There are buses, flying coaches and private vehicles parked in a triangular lot between Lady Wellington Hospital and what used to be Iqbal Park, antecedently Minto Park.
Having been out of the city for a number of years the last time I saw this area there was still a cricket stadium next to Iqbal Park, a ground where kids used to fly kites and a parking for people visiting Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque nearby. Now, there remains none of it.
The road to the fort gone, the stadium vanished and guddi ground subsumed into this gigantic enclave bounded by a tall fence with barbed wire. To get inside I had to line up in the single queue of a pedestrian fence, where people were frisked, asked to show identification and then made to go through a metal detector. Definitely not the Iqbal Park I remembered.
With great acreage comes great responsibility, I suppose. Still partly under construction, Greater Iqbal Park lives up to its name in size and the things it portends to offer. Too numerous to list down, the ones up and running so far are the wheel-cars, the desi version of a tram, horse-carriages, giant heart-shaped lights, gazebos, a children’s playground, and the dancing fountain; the last which offers air explosions and a 3D shooter nozzles, whatever on earth they are.
Also advertised on the premises is the tomb of poet and lyricist of our national anthem, Hafeez Jalandhri, though I suspect this last one didn’t need much work by the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA), unless they entombed him all those years ago.
This huge network of walkways and gardens, and I mean huge, leads tidily up to the entrances of the Gurdwara Dera Sahib, the Lahore Fort and the Badshahi Mosque. Entry into Greater Iqbal Park is not ticketed, for now.
Though I asked the site manager overseeing construction of a museum and amphitheatre — he was also optimistic that the park would be a hundred per cent complete in the next three months — whether the park would remain un-ticketed, considering the amount of resources being put into its construction. He just glumly rubbed his head for a few seconds, and said it depends on whether it stays with the PHA or someone influential grabs it on a theka.
In addition to the things mentioned, the park will soon be opening four food courts, reflecting the local cuisines of the four major provinces — named ‘Baab-e-Singh,’ ‘Baab-e-Balochistan,’ etc. This, I’m told by the manager, is to reflect the inclusivity inherent in the idea of Pakistan; the true spirit of the Pakistan Resolution that was once passed here, decades ago.
On a similar theme, the park has a Café 1947. Smartly, it doesn’t include the contentious date. As I roamed around, talking to labourers, gardeners and guards, I also met groups of people who had come there from a wide variety of places. Many close by, but a family from Faisalabad, another from Gujranwala, both visiting the city for other reasons but couldn’t resist seeing the much vaunted new park — and finally, a bus full of college students from the tautologically titled University of Education, Township.
Many of the coaches and buses outside in the parking were for the Fort and the Mosque (the Gurdwara not entirely open to public and undergoing some renovation of its own), and it’s not entirely an unpleasant walk through Greater Iqbal Park to two of Lahore’s cherished old monuments.
People have their reservations. How expensive will the food in the food courts be? If the fine for littering is Rs500, what are the amusement ride tickets going to cost?
Other than the tourists, locals bemoan the loss of the cricket stadium. A tour guide at the fort told me Salim Malik had begun his career in the now razed Attique Stadium. Good thing they tore it down then, I tried to joke with him. He wasn’t amused. Neither, he said, are the residents of Old Lahore.
To be fair to the Parks and Horticulture Authority, they are claiming to set up a new akhara to replace the old one that used to exist here. But cricket or football won’t be allowed on these perfectly manicured lawns and their wildly colourful flowers.
The site is also going eco-friendly, with most of it powered by the enormous solar panels at the northern end of the park. The centrepiece remains the Minar-e-Pakistan, of course. Brilliantly lit up in green at night, perhaps masking the lack of utility it has during the day. No longer accessible after the spate of suicides from the top of the monument, many years ago, it’s now just a massive and artfully constructed thing to marvel at, from a distance.
Which is perhaps what might become of the Greater Iqbal Park also. As more and more of Old Lahore becomes suburban amusement, there are justifiable fears by locals and residents of the Walled City that the grounds, streets and buildings they once considered their own, would now be barred to them for the amusement of everyone else.
The cobblers and sellers of quaint things on the ascending path to the Badshahi Mosque shake their heads at the colour and commotion below them. “My kids used to come with me to play cricket in that empty dirt ground,” one of them pointed to something in his imagination, as there is now a lush garden at the end of his finger. “Now they’ve gotten bored of the swings and slides and play cricket back home in the streets.”
The tour guide I spoke to earlier was more optimistic. Tour guides, after all, need tourists. He saw the grand park well advertised by the Punjab government as a possible lottery coming his way, soon. “Look, if someone brings their family to the park for an entire day, some of them will no doubt come this way and want to roam the fort, too,” he said. Also, he can offer tours of the park itself, with its long and storied history.
Greater Iqbal Park is a grand idea, let’s hope it remains grand in spirit too, and affords some of the bat swinging, kite flying and wrestling that made the ‘lesser’ Iqbal Park famous.