? Could it be that they were now resorting to the ways of their ancestors?
That too, in this world, that lives on grab and go beverages, doughnuts, pies and other things that are so easy to buy.
So, what had exactly happened?
You know those stories I mentioned earlier? Well, those stories got told. But this time not by the elders, but on the Internet. On YouTube, on blogs, in pages of books that had collected dust. People who had discarded the old ways turned to them to survive. I often think of how this lockdown did a re-set on so many things. Time became the commodity and not as a measure of a unit in a race, but as a unit of satisfaction. We became chefs, painters and poets. We filled our souls with a music that filled us up. We learned to be content. We learned to be thankful.
The secrets that the craftsmen died with. We became those secrets.