Mullah Latif, the cycle wala

January 10, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar recounts the life of the man who famously ran a bicycle workshop at the Nihalchand Building on Nicholson Road, which was visited by people of all faiths

The goons, next to Latif’s workshop. — Image: Supplied

When a friend of Mullah Latif sold his old bicycle for Rs 65, to pay the college fees of a needy student, Latif was alarmed. He gave a brand new Hercules bicycle to his friend against a monthly installment of Rs 10. His friend initially thought it was the monthly rent, but for Latif it was an installment.

After 16 months, Latif told his friend that he had paid the whole amount. The issue was settled amicably after it was agreed that Latif would remain the owner while his friend would continue to use it for free. Years later, after Latif had died, his friend returned the bike to his son, Aziz.

Latif’s family was barred from government service because his ancestors had taken part in the 1857 uprising. They had been blacksmiths. After the partition, Latif opened a bicycle workshop at the Nihalchand Building on Nicholson Road.

Bicycle used to be a very fashionable mode of transport back in the day. The moneyed and the government officials would ride their vehicles fitted with dynamos and cane baskets or a military bag, wearing white gloves, sunglasses and sola-pith hats. On the way to their offices, many would stop at his workshop to get their air pressure and brakes checked and exchanged pleasantries. Latif donned a white turban and a khaki waistcoat and sat over a low stool, straightening the spokes of bicycle rims and enjoying the cool shade of a native tree. A lamb too roamed about which he would purchase for the Eid ul Azha.

The real gathering would be seen in the evenings when many of his customers would sit in circular chairs, the likes of which were found in the Coffee House. He would enjoy their enlightened views and at times give his own street-wise comments.

His shop had some 50 bicycles available for rent, including some for the ladies. In those days, many girls were seen riding bicycles to their schools and colleges. Purnuma Ghosh was the first lady to own an auto-cycle. Latif was highly skilled in repairing bicycles. Renowned champion racers would get their expensive vehicles like Cinelli overhauled by him. His customers included late Arshad Durrani, Sikandar Shaheen and Shahrukh who sat along with him on low stools while their frames or wheels were being repaired.

Sometimes some foreign tourist, on a world tour on a bicycle, would also use his tools and air pump. As the visitor spoke to him in Tedesco or Esperanto, Latif too conversed in Punjabi, expressing feelings of universal brotherhood.

Inside the shop, the bicycles would be lined up in an orderly manner. All allied items such as kerosene lamps, air pumps and locks with chains were arranged in easily reachable places inside the shop. Spares like the fly wheels, chain covers, tyres and tubes could be seen hanging from the roof.

Early in the morning, his chhotas (apprentices) would sweep the floor, sprinkle water and take out the bicycles and the air pumps and oil kuppi (bottle). When someone was seen coming in with a punctured bicycle, the boys would run to fetch it. One of them would lay it on the ground and, using an odd tool fashioned out of a worn-out axle, extract its tube from under the tyre. Another boy would pump some air into it and dip it in a tub filled with water. From wherever the air bubbles escaped, he would mark the leaking point with an indelible pencil. After drying the tube with a cloth, and sandpapering it, he would plug the leak with a piece of rubber cemented with a solution. Inserting the tube back into the tyre, another boy would pump air into it. Being only almost as ‘tall’ as the pump, he would manipulate it by jumping over its extended handle and putting his whole body weight over it. Before Prof Dr Abdur Rashid Khokhar could finish his gossip with Latif, his bicycle was ready.

Outside his shop a few terracotta pots were lined up, in which he reared earthworms for anglers. He also supplied the fishing tackle. Long rods made out of thin bamboo were tested by the customers for flexibility and strength. He would cut these into smaller pieces and provide brass joints for easier portability. Lead weights and floats fashioned out of peacock feathers with black and red markings were also available. Umbrellas for protection from the fierce summer heat on the river were specially made to adjust according to the angle of the sun, bottles from the army covered with thick canvas to keep the water cool and rod rests could be had at his shop.

All sorts of hooks, big and small, were available for eels, Malli, Sighari and Rohu. The neighbouring Ghaffar Khan provided sola-pith hats tailored to fit each angler’s head. Being a Bengali, he was also a fishing enthusiast. Thus, Mullah Latif’s shop doubled as an anglers’ club. Every Saturday evening, they would gather for the weekend’s excursion to the Ravi, Dek or Balloki. Sometimes they would even go to Head Marala or Sulemanki. Latif, with his air pump and other tools, was great help. Sharing home-made lunches, they would return all tanned and hair full of dust. The children would be thrilled to see the motley catch hanging from the bicycles’ handle bars.

Latif was a regular namazi — he prayed five times a day. But he never compelled anyone to say their prayers. His dyed beard glistened with a bluish shade: “B marka khazaab, buzurgoan kay liay nayaab tohfa!” (Mark B dye, a rare gift for seniors.)

Friends of all faiths would gather at his shop — Morris, Major Wankadiya and Newton. Then there was Brown, a Zoroastrian who had got himself declared an Anglo-Indian to claim European grade in the NWR. Famous photographer S Rollo, whose mother was a Burmese; and Braganza, owner of the hotel and quarters named after him, who was from Goa, too used to come in his chauffer driven car, relaxing in a seat fixed in the dickey of his 1935 model Ford.

Back then nobody had heard the word ‘minorities.’ In fact, the two-nation theory had come to end after the creation of Pakistan, says IA Rehman in one of his columns. All were now one nation.

Bad times awaited Latif. Some anti-social elements had started gathering next to his shop. As a result, his respectable customers now avoided the place. One day, some goons from Mozang fired at their rivals here. A very pretty girl, named Saboohi, was hit while picking cherries in the tree, and killed. Police and rangers were called. Section 144 was clamped throughout the city.

All the goons were apprehended. The following day’s newspapers carried the headline: “Firing on Nicholson Road in broad daylight.” Such was the power of the law and the press in pre-Ayub days.

The child’s death broke Mullah Latif’s heart. He handed over the affairs of his shop to his son (Aziz) and would occasionally visit only to see if any of his old comrades were there.

His friend, for whom he had got a Hercules bicycle, now had a motorcar of his own. One day, when the friend was on his way to attend the wedding of his neighbour, Chaudhry Ghias, the photographer at The Pakistan Times, the sad news of Mullah Latif’s demise was conveyed to him. He immediately joined the funeral which was attended by friends from all faiths who were all Pakistanis.

(This dispatch is dedicated to the little Saboohi who got tragically killed in a crossfire)

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]

Mullah Latif, the cycle wala