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Benign ghosts of Lahore

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Natasha Javed
A few days back, Lahore saw the passing of Suzi — the mighty, magnificent elephant which had been the heartthrob of hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Lahore Zoo for well over four decades. Although Suzi lived for only half as long as her now-forgotten predecessor at the Lahore Zoo — Lakhi Rani — but her life history has been more eventful in a queer and sinister manner. Her arrival at the zoo coincided with the dawn of the era of ‘prohibitions’ — manifested as prohibition on elephant rides in her case. Kids and adolescents who enjoyed the privilege of elephant ride on Lakhi Rani in 1970s could truly feel the pang and pain of this prohibition — denial to be on top of the world, as it may have seemed to them. Atop an elephant, you would swerve right and left as elephant strode majestically and deliriously, giving the riders fleeting glimpses of romance-drenched Lahore through canopies and foliage of mighty, colonial-era trees that surrounded Lahore Zoo on all sides. You could see many throbbing attractions of the Lahore of swinging 70s, especially the aristocratic, arrogant Flatties Hotel and Free Masons Hall. Prohibition on elephant ride soon after Suzi’s advent in early 80s unfurled a specter of similar, contiguous prohibitions which actually amounted to denials for slightest quantities of life’s finer joys — tipsy, elephant rides included. Next victim x was none other than the legendary, artistically built Freemasons’ Hall, located next to the Lahore Zoo, with its aura and ambience of mystery that had existed from pre-partition days. Members of Freemasonry cult shared many values that also came as instinctive to the race of Suzi — the elephants. Acquiescing before a supreme power, namely “The Great Architect of the Universe”; seeking to aid each member of the cult; encouraging them to practice their faith diligently and being accommodating to all has been the hallmarks of Freemason line of thinking. Suzi must have felt cozy and in her true elements at her Lahore Zoo pen that overlooked Freemasons Hall for the later may have reminded her of the happenings in the legendary ‘elusive elephant dancing grounds’, made immortal by Rudyard Kipling’s accounts in The Jungle Books.But that joy of familiar company for Suzi was transient as major, disturbing events started happening around the serene Lahore Zoo following Suzi’s arrival. Demise of Lahore’s Freemason Hall was first on the list in a surreptitiously swift manner as wild inmates of Lahore Zoo alike Suzi were ostracised from many familiar, benign ghosts of erstwhile Freemasons. What replaced them can be termed real life ghosts who wielded power and authority as Freemasons Hall was converted into alternate seat of authority for successive provincial chief executives along with their ideological coterie. All shapes, kinds and manner of barbed fences, iron barricades, terror-inspiring gadgetry were employed to shield these modern era Freemasons ghosts from what went outside as inmates of the adjoining zoo struggled to figure out what really went inside the re-christened premises.

Deprived of the austere company of her Freemasons friends of yore, Suzi appears to have struggled to find solace in the inmates of the cage next door to her compound, which housed the king of jungle — or the zoo in this case — the ubiquitous lions. Deafening, blood curdling roars of lions of Lahore Zoo for much of 80s and 90s brought much sought after grandeur and glamour to Lahore but that was not to last, palpably due to the jinx of Suzi. An unheard of and unexpected calamity befell the lions of Lahore Zoo whose mighty roars had sent awe and subjugation in and around the zoo precincts for decades. Constant inbreeding and refusal to allow in fusion of some fresh blood in their ranks and hereditary realms resulted in a string of troubled consequences. A pedigree with congenital deformities started becoming regular feature of much respected lions of Lahore Zoo — a phenomenon which drew one thousand explanations, hurriedly contrived by the nervous zoo management.

Only Suzi knew the real reason; it was the same old jinx that had gobbled the Freemasons of 60s and 70s — that was now exacting nature’s revenge and weighty toll from once formidable Lions of Lahore for disrespecting its cardinal commandments and decrees in matters of suzerainty and apportionment of authority.

With her Freemasons friendly ghosts vanished and neighboring jungle kings subdued, Suzi tried to seek peace by going back in times. Zoo visitors in last years of her life could see her standing with half-closed eyes, distractedly accepting proffering of currency notes and always facing Lawrence Road. In all likelihood, reminiscing about the bygone past when colourful escort of the architect of modern Punjab — Sir Henry Lawrence — would have entered the Lawrence Gardens through now forgotten Rivaz Gate that once existed on Lawrence Road. But jinx of Suzi was hardly amenable to allow her these fancy flights of requiem in the colourful, colonial past, enjoyed by her many predecessors along Lawrence Road. Portion of Lahore Zoo touching Lawrence Road was shattered a few years back by a deafening, devastating blast that took heavy toll of life on innocent humans, besides settling unmistakable terror in the timid hearts of zoo inmates.

It is hard to fathom how Suzi braced the string of calamities that befell Lahore Zoo after her arrival — demise of Freemason Hall and replacement of friendly ghosts with their scheming cousins; humbling of the king of the zoo; and a murderous, killer blast of terror. But in all likelihood, the masters of the day finally understood the jinx — much to the combined benefit of men and animals around the zoo — and acted swiftly to set it right. Lawrence Road was renamed — that epitome of colonial, sinful history of Lahore was rightfully consigned to the dustbin, only to be purged through a nobler baptisement.

Jungle elephants are buried — in words of Rudyard Kipling — by their kind in remote, nameless wildernesses after performance of legendary elephant dance. I earnestly hope that Suzi of Lahore Zoo will be the last in the line after Freemasons Hall and the Lawrence Road.

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