Is Lyallpur just a dream?

Fantasising about a happier world is a common reaction to social change. Even in the comedies of Aristophanes set in classical Athens, characters used to dream of a lost day. The past is always with us, used and re-used for political, aesthetic and cultural ends.

No matter what life we choose, we cannot escape the longing for people and places. Life moves forward as we build momentum. However, we move as a rover does — facing backwards. You can see where you have been, but not where you are going. One also appreciates many geographies, but there is only one landscape that you feel in your bones.

Lyallpur was never a dream, it is reality. Some of us have lived it. I may not know who I am, but I know where I am from.

I remember when Lyallpur became Faisalabad. In the run up to that fateful day in 1977, we had struggled at school to get used to the spelling of Faisalabad. We were told that our Prime Minister (PM) is doing it to erase the colonial past, indentify with our Islamic roots and to pay tribute to a friend, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. There was, apparently, a demand to do so from a group of Losers in the town, led by someone called Aziz, the photographer. I protested against the decision!

Our school principal, who had recently arrived from Leeds (UK), tried his best to convince us that he was not as influential as we had thought. He respected my views, however, that changing a town’s name negates its history, sets a bad precedence and the Government should have built a new town to commemorate the late King. I also wrote to our PM, the British PM and the BBC to intervene in this critical matter. The only acknowledgment I received was from the BBC, as Mr Bhutto was facing the end game and Mr Callahan might have been busy saving his minority government.

Changing the names of roads, towns and other places of interest is a favourite pastime of post-colonial rulers for diverting attention from their failures of governance. Stealing someone’s achievements and creating fake identities in the name of nationalism have been sinister ploys of corrupt regimes. But how do we (the people) allow something to become nothing?

Changing the names of roads, towns and other places of interest is a favourite pastime of post-colonial rulers to divert attention from their failures of governance

I have since kept protesting, while I “roam the streets, silent and still/I look for You, in each and everything”.

I raised the Lyallpur flag next time in 1978 during my few minutes of glory on Pakistan Television due to academic excellence. In a fiery speech on Pakistan Day in 1983, I highlighted the issue again, in front of the Mayer of Faisalabad, while defying General Zia’s call for the national dress & anthem (and happily missed out on the 1st prize for being ‘partially irrelevant’). Then my life expanded into an epic drama featuring love, labour and loss over the next ten years until Prof. Bukhari writing about Lyallpur in a local newspaper in the mid-1990s woke me up. I was one of those who motivated him and sponsored his ‘Lyallpur Kahani’, which is spread over seven volumes.

When memories start approaching years; you could watch them slowly become real. By this time, Hasan Nisar had started mentioning his native Lyallpur in newspaper columns. Others may have played their part, but General Khalid Maqbool, a son of the soil, as Governor Punjab, must take credit for making sure that the old Lyallpur was declared Lyallpur Town when Faisalabad City was divided into administrative towns in 2005. During the subsequent visit, I walked for hours in the streets of the old town. I wanted to get lost — to get absolutely and happily lost. But there are moments, when you don’t know how to lose you way, even if you go in the wrong direction. I was nearly home.

CM Shehbaz Sharif is a friend. As a modern man, he seems to have less patience for culture and environment. I was lucky to get the Lyallpur Museum off him in 2009. I petitioned him in 2010 to change the name of Faisalabad to Lyallpur. He agreed to do something about it in a working lunch with Mr Lyall Grant and I at the RAC Club in London. He duly asked Dr Touqeer to take care of it on my next visit to Pakistan. I received a call instead from Nabeel Awan late that night — he wanted to discuss the matter in more detail. We are still talking.

I requested DCO Faisalabad and a dear friend, Saeed Wahlah (late), to remove ‘Town’ from ‘Lyallpur Town’ as a shortcut to reach Lyallpur. He prepared a favourable feasibility report swiftly and gave me the file to have it done officially at the other end — the Punjab Secretariat. It was a small job for friends in high places, but is still pending because CM Sharif is risk-averse, and no one in his administration is prepared to take a chance.

After emigrating from the homeland of my childhood, Lyallpur still walks with me, memory to memory, on the shared path. Summers feel longer now, and the springs pass like water rushing over the stones at the bottom of a stream. But the time in my life when I turn this page, write another book or simply close it — will never come. All battles are lost by those who do not fight on — each passing moment is a bridge taking me closer to Lyallpur.

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist and visiting professor based in London, tweets @AamerSarfraz

Published in Daily Times, July 11th , 2017.