Amir Mateen

AMRITSAR: Lahore and Amritsar have a strange umbilical relationship. A common history binds them together in more ways than one.

The biggest influence on Lahore’s contemporary culture and cuisine is that of Kashmiris who migrated from Amritsar in 1947.

A quintessential Lahori, goes the joke, loves food more than his wife and pronounces the city as Lhorh. In nine cases out of ten, ‘Amritsari Kashmiris’ will fill this criterion. The Muslim migrants from Jallandhar, Ludhiana, Ambala, Patiala and the rest of East Punjab may have generally done well — at least in Lahore. They took over most of the property and businesses left by the much wealthier Hindus and Sikhs who comprised roughly 50 percent of Lahore’s population at the partition. But nothing like the rise of Amritsari Kasmiris who happened to be just 30 miles away — hence better placed because of their stronger family, cultural and business relations in Lahore.

They virtually run the city now. Actually, their political influence goes much beyond (west) Punjab — the biggest example being former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family. The Ittefaq Brothers, as they were called then, moved from Amritsar’s suburbs of Jati Umra to Lahore a little before partition. They have now created a seven-star replica of their humble abode in Lahore’s suburbs. The Sharif brothers, as they are called now, have encouraged pockets of Amritsari Kashmiri power in every major city of central Punjab.

Amritsar’s dominance in Lahore’s cuisine is even more. You will find shops of Amritsari sweets, hareesa, cholay in every locality of old Lahore. Much of Lahore’s literary elite has an Amritsari connection. Faiz lived in Amritsar as an English teacher; Manto’s ancestral house is also there in Wakeelaan Waali Gali. A whole generation of poets and writers including Saif-ud-Din Saif, Arif Abdul Mateen, Zabt Qureshi, Zaheer Kashmiri, Ahmed Rahi, Hassan Tariq and Muazaffar Ali Syed — affectionately called as the Amritsari brigade — was either born or raised in Amritsar. Even writer Majeed Lahori, it turns out, was from Amritsar.

Amritsar also retains traces of this common heritage. Lahore has a Hall Road, Amritsar has a Hall Bazaar — both sell electric appliances. Lahore has a Landa Bazaar close to its Railway Station, so does Amritsar. Both cities have katras or areas of specialised artisans like jewellers, cobblers, even horse riders (koocha sawaraan).

Amritsar’s life revolves round the Golden Temple. Its foundation brick was laid by Lahore’s patron saint, Mian Mir at the request of Guru Arjun Dev. The Samadhis of Guru Arjun and his father Guru Ram Das are in Lahore. Amritsar may be the spiritual centre of Sikhism but Lahore as capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire remains the epitome of Sikhs’ political glory.

We grew up reading late A Hameed’s writings about the wholesome life in Amritsar. He wrote extensively about how the twin cities competed on wrestling contests. Amritsar’s Jahangir Band was invited on Lahore weddings at exorbitant rates. Jahangir’s son Alamgir later competed with Lahore’s clarinet maestro Master Sohni’s band. There was also a Kashmiri band from Amritsar which specialised in Shehnai. Its members wore silk shirts, long coats and Jinnah caps. For A Hameed,”Amritsar is my lost Jerusalem and I am its wailing wall.”

A train named as ‘Babu Train’ ran between the twin cities ferrying workers from one side to the other. People went to Amritsar to watch Indian movies and return the same day.

That life came to an end not in 1947 but after the 1965 Indo-Pak war when both countries restricted cross border movement.

Much may have changed in the last 65 years: First, the disparate size of the twin cities. Lahore was always bigger than Amritsar but now, it is ten times the size of Amritsar with its population touching 11 million. Amritsar is a peripheral city in India, except for its touristic and religious value for Sikhs. Lahore is the second largest city in Pakistan but in political terms it has the power to make or break central governments.

The language has changed a lot. I noticed an old woman in Amritsar bazaar laughing while I was talking in Punjabi. I asked her about the reason and she said she found my accent funny. We also find a tinge of humour in the way Sikhs speak. Obviously, the change of script has had an impact. The official language of Ranjit Singh’s court was Persian and Sikhs were equally well versed in Arabic script. Few people in the twin city can now read each other’s script. Even the clothing has changed. Pakistani Shalwar Kameez is called as Pathani Kurta.

Sadly, it is the soul of the two cities that has changed drastically. Lahore’s social fibre has been irreparably bruised. It has lost its multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual ethos. The natural corollary of such social engineering is that various sects are cutting each other’s throats. After we threw out Sikhs and Hindus, Parsees and Jains left quietly. Ahmadis fear for their lives and Shias are beginning to feel insecure. Even the mainstream Sunni factions are targeting each other to the extent that Lahore’s most revered shrine of Data Sahib was bombed recently.

Amritsar may not be violent at all but it too has become largely a Sikh and Hindu town. There are very few Muslims to be seen. Here too the centuries old history of religious co-existence has been disturbed. Only a few people in Amritsar will have the memory of the dynamic—and true Zinda Dillaan—Amritsari Kashmiri Muslims. That generation is dying out in Lahore as well.

But those who live still reminisce about Amritsar like A Hameed, who wrote a little before he died that,” Amritsar circulates in my blood. I go to sleep after looking at Amritsar and the first thing I see it after waking up in the morning.” An Amritsar-bound friend asked him what he should bring for him. He told him “to get me a flower from the Company Bagh.”

The News

September 29, 2012