Sunday, December 25, 2016

Boating in Ravi

Almost all great cities came into being because of a body of water—London, Paris, Budapest, Heidelberg, Rome, Cairo, and so on. The reason why Lahore is where it is on the map is because the River Ravi flows here.

The Ravi is an essential ingredient of Lahore’s soul. A recent witness to the city’s decline and fall, carrying with it the flow of history, the Old Ravi also saw Lahore’s birth and growth, from a small stockaded fortress to the abode of opulent Hindu rajas. The legend says Lahore was founded by Rama’s son Lav while his brother Kashv founded nearby Kasur. Later, it remained a seat of the pompous sultans of Delhi, including Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak, who died playing his beloved game of polo here and is buried near Anarkali Bazar. Later still, came its glorious hey-day under the Mughals like Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jehan, who loved this city more than all the other cities in their vast empire and ornamented it with great works of art-- Chauburjis, Bara daris, the grand Lahore Fort, the magical Shalimar Gardens- even Aurangzeb the austere built the Badshahi Mosque here. Jahangir, and his queen Nur Jahan, chose to be buried at Shahdarra, across the Ravi near their beloved Lahore. 
Kamran's Baradari 
The Ravi saw the development of the old/walled city of Lahore and once used to run right under its walls, before it changed its course and later on, was contained by the British behind flood embankments. 
The British spruced up the Ravi and built new bridges across it, while Kipling immortalized both the river and its city in his great works.
My mother often told me the tale of her courtship by my father, which started here, by Ravi’s limpid shores, in happier times. It used to be quite the haunt of lovers and romantically-inclined couples, once, especially during the boating season, when one could find loving ‘joris’ floating about on the river.
This year, the boating season on the Ravi started some two weeks ago and will continue till mid-September. On the sides of the river, you can see small colorful boats moored together, like so many gaudy little parcels. In a hut like structure, the Malla (boatmen) are seen resting and chattering in a group. “A return ticket to Bara Dari costs Rs.25.”said one.
The gentlemen were too shy to talk but sent their representative, an old man named Liaqat who had been working there for forty-eight years.
“In the last twenty years, the river has deteriorated. The fish and turtles are dead, the rowing competitions are no longer held here”, he said.” The only time fishermen come is in October.”
One could see that the boats full of families. But from my mother’s description, I had gathered people rowed privately too.
“Some twenty years ago, we charged Rs.3 for a boat”, reminisced Liaqat. “For Rs. 2, we rented the boats and you could take it where you pleased.”
Liaqat also shared his social cause with us. “Every now and then, some person comes here to attempt suicide by jumping into the river. Sometimes they die, but usually they are rescued by our boatmen. Eventually the Police have to be involved.”
He said he missed the rowing competitions the most. “All the major colleges of the city, from Government College (now the GCU) to FC and even from outside the city, rowed here. Once, the principal of Hailey College came”, beamed Liaqat, “And he hired me as his permanent helper!” Boating season continues just for a few months. The rest of the year, either the boatmen (almost 30 in number) work somewhere else or serve those who need to cross the river urgently.
“Previously, there was the Buddha Ravi (Old Ravi) that absorbed the sewage. Now the Buddha Ravi is no more. Even water that was diverted to the Sandhe fields comes to the main Ravi. This has polluted the river further”, he said. “ Now it is so dirty that recreation and romance are often out of question—what lovers in their right minds would like to come and take a whiff of this stink?.”
The Ravi as seen from the Baradari today
The tea stall has been present here for a quarter century. The gentleman there, a lone widower, opens and closes from six in the morning to six in the evening. I inquired if he had ever seen anything extra-terrestrial there, but he denied it. To the question how the Ravi can improve, he had a clear, short answer: “Get some water in it.”
After watching so many families and youngster flock the boats I was also tempted. The boat quivers when you are climbing into it, therefore, haste can cause you to slip. I personally prayed to God to not kill me there, for if I have to drown, the water should at least be clean. Black water on the left, with litter floating by and a bridge choked with loud traffic to the right, was all I saw. A fat and oily child with us finished his chocolate and threw the wrapper in the river. I personally thanked him for this service to the nation. Faint stink of sewage welcomed my nostrils to the Bara Dari. We should collectively apologize to Kamran for what we did to his pleasure-pavilion, where he once probably disported himself with lovely damsels, graceful as gazelles, and quite unlike our latter-day ‘filmi’ heroines.
The Bara Dari itself was desolate. It was in sharp contrast to the Red Fort and other Mughal buildings in Delhi, which are thriving with people, clean, renovated, well-lit and even boasting attractions like museums, light and sound shows etc. Like all over Pakistan, young men had paid homage to their lovers on the walls, here—some had even vented their rage or frustration in no uncertain terms. Boys, boys, kindly use your cell phones now, please, and if you can’t afford them, use mine, but do stop spoiling our already threatened historical heritage.
The River Rhine is good case study for comparison with the Ravi and its condition, especially for those who think India is also contributing to its filthy condition, by sending down its sewage into Pakistan and that mutual cooperation towards a civilized solution is impossible. The Rhine is a European river that flows through four countries and was terribly polluted in the first half of the 20th century. In 1987, the Rhine Action Program was started. Now, a legally binding discharge limit has been given, discharge permits are required and excess waste is to be treated. All the countries share this, and an alarm system is implanted that comes into action if any pollutant exceeds the limit. If the Europeans can reach an agreement, why can’t we? I mean some of them—France and Germany for example--were worse enemies, for longer, than we are.
By dumping untreated sewage in the river and choking it of its water, we are putting at stake not only many livelihoods, but also our environment and historical inheritance. We need filtration plants by the river and prevent industrial waste from entering it. Furthermore, if water talks with India are at a stalemate, we can nourish the river through a local canal or dam. In any event, this present ignorance and lack of action on the national and international level will be very costly for us in the future.

Parts of this piece were first published in the News on Sunday. 

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