Sunday, February 2, 2014

Banni Mai Veero and Muhammad Ishaq: “No I don’t want to visit Ambala”


Muhammad Ishaq

The history of Rawalpindi is a scattered one spread across a vast area. To draw a complete picture of our history, one has to collect the scattered pieces and put them together. No doubt it’s quite a difficult task and takes time and patience.

Most of us know that Rawalpindi was used as a convenient route by the invaders coming from North Western regions and later British Army used the city as one of the most important cantonments in North Western region of British India in the days of The Great Game.

Before the Partition, Rawalpindi was an urban center mainly populated with Hindus and Sikhs. Even today, one can see the old remnants of their existence in the old areas of the city in the form of houses, abandoned temples and gurdwaras.

However, during the last 60 years post partition, the city has undergone a lot of changes. The Hindu and Sikh population migrated to India in 1947 and the city provided shelter to the Muslim migrants from Punjab, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

The city of Rawalpindi, home to several Hindu temples and Sikh Gurdwaras, was also renowned for some other historic landmarks, be a Dhobi Ghaat, a Haveli or a public space. With the passage of time and the increase in population the demography of the city changed gradually. Most of the old and historic places fell victim to the advent of modernization and gave way to countless commercial buildings, markets and concrete matchbox structures.

Mai Veero di Banni (The Abode of Lady Veero) is one such victim.

Video Market where there was a pool.
Video Market where there was a pool
It is said that Mai Veero was an aged Hindu lady, who was saintly in her behavior others and respected among the masses. Banni Mai Veero was built by her, for the benefit of the people where they could bathe, swim and rest and freshen up. It was a sort of a gathering spot, much like the Greek Agora, for the public in the very heart of the city. The water source of the pool was from a clean water stream nearby (an area on the opposite side known as Kartarpura).

Some old residents of Rawalpindi say that the area around Banni Mai Veero was densely populated by Khatri Hindus.

Marks of a stream between Kartarpura and Emanabad Mohallah
While hunting for Banni Mai Veero I managed to reach the exact spot where the pool once had been. Today, it is a market housing video shops. I met the president of the market who, on my request introduced me to the oldest living person of the area.

That is how I met Muhammad Ishaq, popular in the area as Bhiyya ji, a Fruit-Chaat seller in this market.
Born in Ambala Cantonment area (now in Indian Punjab) in 1936, Muahmmad Ishaq migrated to Rawalpindi in 1947 along with his family.

“I remember it very clearly; there was a pool here, I used to take bath and swim in it” says Ishaq.

“When we came from Ambala we lived in Bazaar Talwaraan, near Raja Bazaar” he added. He goes on to further narrate that one of his elder brothers was a government employee working in the Railways and other had a shop of shoes in Ambala.

“I also worked for the Pakistan Railways as porter after partition, for some 20 years” Muhammad Ishaq tells me while showing his old employee’s identity card.

Railways Identity Card of Muhammad Ishaq

Muhammad Ishaq in his good old days
Initially, Ishaq started his Fruit Chaat business in Raja bazaar, as a part time engagement later shifting his shop to the newly built market where the government allotted stalls to the street vendors. This market, he adds, was built in 1980s right on the same spot where the pool of Banni Mai Veero’s once had been.

Needless to say, today there are no traces of any pool anywhere near the market that was built in 1982 and inaugurated on May 5, 1982.  The market has more than one hundred shops, most of them selling CDs and DVDs and a few repairing shops for electronic appliances.

So, what happened to the pool? Muhammad Ishaq recalls confidently that back when the pool did exist, the water had been clean and fresh, there had been stairs on all sides of the pool. People used to take bath and women washed clothes there. There were even fresh water fish in water!

Unfortunately people eventually started polluting it. The link to the stream that was the source of the water to the pool was cut off; new houses were built and the pool slowly dried up. It did not take much time for the locals to turn the place into a garbage dump.

Probably that was how Mai Veero di Banni made a silent exit from the history of Rawalpindi.

Much later, the city district government planned to use this place for commercial purposes and built the market in 1982. But the businesses that initially set up shop here didn’t really flourish. It was only in the late 80’s when the VCR culture was “exported” to Pakistan (mostly by the overseas Pakistanis in Middle East) the market gradually became the hub for VCR and video films, as there was a huge demand for VCR and Indian film VCD rentals.

The main square outside the “video market” still goes by the name of “Banni chowk”, though some people tried their best to change its name to “Sunni Chowk” (Why Sunni Chowk? Because the main procession of Ashura Juloos ends here with Zanjeer-zani: hope you will get the hint).

Banni chowk, Rawalpindi

Flowers shops out side Video Market (or Mai Veero's pool)


Once, there used to be a Tonga stand outside the market at Saidpur Road, which is now turned into a Qingqi (Motorcycle Rickshaw) stand. Added to this crowd are numerous shops selling flowers and materials for wedding decorations. This area is also known for its desi food culture.

Muhammad Ishaq looks back at the past and reminisces that he has seen the changing demographics of the city. “The city wasn’t this noisy, but now it’s traffic and people everywhere”, he almost laments.

When I asked him why his family chose to settle down in Rawalpindi and not in any other city, he replied that they had some relatives in Rawalpindi, so they came here.

“Do you want to see Ambala once again?” I asked him as I was preparing to leave.

No, I don’t want to go to Ambala. Everything has changed. We have some relatives in Delhi and some other cities in India, but the elders have all passed away and their children don’t know us”, he answered ruefully.

“But there would be no Visa issue for you, you know that… “

“I know visa restrictions are relaxed for senior citizens (above 65), but why would I go there? Nobody knows me there. That was in the past and that time has passed” he replied this time, almost matter-of-factly.

Then I hugged and thanked him and walked away, promising to meet him again, very soon. 
Current map: Source Google Maps
Pre-partition map. Source: The Survey of Pakistan

6 comments:

  1. This is a moving account of not just a lost heritage place, but also of lost homes, partition, and some other serious social facts that have been woven in the narrative (like the naming of the Sunni chowk!). The pictures help the narrative. A very good work. Look forward to more such articles from your pen..

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  2. No Mai Veero Di Banni may have relapsed from public but it remains firmly etched in collective memory of people who were living there pre-1947 .Ask people from Pindi scattered in North India and if they are Chadhas , Sabherwals, Sethis , Anands .. more often they will say "assan Mai Veero Di Banni Rahney San .". So Shiraz Hassan Sahab has not let this landmark go into oblivion.By penning this well researched article he has ensured people who love Pindi and will be tracing their roots will invariably end up reading this piece ..Keep delving and bringing forth these hidden gems of Pindi ..for posterity's sake .And yes I for one owe you a BIG THANKS ..my parents hailed from Saidpuri Darwaza ..not far from Mai Veero di Banni and I know few people who lived there .

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  3. YES, THINGS ARE LIKE THIS. AS THE POPULATION IS INCREASING, PEOPLE COMING FROM VILLAGERS TO CITIES TO EARN LIVELIHOOD, THERE WILL BE MORE DESTRUCTION TO SUCH POOLS. LONG LIVE MAN KIND.

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  5. alas we don't have a picture of banni talab.

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