Under a tree on Nicholson Road

November 22, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar remembers the young Bhiyaji and his wife, who had emigrated from India in the wake of communal riots and taken refuge under a tree on Nicholson Road, setting up a stall of cigarettes and paans which was to see them through their twilight years

— Image: Supplied

According to Urdu lexicography, bhiya means brother in law. Indeed, he was one because his wife, Biji, was virtually everyone’s sister. As Pakistan came into being, hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Lahore where a lot of houses were lying vacant. A Hindu lady accompanied her Muslim paramour to Pakistan. They had courted a civil marriage. During the court proceedings, the girl’s mother had pleaded that the boy was after her jewellery, whereupon she gave away all that glittered and accompanied her partner to Pakistan amidst the large-scale communal strife. There could be no allegations of forced conversion as she stuck to the faith of her ancestors.

In such trying times, once having reached Lahore, the man and wife took refuge under a tree on Nicholson Road and set up a stall of cigarettes and paans. In a big brass vessel, fresh green paan leaves floated over water. Nearby, a kerosene lamp was lit to facilitate the smokers (to light their cigarettes). They were content with whatever little sale they would manage as they had no children and no blood relations whatsoever.

The locals tried to allocate them a regular shop, but they refused to settle in an evacuee property. They considered their neighbours as their brothers and sisters, and the children in the locality as their own. They were very pleased to see us board the omni bus on our way to school.

People had given them a small room to put up at. The lady had tastefully decorated it with tin foils and frills cut out of emptied cigarette packets. The animated hangings shone in the glow of kerosene oil lamps.

The man’s name was Niamat Ali, which very few knew. He was aware of the brands preferred by all his customers who would mostly buy on credit and pay off only during the first week of every month. There were no defaulters and no bad debts. Thus, his foldable wooden stall in which he had displayed the colourful packets gradually emptied of merchandise as the month progressed. He even provided home delivery service to people who would lower baskets from their wooden balconies.

In those days, the popular brands included Qainchi, Lamp, Taar, Folks’ Own, K2, Woodbine, and Haathi for the working class. The imported brands included 555 and Craven A (Jinnah’s favourite). All these were without filters. The era of round, tin boxes of 50, fashionably carried in the hand, was already over. Ali, however, would use the emptied tin boxes to store the paan masala. They initially also had the company of an old man selling cookies, a Great World War (as it was called because they never expected another one) veteran, who had lost a leg in some distant foreign land defending the Empire but died soon afterwards.

When the local Chaudhary family rebuilt their ancestral house, they tried to accommodate him in a small shop. But Bhiyaji preferred to stay under the green, airy shade of the tree of which he was a fierce protector. Whenever the Lahore Electricity Board team came over to trim and prune the branches entangling with the lines above, he sort of supervised them.

As I had grown up enough, or so I thought, I wished to buy some cigarettes from him. But he refused and advised me to buy some fruit instead or hire a bicycle and take a round of Company Bagh.

The neighbouring Dr Abdus Samad would hand over the keys when closing his clinic so that Bhiyaji could shift his stall there during the night.

Early in the morning, he would get sprinkled its front with water by the bahishti. If some patient appeared for an emergency at an odd hour, he would guide him to the doctor’s house. Thus, many shop keepers handed him their keys. So did many households for the members returning in their absence.

His most worrisome days were when the Committee anti-encroachment trucks came to demolish the stalls and confiscate the merchandise of hapless vendors. Though many shopkeepers gave refuge to his small, portable stall, he felt embarrassed.

With the passage of time, small school-going children became adults and thus were now entitled to buy cigarettes from him. The old-timers who had borrowed cigarettes on daily basis to pay back on the payday, retired and some others left for their eternal abode. But his brass container continued to glow under the kerosene lamp. We too moved to Iqbal Town Journalists’ Colony where the pressmen had finally been given the promised plots, albeit on the prevailing market rates.

When Rotary International’s district 3270 governor MM Mohsin visited the RC Lahore Cosmopolitan (of which I was the president), I took him to their stall which was still under the same tree. We presented them some merchandise which they reluctantly accepted. They were really pleased to receive us; so was the district governor.

Consequently, the couple’s picture appeared in the Rotary monthly magazine and was much appreciated worldwide. But no financial help came in. The couple’s hair had turned grey. Bhiyaji had developed dementia and his hands had become shaky. Now his lady helped him even more. She would prepare the paans customised to the taste of every customer, and dish out cigarettes in ones and twos.

Sun is a fixed star. Time too does not pass. It is us who pass away. Many of Ali’s well-wishers had passed away. The Pehlwan who had retired under the patronage of North Western Railways was mercilessly trampled over by a speeding Chevrolet truck. The ice cream vendor too had failed to turn up to entice the children. And, one day, the whole Nicholson Road was closed to mourn his departure.

His funeral gathering was the largest in my living memory because all the people he considered his children, brothers and uncles, had showed up. In other words, he was their ‘adopted’ granduncle; their Bhiyaji.

A few days later, under the same tree, the stall was reopened. The locals offered to take care of the needs of Ali’s wife. They even advised her to retire, but she wouldn’t. She was also not ready to accept any help. She suitably managed the outlet the couple had founded in their youth, till her twilight years.

Soon the shops on Nicholson Road were all shuttered, again, to offer the last salute to their sister.

Note: Zoom into the last-Wednesday-of-the-month meeting of Lahore Conservation Society, on November 25, as it prepares for elections. Time: 5pm.

Secondly, the House of Nannas’s weeklong, annual celebrations commence from November 27. The events include inauguration by Dr Sughra Sadaf, director of PILAC, and a lecture on Cancer Care Hospital by CEO Dr Shaharyar.

(This dispatch is dedicated to to PD Governor Rotarian MM Mohsin)

The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Under a tree on Nicholson Road