Since this article appears in a truncated form on the Mint website - it was first published in a special issue of the paper on the theme Going Home - I'm putting it down here in its full form.

The anatomy of a hometown


PAROMITA VOHRA grew up listening to her father talk about his Lahore. When she visited it for herself, she found the city had become hers too



Changing cityscape


An old photo of Faletti’s Hotel; (top) one of Pakistan’s many painted trucks.



BP Print

As an Indian Air Force kid, I spent my childhood changing cities, changing homes, changing schools. I studied in Kendriya Vidyalayas and convents, experimental and public schools. Across them all, one thing remained constant. Every year, you had to account for the delicious, elongated torpor of summer holidays, their voluptuous aimlessness, by writing an essay: “What I Did In My Summer Holidays”.

Some children did the Heritage of India holiday of course: visiting the Gol Gumbaz, the Jaisalmer Fort, the Taj Mahal and other such places that made India great. But the most liberally visited spot was a place called “Hometown”, also known as “Native Place”.

To my ears, other people’s hometowns seemed to be places both immutable and pure. They had Malgudi Days grannies, fruit-bearing trees, pickle jars, unadulterated language and houses where childhoods had been spent. It seemed people went to hometowns to replenish themselves with who-they-were, after the city had taken some of it from them. It was a place they were “from”, not a place they went to.

My holidays were in Bombay or Delhi, the cities my parents’ families had moved to decades ago, from other places. Even within these cities, they had moved neighbourhoods and houses several times, and the homes did not carry for me any sense of eternal, accumulated memory. My own homes changed every three years with my father’s postings. Between that and being the child of two generations of mixed marriages, there was nothing unmixed in any part of life—not décor, not language, not the polyglot menus of our daily meals. As places, Delhi and Bombay were simply an extension of this miscegenation. This may have been the reservoir that gave me an adulthood of deep liberation, a different sort of hometown of the spirit. But as a young person, I definitely felt that my hometowns did not make the grade.

The closest I had to a hometown was one that I imagined into being: Lahore, the city of my father’s childhood, which he had left behind at 12, during Partition. For a while, I’m embarrassed to admit, I acquired a particular affectation. When people asked about my native place, right after they asked “what is your caste?”, I would solemnly and self-importantly say, “We are from a place called Anarkali Bazaar, in Lahore.”

My father’s recurring descriptions of Lahore were like the best of children’s films. First, the setting: “We would go to Mochi Gate to buy kites—Lahori kites are special—patangs and guddis. On summer evenings, we would be taken to play in Lawrence Gardens. To go home, we would go down the Mall, which was lined with white British buildings. On this side (he would indicate left with his hand), there was Faletti’s Hotel. And then you would turn right and pass the Neela Gumbad. Then go around and you were in Anarkali Bazaar, where our house was.”

Anarkali Bazaar, named after the nearby tomb of Anarkali, dancing girl and lover of prince Salim, conjured up for me images of diaphanous, shimmery dupattas, extravagantly gathered salwars, perky jhumkas and bangles that were like water flecked with colour, translucent like falooda. It made me imagine Lahore as a magical place.

Everything in this magic land was special. Even naadas, or pyjama drawstrings—reshmi naal, were made from silken thread. And of course food—Kandahari anaars; something called sargoda, whose unparalleled sweetness my father longed for; and from the bakery of Mohkam-ud-Din and Sons, a biscuit called Finger Sticks, apparently named for the beautiful fingers of one Lady Harrison. Even the Lahori Punjabi was apparently different—sweet and refined.

In this mythical city took place tales of derring-do, adventures of fitting glamour and mischief. Each episode involved intrepid and highly imaginative naughtiness, followed by discovery and (retrospectively comical) punishment—throwing ink in the school grounds after rain, only to be apprehended and locked up in the school bathroom with the school dog; throwing mango seeds at bald men from the terrace and being punished with kite confiscation; gouging out the sofa springs to stick to your shoes so you could jump like Fearless Nadia, only to break your tooth; stealing your sister’s brooch to give it to your class III teacher, on whom you had a crush, only to have your sister run into the teacher in Anarkali Bazaar, wearing said brooch, and send you, crying, to retrieve it. Yes, the same sister about whom people said meaningfully, “Vohra sa’ab ki betiyan badminton khelti hain (Mr Vohra’s daughters play badminton,hmm).”

For a perpetually anxious new girl in ever-changing schools, Lahore was a timeless place replete with stories of a carefree childhood—the ultimate fantasy that was made all the more so for being utterly elusive. I had never even seen a picture of it and would almost certainly never be able to go there.


I would not hear Partition’s painful and bitter tales till I was much older, and never from family, barring the stray allusion. In 1998, I began working with a Pakistani director on the script of a film called Khamosh Pani, the story of a woman abducted during Partition. When it was suggested I go to Pakistan, to get a sense of location and context and meet Shoaib Hashmi, who would render the dialogue in Saraiki/Punjabi, my heart stopped. At last the curtain would part to reveal the lost hometown.

I packed the mandated salwar-kameez-dupatta to the soundtrack of my father repeating his verbal map of Lahore, as if he feared I might get lost without it. We reached while it was still dark and the city just shadows. We awoke with a knock. A darban at the Lahore Gymkhana Club, where we were staying, wanted to give me a rose because he had heard I was a guest from India.

Most of the people I knew who had visited Lahore were peace activists. They always returned with tales of how similar our two lands and their people were. And, indeed, at first, I noticed the similarities too—how the textures, the shapes, the canals and colonnades, the Mughal, the colonial and the local dancing with each other in the streets spoke of a shared history.

But my overwhelming feeling was one of slight dissonance, of things being the same, yet different. For instance, the signage, everywhere in Nastaliq/Urdu, was impenetrable, impossibly foreign to me. Then someone would read the words, and of course they were ordinary and familiar ones—kapde, doodh, bandookh (there were quite a few gun shops).

There were autorickshaws, but they were called Quingqis as they were manufactured in China, and they had little doors, unlike our open rickshaws, something I would also see later in Afghanistan. A man would pass by, selling chaat or shikanji—fresh lime juice—but the carts were wheelbarrows covered in glass, unlike the open ones at home.

Trucks were painted here too, but at a level and artistry beyond belief, dense tableaux of queens and roses and doves, edged with tooled aluminium and tassels like flying turrets. Most notably, pirated DVDs, of even obscure art films, were purchased not from the streets, but from proper shops, where “originals” didn’t seem to exist.

In contrast with the dense, predominantly masculine street life, the homes we went to were usually grand bungalows with nice lawns and a large staff. Going out meant fashionable places such as Cuckoo’s Den, a refurbished haveli, raggedly beautiful, decadent, once home to courtesans, in the red-light district of Heera Mandi.

One evening, we went to meet some actors at a worn, modest brick house on Temple Road. It housed a dusty Punjabi bookshop, Kitab Trinjan, on the roof. People gathered that night to sing Heer as it was the birth anniversary of Punjabi Sufi poet Waris Shah. They were artists striving to keep Punjabi alive, swamped as it was by the national language, Urdu.

As the harmonium played, the evening cooled and the moon rose. I thought how strange it was, to sit here talking about saving the Punjabi that my father prided himself on in its own hometown.

I had thought I might blend in more or less easily, but the dissonance was within me as much as around me. I too wore salwar-kameez, but they were different colours, earthy, not bright or light, ethnic, not printed; and unaccustomed to dupattas, I would constantly forget mine someplace. My unfeminine, hearty exclamations of “arre badhiya” to vendors and the Hindi in my Hindustani—such as chinta instead of pareshani—made me stick out.

But there was one way in which I felt effortlessly at home. It was in a certain Lahori humour, an angular affection, the tongue-in-cheek insults I was used to in my family—“inhein chaat khilao bhai, yeh ghareeb mulk se aayee hain” (feed her chaat, she has come from a poor country). It was a teasing sarcasm, the kind you hear in Punjabi wedding songs, used to signal apnapan or intimacy, to say, you are one of our own. The streets, the signs, the words, the pastimes may have felt different, but this rhythm felt just right. It was in the unspoken and implicit that I found a comforting familiarity.

In all this time, I kept wanting to go find my father’s old house and fearfully putting it off. What if I could not find it? What if it wasn’t there? Nevertheless, on my free day, I set off along the course of my father’s verbal map. As I started, excitement began bubbling up. Passing a big garden, I asked my companion: Is that Lawrence Gardens? “Yes, I think that’s the old name for Bagh-e-Jinnah,” he said. As we approached the Mall, among its colonial white buildings, I looked for Faletti’s on my left. “It’s closed for renovations.” Then we turned right, and yes, there it was, really, really there: the Neela Gumbad, a mausoleum converted over the years for many different uses.

Anarkali Bazaar was like any old Indian city: dense, with a criss-cross of wires and shops thick with life’s merchandise—trunks, uniforms, saris, food, cycle tyres, periodicals, bangles. How, over here, without signposts and numbers, to find 150, Anarkali? Not easily. The first question I was asked was: “Old Anarkali or New Anarkali?” I hadn’t known there were two! Struggling with the map in my head, I said, “It’s near a famous bakery.” Everyone relaxed and immediately led me to Mohkam-ud-Din and Sons, Bakers since 1879.

Inside a small, tube-lit, hotchpotch of marble tops and etched mirrors was a small man with a neat moustache—the owner, and grandon of the founder, Mohkam Naqvi. He was used to answering the questions of people from India, but couldn’t identify the address. An old chacha (uncle) who would know was sent for.

As we waited, the owner wrote my name and address in a register. “I write down the information of each person who comes from India looking for their house.” He showed me a long list.

I was disconcerted to find that my cheerful excitement and bossy, busy energy had been replaced by a heavy cloud of emotional defencelessness. Closing the register, Naqvi insisted I have a 7Up because “aap India se aaye hain (you’ve come from India)”.

The cloud of emotion building in me burst and I was embarrassed to find myself crying, free-flowing tears that turned to gulping sobs. To this day, if you ask me what those tears were for, I would be hard-pressed to answer. It was like an overwhelming sense of someone else’s loss had gathered in my soul through all those cheerful tales of home and I had not even realized it.

So it is that our parents pass on their beings into ours, like lonely ghosts searching for solace and belonging through stories.

Chacha arrived, and we all attempted the address puzzle again. My father’s childhood map was insufficient to help me find his heart’s lost treasure. I hunted for other clues in my mind. “There was a boy called Akhtar, whose family owned a trunk shop below their house,” I said. At this, chacha and baker both nodded as if that explained everything.“Akhtar moved to America 15 years ago, but I know the house.”

We walked down the dense lanes of Anarkali Bazaar, its distinctive two-storey, brickwork buildings with double chhaths and wooden balconies interspersed with new construction. En route, I saw a man selling pyjama cords and bought some for my dad; those reshmi naals, not just a myth after all.

We arrived at the building. It looked uninhabited but for a shop on the ground level selling school uniforms. When I asked for permission to go up, they exclaimed: “It’s your home, you shouldn’t have to ask. But you will find it painful. It’s in very poor condition as it has been used mostly as a godown.”

Battling a fresh bout of tears, I went up the stairs, narrow, steep. Empty rooms full of dust and cobwebs and forgetfulness, a homeless house. Yet easy to make my own somehow, bearing no stamp of anyone else having made it theirs. And because I knew, from descriptions, that this room had been my grandfather’s offices (he was a judge), and that room had been my badminton aunt’s bedroom, which opened on to the first terrace.

Climbing to the roof, I stood where maybe my father had harassed bald men and stuffed watermelon skins to rot between mattresses and felt…strange. Perhaps I understood for the first time what it meant not to have a hometown while having one. It was like finding someone you loved had died but was alive in another dimension, with another lover.

But, most of all, I suppose, I did not know how to absorb this experience and take it back for my father, to fly, like Aladdin’s genie, with the neighbourhood intact in the palm of my hand. The innumerable pictures I took, even of the toilet, felt insubstantial. The terrace wall was crumbling. I took a piece of the brick and tied it up in my handkerchief to bring back home for Papa.

When I handed it to him, he said nothing, his expression unreadable. He kept it neatly in his closet.

My other surprise made his face light up like a boy’s. “Finger Sticks,” he exclaimed. I also gave him an old menu the bakery guy had so sweetly given me. My father chomped away gleefully at a Finger Stick as he surveyed the menu, finding old items, ignoring new ones.

When the photographs were processed, my father eagerly scanned them. I was relieved when he confirmed, “This is our house. Yes.” It would have been an extreme kind of bathos if I had wept in someone else’s. But apparently it was only half. Perhaps half had been partitioned for sale by subsequent owners. He was sometimes hesitant about identifying spaces, for it obviously looked very different from the house of his memory.

Whenever we spoke of my trip, my father would persistently ask about the same old places. Other stories irritated him somehow, as if they were irrelevant, and I felt irritated with him in turn for not wanting to hear about the changes. I realized then that Lahore, the version he wanted, was always with him. In his stories of home, he could always be at home. He had no use for a current shape. By going on about it, I would simply render him “hometownless”.

Five years later, I returned to Lahore for a conference. This time I arrived in a different mood, the traces of my father’s version of Lahore dissolved into my own experiences.

This time I wanted to “see the city”, a tourist in a familiar place. I made friends, who took me roaming. We went to Delhi Gate, which is surrounded by carts selling shiny Made-In-China jewellery and old-fashioned chunnat scarves—bright gauzy cotton gathered and tied with string like a girl’s plait so it crinkled like her hair when opened out—for only `30 each.

I gaped at the rosy beauty of Wazir Khan Mosque, with its infinite compound and minaret covered in brilliant red and yellow glazed tiles, peered at images with elephants and kings on the walls of the Lahore Fort, waited out the sunset at the imposing Badshahi Mosque.

People told me interesting facts, like,  Anarkali’s tomb had later been consecrated as a church and then converted into a government office.

I discovered the extravagant joys of Liberty Market, a temple to printed lawn fabrics, crocheted buttons, matching laces, khussas (jootis), Balochi chappals and Afghani necklaces of silver and lapis, leading to a complete lapse of reason and the swift acquisition of excess baggage.

Familiar with new streets and shops, I advanced to discussing the comparative merits of Lahori launde and Karachi boyz (my friend from Karachi continues to hold these pro-Lahori opinions against me). I had even become at-home enough to complain. After declaring my carnivorous commitment, I had begun wilting for want of vegetables, like a pakka Indian. “Don’t worry, bibi,” said my friend. “We’ll take you to Food Street to eat sabziyan.”

Food Street was a tiled road lined with kebab and nihari and saalan shops—like Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road during Ramzan, except bigger, and much cleaner—decorated above with fairy lights arranged in pomegranate shapes. A flute player offered us a menu of songs. I couldn’t read the names because they were in Urdu, of course, so I requested Chandni Raatein (all tourists are entitled to clichés).

I ate a chaat made of yogurt, chick peas, potatoes and chutney under a Lahori moon as he played. My sabziyan arrived: chhole, with a leg of chicken sticking out. My friends laughed at my outrage, saying, “Bibi, murgh chhole, is practically vegetarian.” I had been quick to acquire my own scamp-y tales of Lahore. Maybe it was this habit of acquiring stories that was really the hometown bequeathed to me by my parents, a way of finding home wherever you went.

I have family in Lahore, not from my father’s side, but my mother’s—whose own lost hometown is Bombay where I live. I became fast friends with my Bollywood-loving young nephew, who was committed to showing his aunt a good time. He was to regret this.

I told him I had heard that it was the time for Urs at Data Ganj Bakhsh, the shrine of Lahore’s patron pir. Could we go that night? He paled and tried to dissuade me. The cook and the driver of the home were deeply impressed both with my knowledge and my gameness and declared their interest in coming, immediately donning golden caps and sharp mojdis. So off we went.

The mausoleum, its wide dome bejewelled with fairy lights, sits in a huge open courtyard. The thick crowds of working-class, lower-middle-class men, women and children wandered in the courtyard or sat rapt as the qawwals sang. In the lanes outside, a midnight mela was in progress. Young boys were getting tattoos under yellow bulbs, ladies were buying lockets shaped like locks with keys appended. Sweets were being sold in glistening heaps. In a gigantic wok, a man was frying what looked like a mammoth malpua. “What is that?” I asked my nephew. “Why do you ask me all this stuff I don’t know, khala!” “Baji, it’s aflatoon. Like, a Pakistani pizza, but sweet,” informed the cook. My nephew looked resigned as I bought some. I was also getting my own mythical Lahore foods.

We wandered home at 3am, exhilarated and flushed, with sticky aflatoon fingers. “It’s crazy,” my nephew said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and never went there! Thanks to you I got to know a different Lahore.” In one’s hometown one is never a visitor, yet one might be a tourist, for all cities contain many parallel hometowns. Perhaps with each journey, bits of home are lost and found and lost and found again, remixed in stories to become a piece of us, even as we become a piece of them.

I knew I could not leave without going to Anarkali Bazaar to see the old house one more time. No help needed this time, I directed my cousin there.

Only to find that the house was gone.

In its place was a rather ugly, very new, tower of plain grey-blue concrete. I felt irrationally shocked and upset—as if someone should have asked me first. “Well, it’s their house, I guess. And we all want to renovate our homes, I suppose,” I said to my cousin, trying to sound pragmatic and adult.

“Yes, but it was like the house had waited 50 years for you to come and take back a piece of it for your dad. And then its work was done,” she replied. As a believer in portents and signs and magical stories, I felt this was somehow true.

After a desultory walk through Bano Bazaar, I decided to stop at Mohkam-ud-Din and Sons. Half a kilogram of Finger Sticks please, I said to the man behind the counter.

He looked up sharply. “Aren’t you Paromita Vohra?” he asked after a tiny pause. Startled, I nodded. “Well, you took a real long time to come back. Five years you haven’t visited your home, miss,” he admonished. “How do you remember me?” I asked.

Mohkam Naqvi pulled out his register. “I write down the name of everyone who comes here. You come with so much emotion, how can we forget? I even wrote you an email, but it bounced,” he said. “I guess my address has changed,” I said. He looked confused. “My email address, I mean.” We laughed.

When I told my father the house was gone, he looked a little sad, but did not dwell on it. “I have the piece you got for me,” he said.

Two years later, he died. Ten years after his death, that piece of home still sits in his cupboard, neatly, like his shirts.


Paromita Vohra is a film-maker, writer and founder of She also wrote the script of the award-winning Pakistani film Khamosh Pani.


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