The Nightmare of Hanif Abbassi
It was a very dark night, and it was raining that evening, rather heavily. Monsoons had come early that year in Lahore, and although the rains soaked the parched earth, they also flooded the narrow streets of Anarkali Bazar ..."
I was listening to my friend Hanif Abbassi who I had met after a hiatus of five years in Lahore. We were friends since our Punjab University days where we both were graduate students. He was narrating to me his relationship with an attractive dancing girl and how it destroyed his otherwise leisurely and princely life. We were at the point that brought a finale to this relationship, and the macabre event that surrounded the end.
I came to know Hanif when I had joined Punjab University of Lahore in mid-sixties for Master's degree. I did not know about his rich and feudal background until much later after I came to know him. Hanif Abbassi was a fun-loving, carefree youth whose only wish in the world was to have enormous fun every moment of his young life. And he could do it his way since he was the only son of a feudal landlord from Bahawalpur of Pakistan.
His father was a nephew of the Nawab of Bahawalpur who had a large estate in Bahawalnagar that was given to his family by the Nawabs. He spared no means to get his wayward son educated by sending him to private school in Abbottabad, Murree, and Lahore. I came to know him quite by accident.
I used to live in University Hostel, which was in the new Campus of Punjab University, some ten miles away from the main campus where my classes used to be held. I would commute between the two places in the University shuttle, and sometimes by public bus if I missed the shuttle.
One day I missed the shuttle and was waiting at the bus stand for a public bus. Suddenly a Volkswagen Beetle stopped near me and a very handsome asked me from the car if I would like a ride to my destination without asking me where it was. I was taken aback. First, I did not know the young man and why he would be offering me a ride without knowing where I wanted to go. I thanked him but declined the offer saying that my destination was quite far. But the young man insisted saying that distance was not a problem and that he had seen me in the campus several times. I got into the car telling him my destination, and the young man asked his driver to take us to the new campus.
On way my ride told me his name, where he was from, adding that he did not stay in a hostel since his dad had rented a house for him in nearby Gulberg. Since that day Hanif became a friend. He used to take me and his other friends for lunch to popular restaurants in Mall which we could not afford. I often declined to go since I would not be able to reciprocate the favors, but Hanif would not listen. It was his way to entertain.
For a person who had gone through expensive educational institutes for the privileged, it was extraordinary that Hanif would decide to do his graduate degree in a university in Lahore. Because I had thought scion of a feudal family loaded with money would be sent abroad such as Wilayat (Urdu appellation for England). But Hanif explained to me (after he had befriended me) that he himself did not want to go to England as he liked Lahore very much, particularly because in places like London he would not be able to live the life he wanted. So, after finishing at Aitcheson, and Foreman Christian College, both of which were in Lahore, Hanif enrolled in Punjab University for his Masters' Degree.
In fact, I also wondered why bother to study at all when he had all this money and guaranteed inheritance of a Zamindari? I would get my answer later when he told me that his father was eager to get him married and he held him off on excuse of him being still a student. And what a studious life he led!
Hanif was hooked to Mujra (dancing and singing by professional women) since his youth. In their mansion in Bahawalnagar his father would arrange singing sessions on celebrations such as birthday ceremonies, wedding receptions, and other times to entertain important guests. Professional singers would camp in their mansion and Mujra would be held for several nights. Strictly held for adult males, Hanif and his other cousins were not allowed in the Mujra in their childhood. But as he grew up, his father conceded to his attending when he would visit his family home on vacations from his school in Abbottabad and Murree. Since then, he developed both a liking for classical singing and dancing. He became an avid fan of Mujra from his youth.
Because of his family power, Hanif had developed connections with some professional singers who were mostly from Lahore. He was an attractive youth and loaded with money. Despite his relatively young age, he was able to get to into the Mujra of some of these professional singers when he came to Lahore for his college studies. His being loaded with money, with a chauffeured car and living independently, he had no difficulty in joining the Mujra clubs of famous singers and dancers of Heera Mandi. Mind you Heera Mandi had not acquired the notoriety it later did, and it was quite safe for passage into that area in early sixties.
For full disclosure I must admit that a few of us had accompanied Hanif a few times to Mujra, initially out of curiosity, and later at Hanif's insistence. I was not a connoisseur of Ghazals or Thumris, at least then, nor was I an addict to dancing. But I liked the glitter and ambience of the places I went.
Very little did I know at that time Hanif was not only a generous patron of the dancing girls but was also in some kind of an amorous relationship with one of them. I never enquired about it, nor gave it any thought.
After finishing my degree, I headed back to Dhaka and joined a multi-national corporation which sent me out to London first for training, and later to Singapore. I lost touch with Hanif, but I used to correspond with him from time to time. He told me that he was still in Lahore, in Gulberg, and that I should look him up if I was ever there again.
That occasion came five years later when I my company posted me to Karachi. I informed Hanif that I would like to see him the earliest opportunity. Hanif in fact called me over in Karachi and gave me his new address, which was on Canal Bank, a new residential area.
I flew to Lahore one November and drove down to Hanif's new home in Canal Bank.
The house was not too big, but beautifully situated by Ravi Canal with mowed grass and flower gardens. When I knocked on the door, I was quite surprised by the appearance of my old friend. It was no longer a debonairly dressed young man of five years ago. Instead, there was a man with a long beard, dressed in long shalwar and kameez, with a Swati cap in the head. Hanif, is that you? I cried. Hanif embraced me and said indeed it was he.
Once inside, Hanif asked me to freshen up in my designated room and come back to the sitting room to have some refreshment.
There were elaborate arrangements for high tea served by Hanif's loyal servant whom I had seen before. I asked if he had still the same people working for him. I sighed and said all left except his personal valet. They left me after my father disinherited me. Naturally, I asked what led to all this. Then Hanif started to tell him life story. Hanif began.
Remember the place I used to go, and I took some of you there for Mujra? It all began after I fell for Ghazala, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in any Mujra. She was actually raised by a renowned classical singer of our time. She was not her daughter, but an orphan who she adopted. In time, Ghazala herself became a famous dancer and singer attracting a host of wealthy admirers. Many wanted to entice her away, but Meherzan Begum (Ghazala's adoptive mother) drove them away from Mujra whenever she suspected anyone. She had hired goons who would not only act as bouncers, but they could spirit away the offenders in any manner they wanted.
Well, despite knowing all the perils of getting near Ghazala, I fell for her head over heels. I would go to her Mujra every evening and shower on her with currency notes of ten, fifty, and hundred. I would even carry or send expensive gifts to Meherzan just to win her. And I succeeded. Meherzan Begum would send message to me the days Ghazala cannot perform, and days she would. Beyond that, she even allowed me to have tea with Ghazala in her private lounge before the formal Mujra.
These rendezvous of sorts made me bold, and I asked Ghazala if she would have lunch with me in Anarkali Bazar. She agreed, and we set up a date when I would wait for her in that particular restaurant (which had covered cabins). She would sneak out of her Heera Mundi house on some pretext and take a Tonga there. I was thrilled beyond measure.
Just as she said, she came to our appointed restaurant, and we went to a covered cabin upstairs. She stayed about an hour but promised me she would meet me once a week in the restaurant. We had our trysts three times. I also kept seeing her in Mujra also every alternate day.
In the fourth week, Ghazala did not make her appearance at our meeting place. I got worried since I had seen her in Mujra only a couple of days earlier. I decided to go to Meherzan Begum's place to find out if she was all right. A big surprise awaited me when I went there a day later.
I had parked my car a few alleys away and had walked up to Meherzan Begum's house which was a two-storied building with walls and a gated entrance. Usually, a watchman guarded the entrance. When I went there, I saw the gate locked, with no guard in sight. It was already evening and around that time dancing and singing usually started in the hall room upstairs. But there were no signs of any activity in the building. There was a lamp at the main entrance but no lights in the building. I waited there for an hour hoping that someone would come and open the gate. But no one appeared.
I went to Meherzan Begum's place several times after that. I always found the gate locked. I became crazy looking for Ghazala in every alley of Heera Mundi. I also went to her rendezvous restaurant hoping that she might turn up there. But I had no such luck.
I did not find Ghazala until a few months later. I was walking the streets of Shahi Masjid area like a lost soul, when I suddenly heard my name called from a Tonga. I turned around and saw a burqa clad woman beckoning from Tonga. When I approached the Tonga the woman in burqa lifted her veil. My heart leapt to my throat! It was Ghazala! She asked me to get inside.
Once inside, Ghazala told me with tremor in her voice that she was in great danger for her life. She could not tell me what the danger was in the street as people might see her talk to me. But she would tell me all and help her if I met her in her house near Anarkali Bazar that evening.
I agreed instantly and asked how I would locate the house. Ghazala said I could be picked up by her trusted servant from our rendezvous place around 8 P.M. that day. I was so thrilled that I did not even ask the name of the person and how I would be picked up. I got down from the Tonga telling her that I would meet her later.
Hanif stopped there and asked me to eat my snack and have tea. I was so engrossed in his story that I asked him to continue. But Hanif insisted that we eat first.
To be continued...
The writer is a former civil servant now residing in Washington, USA