Once there were wells of fresh sweet water. The scent of wildflowers wafted from the fields and meadows that ringed the city. Plentiful fish were found in its crystal clear streams and rivulets. Its air was like no other, nor its water, nor its people. Its men were more handsome, its women more beautiful than anywhere else. Those who left it lived to regret it, their mind circling round and round – like bees around nectar – its evocatively-named chowks , mohallas and bazars. For this was no ordinary city. It is of Amritsar that I speak, or Ambursar as its people have always called it, people such as A. Hameed and the Amritsar School of writers and intellectuals who crossed the bare 30 km from Amritsar to find a new home in Lahore but lived to rue all that was forever lost.
On a recent visit to this historic city, the spiritual centre of Sikhism and one of the largest cities in the Punjab, I had occasion to take stock and reflect. Invited to speak at a seminar on ‘History, Literature and Punjabi Society’ organised by the Guru Nanak Dev University, I found myself thinking of A Hameed’s words: ‘For me Amritsar is my lost Jerusalem and I am its wailing wall. I do not remember anything about Amritsar; for, he remembers who forgets. Amritsar circulates in my blood. I go to sleep after looking at Amritsar and it is the first thing I see it after waking up in the morning.’ Sadly, the Amritsar of A. Hameed’s imagination is long gone along with the Company Gardens and the wide tree-lined streets. The fabled wells of fresh sweet water have vanished along with the wildflowers and bubbling streams. The tall, good looking people remain but then – to my untutored eye -- they appear to be no more or no less than tall, good looking people anywhere in the Punjab.
While it is inevitable that the forces of urban renewal have changed the cityscape of most historic cities across the sub-continent, what is worrying is the erasure and obliteration that has occurred in our mental landscapes. When buildings are pulled down, renovated, refashioned, must all traces of their past be lost? Is forgetfulness a necessary prerequisite for building afresh? When compulsions of modern living force city-planners to introduce changes, must we do away with the past with such methodical thoroughness? Is brutal disregard for the stories and memories associated with places and things essential for moving on? Try as I might I could find no trace of the Ambursar of A. Hameed’s memoirs or Manto’s stories. I went looking for the landmarks that I had encountered in the literature of the Ambursar School of writers: Secretary Gardens, Town Hall, Fareed Chowki, Karma Deorhi; I was met with a walls of blank faces. With some assistance, we found the M. A. O. College where Faiz taught, where Mahmuduzzafar served as Vice-principal and M. D. Taseer as Principal. Owned by Kashmiri merchants, the college moved during partition; only its building remained which was sold in auction to the DAV College in 1955. We met its present administrators who seemed blithely disinterested and unmoved by our narration of the people who once taught there.
Yes, there is the Golden Temple, as serene as ever in its pool of clear water, its ravaged buildings (destroyed in the infamous Operation Blue Star of June 1984) once again restored to its former glory. Always a delight to visitors regardless of faith and practice, I find peace and tranquillity and certain timelessness in its immaculately clean premises. The Jallianwala Bagh nearby, in contrast, fails to evoke the hair-raising horror it ought to possibly because it has been transformed into a manicured landscaped park. Had the City Elders allowed it to retain its shabby, unkempt look, it might have better served as a testimonial to the bloodiest chapter in the history of the Indian national movement. The bullet marks in a wall of Lahori bricks, the well in which countless people jumped in a futile attempt to save their lives, the exact point at which General Dyers’s forces gathered and began shooting, first in the air and then under the General’s express orders to ‘Fire low!’ straight into the crowds where it was thickest – all this is there. My only regret is that the park has been so ‘touched up’ as to be almost cosmetic in its attention to detail.
However, the one place in the entire city where I could find no fault was in its food, especially in the old city famous for its tiny shacks each specialising in lassi, kulcha-chana, aloo-puri, kadhi-chawal, as well as some selling only dozens of different kinds of bari and papad. Kesar da dhaba, deep in the heart of the old city, often has a waiting time of hours as customers hover impatiently to occupy the wooden benches and savour its famous thali brought by bearers who have perfected the art of balancing a pile of trays on their hands. Bhravan da Dhaba, located at the mouth of the road leading to the Golden Temple and therefore more accessible, offered us a memorable repast: lachchedar paranthas slathered in butter, spicy chanas cooked with cubes of paneer, raita made from the most incredible creamy yoghurt and the famous kaali daal that had been simmered over a slow fire to produce its thick, sauce-like consistency. Rounded off with phirni served in kullars, this is soul food at its best. Our host, the young research scholar Dr Jasbir who was kindly taking us around, told us about the many eateries in the city, about the Amritsaris love for eating out, the abundance of milk and milk products be it in the form of butter, desi ghee, curd, butter milk in the cuisine as well as how incredibly inexpensive it still is to eat large, wholesome, freshly prepared meals at the many big and small dhabas that dot the city. His wife added how Amritsaris often prefer to eat out or take home rather than cook from scratch, especially the much-loved kulchas that come in a mind-boggling variety of stuffings.
Coming back, as I mull over this over-riding interest in food in the face of a glaring erasure of history, I wonder if this is the Ambursaris way of coping with memories of a past that is still too painful to recall in its entirety. Possibly, this talk of food, food and more food is one way of keeping at bay other, more insidious, memories.