A View ‘Across Another Century’
The GT Road Blog
By Steve Inskeep
NPR correspondents are on the Grand Trunk Road. The team has undertaken this project to hear from “young people along one of the world’s historic highways.”
Today, we get to go along with the team to a restaurant in Lahore that offers much more than just food.
There’s no need to get into what we talked about. There’s time for that later, in a few days. Let me just tell you where we talked about it.
First we drove down Mall Road, a main street in Lahore. We passed gorgeous old colonial buildings from when the British ruled this city as part of India. Looking at the buildings from bottom to top, we could see that many start out stolid and British, with foundations made of stone and built to last. Then, as they climbed, we spied frilly archways and high turrets that seemed ready to float into the sky.
So Queen Victoria was alive again; then we turned a few corners and went back another few centuries in time.
We came to the door of a restaurant. The grill stood outdoors, on the sidewalk, coals gleaming in the gloom just after sunset. We noticed a large metal bowl beside the grill, suspended in the air. It hung from a rope in front of the building. My eye followed the rope up, and up, to a pulley and a watchful face maybe 40 feet above. It was a giant-scale dumbwaiter, designed to haul grilled meat up to the roof, because that’s where the tables were.
This was Coo Coo’s Cafe, the place that everybody said we should not leave Lahore without seeing.
Coo Coo’s owner was a son of a prostitute. He’d become famous as an artist, painting portraits of prostitutes. Now he had opened a restaurant in the old red-light district.
We walked in, past the ornately carved door, and into a room filled with framed paintings of women. This was the entrance to the restaurant. Then we passed into — no other way to describe it — a bedroom. The man who lay on the bed watching television motioned us through to the door on the far side; it was nothing to him. Next we climbed a series of staircases that violated every American building standard for steepness, narrowness, and consistency. The last flight was in the open air — if you fell, there was a great chance you’d miss the tiny landing and tumble into space. Nobody fell. It was exhilarating.
And there we stood on the roof amid the restaurant tables, looking out across another century. To the left we saw three onion-shaped domes of the Bad Shahi Mosque, a centuries-old structure that filled a city block across the street. To the right we saw the gates of Lahore Fort, built even before the British times, when this was a great city of India’s Mughal Empire.
The scorching sun was long gone; a cool breeze blew across the tables. And from the very best table, right at the railing with a perfect view of a lost world, Maria Khan stood to greet us. She is a 25-year-old barrister. She beamed as we looked at the historic landmarks strewn about us as far as we could see.
She’d invited us here to explain why, after getting an education at the finest schools in America and England, she decided to return home to Lahore.
Her reasons were complicated, as we would find out. But after choosing this location, did she really have to say a word?