By Brig Muhammad Asif (R)
Bank Road of Rawalpindi Saddar was a wonderful recreational place for people, irrespective of their socio-economic background. Immediately after the sunset, it would wear festive looks to turn into a ramp for the lively groups of both male and female of all age groups, who visited Saddar daily, fully prepared to walk on the ramp or to at least witness a unique Vanity Show of motley crowd of people. I spent my evenings throughout my boyhood years as a college and university student in Saddar. After joining the Army in 1978, I was unable to spend each evening on Bank Road. However, for many years after joining the Army, whenever I was in Rawalpindi on leave or duty, I spent my evenings with my old friends, who hadn’t changed their routine of strolling on Bank Road for hours before moving into one of the cafés for a cup of coffee or tea and for sitting there till midnight.
My mind and heart are filled to the brim with the memories of countless number of interesting episodes and experiences of the evenings I spent with my friends in Saddar. I will try to recount only a couple of them randomly as they flow into my consciousness. I daily reached Saddar around sunset, along with my best friend. We parked our scooter at the vacant place outside the erstwhile Standard Bank, which was located exactly opposite of Shimla Cloth building, across the road. This space was used by another group who parked their very well-maintained 1950s vintage white-colour Morris. This was a small group, comprising only two middle aged men, who didn’t have anything in common except their baldness. Unlike other regular visitors to Saddar, they preferred to be formally dressed in plain shirts and pants with a necktie.
After parking their Morris at the designated place, instead of strolling from one end of Bank Road to the other like other groups, both of them mostly spent their time at the parking place, leaning backward against the headlights of the car. They didn’t even visit a café for a cup of tea or coffee. However, a relatively younger looking member of the group would sometimes leave his partner alone whenever a group of colourful youngsters moved past their post. After chasing them for a while, he would rejoin his buddy to share each and every detail of his adventurous short journey with him. While resting on the headlights of the car, they would pass appreciative remarks on oddly clad passersby, which were mostly responded positively by the recipients, as indicated by the smiles on their faces. The shopkeepers, on both sides of the bank parking, mostly ignored their idiosyncratic behaviour. I remember, once, the owner of the toys and gifts shop that was located at the entrance to a shopping complex, which is now known as Barkat Plaza, asked them to park their car away from his shop to the eastern end of parking. One of them angrily replied to the shopkeeper, that no one could move them away from that place, as they started standing there when trees were grown at that place, even before the construction of the buildings of Standard Bank and Shimla Cloth.
Though the fun seekers, who spent their evenings at Saddar, represented almost all strata of our society from the lower middle class to the city elite, the members within a group by and large belonged to the same age group and social-cum-economic background. By early 1980s, in addition to the members of these two elite groups who completely stopped visiting Saddar, the other groups had started waning as the old culture of Rawalpindi Saddar also began to show the signs of fading away due to the after effects of Afghan Jihad and Iranian Revolution. Though I served in Rawalpindi for more than 3 years in late 1990s, I never had the temptation of spending evenings at the favourite places of my youthful days, because both the groups showcasing the familiar and young people as well as the old café, had completely disappeared. I was pleasantly surprised to learn a few years ago that one of the dozens of groups of young boys, who spent their evenings on Bank Road by early 1980s, was still intact, and hadn’t abandoned their routine of spending evenings in Saddar. They very punctually reached Flashman’s Hotel at 0800 pm to spend a few hours together, till the government closed the hotel due to heavy losses in 2020. Though after permanently returning to Rawalpindi-Islamabad in 2007, I get the opportunity to visit Saddar occasionally, I rarely get out of my vehicle because I have the feeling of being an alien in some unknown land. I feel deeply pained and distressed to notice that not only the historical buildings, monuments and other relics of the past have been demolished, even the names of most of the roads and squares have been changed. Such an attitude of our people and government reflects that we as a nation are completely unaware of the significance and value of preserving the objects and experiences that are linked to our past.