Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sialkot reinvented

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It was a glorious day of fleecy cumulus in blue skies where the sun would shine brightly only when permitted by the clouds and the temperature cool like it used to be in rainy Augusts of a long ago childhood. After many days of rain in Sialkot this was the first day to dawn clear and I was in town after a gap of eight years. But for the greater number of CNG pumps, the city seemed to have changed little.

As I wended my way through the city towards the cantonment en route to the Well of Puran Bhagat to the north, I reached what was once the hub of civil and military life in Sialkot. From previous visits I remembered Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) as something you barely noticed because of the lunatic bedlam all around. Here would be pushcarts, motor and animal drawn vehicles, bikes, encroachments with merchandise from shops spilling onto the pavements and even the streets. Here one could get frustratingly ensnarled in unmanaged traffic that crawled along on streets all but overtaken by all sorts of commerce.

It was about eight in the morning, and the area was eerily free of traffic and pedestrians. And Ghanta Ghar stood proud and tall against the cloud-laden sky in its brick red and white wash in the centre of the crossing. The old pre-partition buildings around the edges of the plaza that were once covered by ugly billboards were there for one to appreciate and the mess of encroachments at the base of Ghanta Ghar was gone. I had to pause to take the scene in because this was not what I remembered. But I was in a hurry to get to Puran’s Well and resolved to stop on the way back.

I returned at ten. A few stores were now open, there were pedestrians and vehicles passing by, yet with the roads and footpaths largely clear, the place had not become the madhouse of memory. I parked and stood there taking the scene in. Across from me the lovely building I had once looked up at with dismay because, if memory serves, it was neglected and about ready to fall to pieces was now looking prim. The brickwork of Bishamberdass and Sons Furniture House was the colour I remembered from when we watched the sacrificial goat being opened up: the pale pink of healthy lungs. To match, the woodwork of the balconies was dark as liver pate. It did not look like an eighty year old monument but as if it was finished but yesterday.

Furniture House had arguably long been the prettiest building in the square, but even the humbler ones were all spruced up. This was something that we rarely did in Pakistan. I thought of my friend Kamran Lashari to whom all of us can be thankful for endowing Lahore with a restored Gowalmandi and felt someone like him had been at work here. Walking twice around the plaza I felt I was not in Pakistan but in some European town – so neat and orderly everything looked. It was uncanny; this could not be the country I have known. What with all night cable television viewing that is now our norm, ten in the morning was still a trifle early, even so at least one third of the stores around the plaza were open and there was no bedlam.

I was still gawping, camera in hand and not yet having taken a single photo, when a car stopped and a man pulling himself out of it came striding very purposefully towards me. ‘Oh no. Not again.’ I groaned to myself. Here was another cloak-and-dagger operative come to tell me I could not photograph this ‘sensitive border area’.

But Shaikh Afzaal Ahmad offered me his hand and said, ‘Only a lunatic would be doing what you are doing.’ I asked him what horrible fate had befallen the city that Ghanta Ghar, of all the places, was deserted. He led me around saying nothing of the sort had occurred, only General Zahid had cleaned up the area when he ‘commanded Sialkot cantonment’. Done with that he drove me to his store for tea. He was all praise for this General Zahid.

It turned out that the chaos of my memory was because of the encroachments in the square. With those gone, order of the old days returned that my friend Masood Hasan would remember from his childhood. Afzaal said that even when all the businesses were open later in the day, the place kept its sanity.

But who was this general who, having the power, had the good sense to do what he could for Sialkot. This was something so few people did: to have power to change things and to use it judiciously. Some days later I learned that this was Zahid Hussain who I first knew as a rather serious second lieutenant fresh from the military academy joining the senior-most artillery regiment of the army back in the mid-1970s. I again ran into him in Fort Munro twenty-seven years or so later when he was a brigadier. He was still a very serious man. Thank heavens for consistency.

I never knew him enough to know if he would make general. But it was indeed that same Zahid Hussain who had started out with The First, commanded a division in Sialkot and who had now moved on to another assignment. It was this man who had brought the city’s Ghanta Ghar virtually back from the brink.

There are cities and there are cities in Pakistan that could do with men like Zahid Hussain. Men who have the power and the sense to preserve a little bit of our legacy. In the past thirty years, I have seen our heritage ruthlessly destroyed: from Gwadar through Karachi and Hyderabad, Shikarpur and Rohri to Bhera and Peshawar, men of short stature and shorter sight have pawned away for a few rupees what belonged not just to the rest of the people of Pakistan but to the entire world. Bit by bit I have seen our heritage disappear.

Eight years ago I passed through Ghanta Ghar so many times without so much as pausing to look because there was nothing but ugly billboards, encroachments and traffic snarls to see. This time around, I could only be grateful to Major General Zahid Hussain for doing what he did.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 13 October 2014 at 10:45, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Congratulation to Gen Zahid Hussan who received appreciation from well travelled person

At 13 October 2014 at 13:42, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

What is this second picture Sir? Not familiar with this.

At 13 October 2014 at 16:26, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

That's cool...once again wishing...may we be granted with many more of Mr. Hussains and his likes. Amen.

At 14 October 2014 at 16:23, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sadly, there are so few of them, Memoona.

At 14 October 2014 at 16:24, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nayyar, this beautiful building sits in the clock tower chowk. The architecture is fantastic.

At 15 October 2014 at 21:03, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

Old memories never die. Thanks . During my school days we know Sialkot printed on our Cricket and hockey bats.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

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