Throw a Stone

Last night, around 8:00 pm, we arrived at a restaurant that is perhaps Lahore’s most famous, Cooco’s Den. Cooco’s Den is located in what was once a six story old house just outside the Old Walled City of Lahore.

The owner of Cooco’s Den, Iqbal Hussain, is a famous Lahori painter known for depicting street scenes and women, so his paintings and art prints as well as his collection of sculptures and objects make a sort of two story gallery that you walk through as you try to reach the dining areas. The dining areas are located on the rooftop (5th story) and on two large decks built on top of that (6th story). The top stories are open air, so diners have an extraordinary roof view of the city, which since it’s near the Old Walled City, diners can view architectural structures from various centuries, including Mughal Era walls, gates, towers, and shrines. Because the restaurant was established in what was once a House in a densely populated old city, the individual floors measure maybe 25x25 feet, meaning the house was very tall and narrow and not too deep : think of houses one sees in older parts of European cities. The inner structure includes alcoves and window sills as well as an interior spiral marble staircase. The spiral marble staircase ascends some 150 steps at probably 65 or 70 degrees and as you climb the stairs, you imagine that it’s approaching 90! And as you climb, your shoulders are brushing against walls that surely have tales to tell.

For this house was not just an ordinary house and this area of Lahore is not just an ordinary area of this splendid and soiled city: Cooco’s Den was established in what was once a house of questionable reputation and in a neighborhood of pleasures and pursuits that we may call, a neighborhood of ill repute. Iqbal Hussain, owner of Cooco’s, was born a fatherless child of a prostitute and grew up in Lahore’s red light district — within walking distance to both his famous restaurant and to one of the most impressive and glorious mosques in South Asia, Badshahi Mosque, which was built by a Mughal emperor. Such is the view from Cooco’s rooftop : the red light district and the spectacular onion domes and minarets of that beautiful mosque. A view spectacular and vibrant with all the hopes and despairs of human life colliding. Imagine how this man’s life should have been: Street hustler, beggar, errand boy for dancing women intensely desired and completely shunned, bootlegger, opium addict, or something else brutish and short. And imagine what he made of it through his artistic talent and hard work.

Iqbal Hussain painted painted women and those hustlers he knew his whole life and he sold those paintings and exhibited his work all over the city. After he had achieved renown as a painter and university teacher at the most prestigious arts college in the country (also in Lahore and also in this general section of the city), he continued to live in this house located right in the midst of debauchery and worship. Throw a stone and it may land in the courtyard of the mosque or in the courtyard of a madam. Today, his paintings command high prices in Pakistan and abroad, and in this city of close to ten million people, the restaurant he opened has become the most exclusive and must-go place for Pakistanis and international visitors alike. When Tahir and I first went to Cooco’s Den in 2007, the house/restaurant was really the only lively place on its block. The rest of the houses were darkened and looked like they could have been abandoned. There was of course the great rooftop dining and view of the city, and his gallery of works and collections. But now, the entire block surrounding Cooco’s has been revitalized and there are restaurants and food stands and bright lights surrounding the people sitting at sidewalk tables, feasting, people-watching, and enjoying the ambience with friends and family.

My first time there, I marveled at how the hot dishes made it from the kitchens on the 3rd and 4th floors to the dining areas on the 5th and 6th rooftops: hot food in clay pots were hoisted by pulleys running outside the building. Think of a dumb waiter and imagine it’s not inside an interior shaft inside a building, but rather it runs outside of the building in the open air. Also imagine that dumb waiter is really just a rudimentary rope with baskets to haul the clay pots, and imagine those clay pots ascending from the kitchen to the waiters and diners on the rooftop, over the railings (without spilling) and moving along the facade of the six story building. The facade of a building facing the grand mosque and the famous red light district, crowded from sunset to almost sunrise, or crowded from almost sunrise to sunset, depending on one’s perspective.

In Cooco’s neighborhood at all hours of the day, but especially after dark, you hear music, people talking in high Urdu and in rough and tumble Punjabi with bits of other languages like English and Persian and Chinese here and there. You hear car horns, chicken and mutton and lamb and beef and Lahore’s version of Rocky Mountain Oysters sizzling on enormous round grills, and chefs chopping those sizzling meats with such great aplomb and speed that you imagine you hear horses galloping. Groups of university students plot grand schemes over cigarettes, chai, and shared plates of grilled meats. Friends laugh and bs and discuss business deals and all manner of discreet and indiscreet affairs. This was another night out in Lahore and we all were at the place to be. Cooco’s neighborhood. On the border of posh but respectable and yet slightly wild and racy, so near such shady transactions that most of us there could only imagine, if we dared.

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