Jugnu Mohsin writing for The Friday Times says that Lahore’s most celebrated oasis is now the subject of enchanting paintings
You are truly amongst Lahore’s privileged if you receive an invitation to a harisa lunch on a winter afternoon at the home of Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan. No ordinary repast this, cooked as it is laboriously and lovingly over an evening and a night by Tahira herself. And only harisa is on the menu.
Originating in Kashmir, harisa is a purer cousin of haleem, without the spices and far more meaty and grainy. But as with all other Kashmiri offerings, harisa became a memorable dish only after its encounter with the Punjab. For hundreds of years, driven out by the harsh winter or latter day Dogra tyrants, Kashmiri Muslims and their families came down from the vale to Sialkot, Lahore and Amritsar and settled in their droves. Here, their customs, dress, language and cuisine underwent a metamorphosis.
Punjab, the land of plenty, offered a far greater variety of meats, vegetables, spices and grains with which to embellish a cuisine, and Kashmiri fare became a gourmet’s delight. Of these, the two most famous culinary products were shabdeg and harisa – both cooked for hours over slow fires. Where shabdeg is a mutton stew cooked with sweet turnips in desi ghee, harisa is a medley of salted mutton or chicken cooked with a variety of grains. Tahira is no Kashmiri, being the daughter of the distinguished pre-Partition politician Sir Sikandar Hyat, chieftain of the Khattars of Wah. Still, food was a big deal in their home and at Tahira’s own the eating of harisa became a ritual.
Her guests are welcomed into her walled garden, which lies at the heart of her home in Shadman. Both the house and garden, laid out in the 1950s, are enchanting in their simplicity and rustic ambience. A low table is set invitingly beneath the dappled shade of a tree, on a grassy platform by the pool. And this is no state-of-the-art tiled pool with chrome fittings, the kind that the rich and famous frolic in at select clubs and homes in Lahore, but a no-frills, utilitarian “tank” as they were known when life was simpler. Tahira has always been a swimmer, both she and her husband Mazhar Ali Khan loved the outdoors, and the pool kept them healthy and happy for decades.
Tahira’s guest list is eclectic, ranging from old family friends, no matter what their political persuasion, to young professionals and activists. Of an afternoon, our hostess invited businessman-philanthropist Syed Babar Ali, Afsar Qizilbash of the landed gentry, Bilal Minto a young lawyer, Dr Ayesha Jalal the historian, Samina Rehman of the Women’s Action Forum, and Shahid Jalal the artist. One thing unites all of Tahira’s guests; a love of good food and conversation and an abiding affection and respect for the uncompromising life she has lived with her activist, man of letters husband Mazhar Ali Khan who died in the early 1990s.
Tahira’s guests are led through a carved wooden door, and seated under the shade of a leafy tree. They take their seats around the low lacquered table with its striking centre piece – a deep plate set with frangipani and orange blossom. And then the feast begins. Heaped and steaming plates of harisa for everyone, garnished with fried onion, tiny mutton kababs, mint, coriander, a fried egg sprinkled with garam masala and a ladle-full of hot desi ghee. This offering is served with roghni naan, Kashmiri tea and fresh cream.
Having eaten their fill, Tahira’s guests sit back and enjoy the garden. A riot of green and the occasional burst of colour, the glade is an oasis of calm with its high walls covered in ivy. A large pine presides over one corner of this garden, its cones lying nonchalantly on the grass until they decompose and enrich the soil again. Tahira does not believe in manicuring this glade, her staff occasionally tidy it and when they are done with their work, they are to be found lounging about the place just as she does. Two guest rooms, where Tahira’s son Tariq Ali stays when he visits his mother, overlook the pool and open out into the garden. The walls and tiled roof of these rooms are smothered with red bougainvillea all year round.
You can go on about this walled garden, a place of mystery, history and delight, but the artist Shahid Jalal who has been visiting it all his adult life, has done better than that. He has painted it in all its glory, from every aspect and in every season. In the fitness of things, Jalal has donated all these beautiful works to that worthy cause, The Citizen’s Foundation (which provides education to thousands of underprivileged children across Pakistan) and proceeds of the sale will go to TCF. Jalal’s canvases are windows opening out on Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan’s garden. They are a not only a labour of love but a mark of respect and a charming record of the place that has been an oasis for so many for all these years.