By Masood Hasan
May 10, 2004
Should it surprise anyone if ten kanals of land are sliced off Lahores cramped zoo and are gobbled up to create an appropriate gate and royal entrance for the Chief Minister of Punjab? Somehow, those of us who end up reading such news items are hardly surprised any more. Shock and awe are also emotions that we have adjusted to over the years. These things happen because a certain mindset has prevailed like a dark, black cloud over public life for as long as one can remember. Within that gloom, land must be gobbled, extravagant plans must be executed and the vanity of the rulers must be pampered again and again.
The animals in the Lahore Zoo have been gasping for air and fighting hopelessly for space for many years now. In spite of the fact that somehow official inertia notwithstanding, the zoo has managed to make some progress in improving the living habitat for the animals that are held captive within its gates. But it is just a drop in a leaky bucket and far, far more needs to be done. The condition in which the big cats survive is a shame. The inter-mating has gone on creating albinos and mutants, which have been passed off as unique and rare species and publicized as something of a miracle. There is much more about the zoo that needs to be changed and it is amazing that an independent body with enormous funds at its disposal - the zoo is more than self-sufficient and has millions stashed in banks, has not been able to free itself from the tentacles of officialdom which choke it with passionate commitment. A tract of land from the adjoining Bagh-e-Jinnah will replace the ten kanals taken, though its rightful name is and should have remained, Lawrence Gardens. This brilliant move is actually adding a lot of insult to a lot of injury because the gardens should not be touched at all. Robbing Peter to pay Paul. But what is the need for all this?
Apparently, Punjabs high and mighty found it singularly distressing to use the commoners gate that led to the large zoo parking area. Although their Excellencies had only to make a quick 90-degree turn to distance them from the smelly holloi polloi who flock to the zoo regularly, this mixing was too much to stomach. Nimble and dodgy officials floated a separate entrance for the CMs comings and goings to the Freemasons Hall, which serves as - well it serves many purposes. Not only has the land been taken, but also the old gate that dates back to the previous century has also changed hands and will now adorn the insulated drive into the Hall. Fortunately most of us are not allowed to enter this realm of power where the future of the country is chalked out every day. From all accounts, it is a dream place dedicated to the gods of wanton living. Here, silent attendants in full regalia move on air and deliver fresh juices, beverages and assorted platters of goodies to the leadership that lies sunk in sofas swathed in silk and pricey fabrics. The furniture is ornate, gilded with gold. Tassels and fancy fittings hang like luxurious vines over these retiring and opulent rooms. These rooms - although they should not be cheapened with such a descriptor, spread out more like halls with sofas, sofas and sofas and dozens of coffee tables and such like spread around. Overhead, from amongst the chandeliers, jet streams of cold air waft down from the dozen or so split air conditioners, which hiss like snakes and send shudders even in high summer. With soft, rich luxurious carpeting that stretches from end to end, this truly is another world inhabited by the rich, the powerful and the influential. No wonder, it must demand an independent gate where no commoner should tread.
In Mian Sahibs tenures, the Free Masons Hall was home to many meetings’, which were actually eating binges thinly disguised as working committee parleys. Not much work was done because while the Free Masons Hall must be housing that rather obsolete entity we call offices; business was conducted from amongst the sofas. It is difficult for most people to take notes or study files while sunk in sofas, but the leadership has mastered that art over many years. In any event, verbal communication is the only acceptable currency of business here, as it was in Model Town and elsewhere in the half a dozen luxurious villas and buildings. Finding a writing desk, an upright chairs and a pen was like finding Noahs Ark. It simply wasnt there. Mian Sahib, the elder, bless his heart, never carried a pen, file or diary. He was sometimes found with well-thumbed visiting cards and crumply chits that seemed to befuddle him greatly, but the regular tools of business were not in his armour. Laptops - well banish the thought. The only thing that arrived in their laps was hordes of food. Good, greasy, rich and heavy-duty food cooked with the right spices and tons of desi ghee. The Mians knew a good thing when they saw one.
Although between the brothers, they had a dozen offices - for that is what we are forced to call these dens, they never really used them and preferred informal settings. The closest they came to formal work places was the boardrooms but I think Mian Nawaz Sharif didnt much care for them. Now with both gone and one making his 104th comeback, the leadership has changed but in effect its the same. The mindset is still the one that Punjab or for that matter, other provinces were experiencing almost a decade back. Most people if asked would say that the CM hardly needs another office and should confine himself to one and free the others. The Hall for whom the new gate is rising has been forcibly occupied by Punjabs leadership and should be returned to the people. For the people there are very few places where they can congregate and when even one is taken, it cuts to the very heart of the matter and reinforces the lopsided business of life. The cutting down of ancient trees to make wider avenues is now an epidemic. The new, much-touted underpasses have made a mockery of Lahores pristine canal drive and raised ugly monuments of concrete. The bulldozing of Lal Pul Lahores famous red bridge has hurt the sentiments of people. It was a landmark and hanged be traffic flows. The citys traffic is a mess not because of Lal Puls but because there is no traffic management and no enforcement of laws. We all should know what ails Lahore’s traffic. It is not the canal and it was never the boulevard in Gulberg. In less time than it takes to say Whoosh’ the traffic snarl will be back as if it never left. Whats the hurry to get to the Motorway for Gods sake?
I am reminded of Shelleys Ozymandias and the lines: "I am Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my work ye mighty and despair" When all the signs of power and pomp will fall and lie in the dust, who will reap the fruit of that bitter wisdom?