Time past and time present

SarahThere must be a consensus on what Lahoris want from their historical heritage, and beyond that, what kind of city they wish to live in, before money is poured into well- or ill-intentioned schemes.

The presence in Lahore of a number of historical monuments — not least the ancient walled city, with gates, alleyways, ques, havelis, the works — is not an easy thing to live with.

Something is supposed to be done with them, apart from merely living in them or building over them, but this something continues to mystify both residents and successive governments.

This, in simplified form, is the debate that we’ve been glimpsing through the pages of newspapers, or in such scraps of learned musings that filter down to us through the newspapers: the demands of preservation place or should place constraints on the use of historical monuments, but the reality of these monuments, so much in use and in such a variety of ways, makes preservation in toto anachronistic. Enter the concept of conservation, supposed to negotiate between these two extremes. The new wisdom holds that if we can strike the right balance between preservation and use, if we treat these buildings as outposts of the past in a living and changing environment, all shall be well, or at least better.

The lineaments of this reasoning can be seen in government projects announced from time to time and which, once announced, never quite seem to fully live or die. The conservation of the Tollington Market has been with us since 1994, when a decision was made not to demolish it. It seemed in 2005 that the Tollington episode had reached its conclusion, with the PHA handing over the restored building to the LDA for the purpose of housing a city museum. There had also been talk of a more commercial enterprise, with artisans’ shops and a crafts bazaar, predictably at the behest of the PHA, but the building was returned to protective custody when the roof started leaking and water seeped through the walls.

Fingers were pointed, voices raised, but when the dust settled the building was left in the possession of a policeman on a charpoy, commissioned with warding off such members of the public as trespassed on its peace. The opening of the museum was delayed till September this year, when a news report in this paper (September 29) informed the public that it cannot be because ‘officials have not been able to decide on how to set up displays’.

Another high-publicity and high-cash project that is leading a fitful existence in the public eye is the walled city project. It envisioned a comprehensive overhaul of the walled city, with a civic authority empowered to make regulations regarding environment and infrastructure and enforce them.

As a first offering the revival of the Shahi Guzargah leading from the Delhi Gate was planned. In July, an national daily reported that the World Bank had asked for a ‘proper feasibility report’. The major issue, it was said, was that since the kings had passed, various less august individuals had been living and plying their trade in the walled city, and provision for these individuals had to be made before the passageway could be cleared.

The project prided itself on not being romantic; it never aimed for a calcified walled city in which historical character would be preserved at the expense of the people who lived there. The benefits of boosted tourism were to replace those of unrestrained commercial enterprise. However, the delay, reportedly till December this year, indicates that the details of how this substitution is to take place haven’t yet been worked out. The larger ‘socio-economic issues’ here are not simple: they involve reversing the momentum of many decades of unplanned and wilful land use, whose patrons are still in power.

It is easy to see what drives such problematic attempts at conservation. Certain sums of money are allocated which must be spent, rightly or wrongly. They are usually spent unevenly, in fits and starts, by people who don’t always understand what they are dealing with, but who may not necessarily be devoid of a sense of duty. The results are mixed, to say the least. Some spoiling of the monuments generally takes place, and cumulatively their condition seems to be always on the decline; on the other hand it cannot be said that they are totally neglected or forgotten.

But the official treatment of monuments that makes news should not usurp all our attention. The historical monuments in Lahore exist in the older, heavily commercial or rundown parts of the city, and the people who live around them are the ones whose interest in changing the pattern of their use is the weakest. As it is, the people who would like to see these buildings preserved live in other parts of town. Why do they want these monuments to exist in a recognisably historical configuration? Do they have reasons stronger than wanting the occasional meal in the shehr, or the yearly Basant bash, or the shadi at Asif Jah’s Haveli? If not, then it’s really what they want against the desires of the residents. There must be a consensus on what Lahoris want from their historical heritage, and beyond that, what kind of city they wish to live in, before money is poured into well- or ill-intentioned schemes.

Daily Times once featured a letter that compared the sights around Kalma Chowk in Lahore with those around Masjid Wazir Khan in the old city, praising the latter and pouring scorn the former. I remember finding the comparison disturbing. The area around Masjid Wazir Khan is polluted, congested, badly built up. If nevertheless it impresses the visitor, it is because it is has an historical and architectural character that cannot be reproduced — a que built by a royal governor, which has survived centuries.

Historical monuments, for all their appeal, are also accidents, accretions of the past that no one quite intended. They remind us that we cannot build anything we choose, and invite us to examine why. I wish someone would talk about the different-ness of historical monuments, why it cannot be emulated, and whether this difference should weigh with us when we think about living with them in our midst.

The writer is former Assistant Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and loves to find affinities in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds

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