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August 19, 2007
ARTICLE: Memories of Lahore
By Intizar Husain
“IT is spiritual. Please speak softly. It is intellectual. Please maintain composure”. This piece of advice seems a bit strange seeing the times we are living in. However, this advice fits well with an art festival organised in the name of peace. Alaap, an NGO in Lahore, was wiser this year. Having learnt a lesson from last year’s failure, it now organised the festival in a much better way. Also wise was the idea to link the festival with the cause of peace which has eluded us for so long.
We are now living in a violence-ridden age. Bomb blasts and suicidal attacks are order of the day. Excepting those who will not mind these acts if they serve as a means to the so-called better, people in general are in a state of agony yearning for the peaceful days gone by.
So we are now in search of a panacea which will help us to come out of the trouble we are in now. There was a suggestion to seek help from our forgotten tradition of mysticism, in the hope that it will lead us to the benign version of Islam thus paving the way for restoration of human values of love, amity, and tolerance. But the difficulty is that the times when this tradition received sustenance from great Sufis sitting in distant places in the subcontinent was a living force in our society have elapsed. Its revival is not possible through officially or even unofficially organised Sufi seminars and conferences.
But the fine arts are still, to a certain extent, alive with us. The same is true with our literary tradition. Mushaira is still among the most popular institutions left with us. So culturally we are still in a position to counteract the pernicious influences coming from the schools of obscurantism flourishing in our society. When properly organised by Alaap, its arts festival attracted the attention of the art lovers and peace-loving people. It also succeeded in receiving cooperation from various artists, writers and intellectuals in the city. The programme included a series of cultural shows, mehfil-i-mausiqi, mushaira, stage play, book exhibition and discussions on topics related to culture and arts. The liveliest discussion was the one about Lahore as the city that it once was and is now no more. Each speaker was trying to describe the city as he had seen and experienced it.
In fact Lahorites are at present are living in two cities at one and the same time; the one they are actually living in and the other which is enshrined in their sweet memories. The two cities are engaged in a clash, and from this clash ensues their nostalgia for the city that has almost vanished under the pressure of growing commercialisation. How earnestly they remember their old Mall, which with its sparse slow traffic gave the impression of being reserved more for ramblers than for riders. With no rickshaws or motorbikes in sight the road seemed to be bathed in a peaceful atmosphere. Most prominent among the drivers on this road were young women riding speedily on their bicycles towards university. And most prominent among the tonga riders was that distinguished personality, who could be seen proceeding to the coffeehouse later in the evenings. He was Maulana Chiragh Hasan Hasrat. The coffeehouse itself is now a part of the sweet memories of even those who happened only to be only casual visitors to the area. Not far from the coffeehouse there was the Pak Tea House which closed down recently. Even those who never cared to visit it were seen shocked at this cultural catastrophe. How earnestly they struggled for its restoration, but frankly speaking, even if restored it could no longer be the kind of teahouse that it once was. Times have changed; the city has lost its cultural character and opened its arms to commercialisation.
It was a different world when coffeehouses and teahouses flourished. They flourished in the background of a rich restaurant culture, which distinguished the Mall from other cultural spots of the city. Those sitting there were never seen in a hurry. They could afford to sit for long hours discussing ideas and ideologies over a cup of tea. Each literary theory had its protagonists, who when engaged in a discussion gave the impression of being the defender of a noble cause most dear to them. And it was not simply an intellectual exercise with them. What they discovered as truth in the process of their literary or intellectual thinking stayed as an article of faith with them.
Such were the devoted souls for whom ideas and ideologies meant more than worldly benefits. It was because of them that certain restaurants gained a cultural status. Now we are living in a different world. This world cannot afford to have such souls and such haunts within its fold. The age of coffeehouses and teahouses is gone. Food streets are now the hallmark of life in Lahore.
Lahore: Tales Without End
REVIEWS: Not what it seems
Reviewed by Zahrah Nasir
Punjabis in the legendary Californian Gold Rush, some of whom decided to liberate India from the British in 1914; the amazing Punjabi who arrived near Hitler’s Bunker on September 5, 1945, seeking Nazi assistance for the liberation of the subcontinent albeit three days too late; noseless and earless butchers; ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night ... These are just a few examples of the incredible stories which enticingly unfold in the pages of Lahore: Tales Without End, a history book with a definite difference.
The book is a compilation of articles (140 to be precise), a majority of which have appeared in the pages of Dawn over the years. Written by esteemed columnist and historian Majid Sheikh, a true son of Lahore if ever there was one, they are the legends, tales, historical happenings as well as the more recent anecdotes about the capital of the Punjab, written in such a highly readable manner that even those without much of an interest in this historic city will find themselves delving into its titillating pages.
It is difficult to decide where to start, although at the beginning is obviously a good idea. But having done this, if you are anything like me you will probably find yourself hurriedly flipping through the pages, attempting to read everything all at once.
Story headings such as ‘The Ravi’s treasures’, ‘The case of the forgotten ferries’, ‘The curse of Gazoroni’, ‘The gift of Adolph Hitler’, ‘The origins of Sam Browne’s Belt’, ‘The crazy Italian of Lahore’, ‘The curse of the choti memsahibs’ and ‘The crazy maharaja and the mosque’ are sure to attract your attention.
The stories have been arranged in a ‘reluctantly’ systematic manner, starting out with ancient ones about the very beginnings of Lahore — beginnings shrouded in a mystery all of their own. I use the word ‘reluctantly’ as the order of the stories is not always exactly systematic but has a tendency to dive off at the most unusual tangents, these tangents being even more stories with equally addictive content, enhanced by the author’s personal experiences of the localities and people, even ghosts, under the microscope of his sharply perceptive vision.
Sheikh definitely has a way with words. “If Lahoris can sell fish and chips in the Falklands, why not expect them to be in the Wild West?” he asks in the saga of ‘Lahore and the Komagata Maru’, an epic to rival many a blockbuster if it ever makes it to the silver screen as it should. I, for one, am completely astounded that I have never even heard of this event before and, to the best of my knowledge, neither has there been a book dedicated to this particular adventure.
Another story which deserves a much wider audience is that of ‘The last heirs of the Lahore Darbar’. It begins with: “Every morning a frail old woman in flowing clothes would board the Model Town bus, headed for the city. The conductor dared not ask for the fare, for he would be confronting the last ancestor of Lahore Darbar’s royal family, Princess Bamba Sutherland Dilip Singh.” Her father Maharaja Dilip Singh, the last King of the Punjab, is removed from his throne in 1849 at the age of five by the British and deported to England to be brought up as a sahib. But he ruins his chances by getting on the wrong side of Queen Victoria over the disputed Koh-i-Noor diamond. Eventually, he tries organising a revolution against the British in India with the aid of Russia. His love for the subcontinent is bequeathed to Princess Bamba, his other two daughters and two sons not being quite as keen. A rebel and self-styled ‘Queen of the Punjab’, Princess Bamba settles in Lahore in 1944, remaining there until her death in 1957. If you want to know more, read the story.
The pages of Lahore: Tales Without End are peopled with all manner of heroes, heroines, the good, the bad and the in-between. Winston Churchill strolls in and out as do Kipling and Kim, Sita and Ashok, Billo and her ranis, Kita Paya the lunatic, Ranjit Singh and a host of other leading historical figures are given a new lease on life by Sheikh’s pen. Even ordinary characters turn into something rather extraordinary as the story ‘Jagga’s sister Meedan’ amply illustrates.
It is not just the people inhabiting the pages of this book who work their magic on the reader but also the place and street names, the forts, palaces and mosques, the roads and markets of this city of enchantment. All seem to be demanding that you go and explore Lahore for yourself, perhaps even taking this treasure chest of a book along as a guide.
I have only one, severe criticism to make and I am overlooking spelling mistakes for once. The book is too short, far too short, to plug the drain of historical knowledge which, once lost, can never be re-found. Let us hope that this is merely the first of a series and, if it isn’t, then it should be.
Lahore: Tales Without End By Majid Sheikh Society for the Advancement of Education. 65-C, Garden Block, New Garden Town, Lahore Tel: 042-5868115-6 firstname.lastname@example.org 435pp. Rs500
Pakistan-based social organisation Lahore Sangat has taken the initiative to revive Lahore’s links with its prominent citizens, many of whom lived and died in undivided British India and some who migrated to India after the partition. Much like Britain’s Blue Plaques, which commemorate a link between a particular location and a famous person, the outfit started the process of installing plaques at places — either their place of birth or old residences — associated with erstwhile residents of Lahore in March this year.
The names include freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai, Punjabi poet and novelist Amrita Pritam, singer Mohammad Rafi, famous architect Bhai Ram Singh, philanthropist Sardar Dyal Singh Majithia and the world wrestling champion Gama Pehelwan, known as Rustam-e-Hind.
The project, named “Lahore Remembers and Honours its Citizens Who Migrated to India”, was put on hold due to Covid-19 restrictions when only 10 plaques had been installed. The project has been resumed now with the cooperation of the government of Pakistan Punjab. So far, 121 famous residents of Lahore have been identified.
Meanwhile, the deputy commissioner/land acquisition collector of Peshawar has issued an acquisition notification for veteran Indian actor Dilip Kumar’s house in the city for protection and preservation as a museum in a phased manner.