Lahore at the crossroads

Courtyard of the mosque of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh which underlines Lahore’s Sufi heritage
In their brief introduction to Lahore in the Time of the Raj,  authors Ian Talbot and Tahir Kamran point to the dichotomies that mark most colonial cities in the Indian sub-continent — the confused and congested sprawl of the old and native city and the ordered elegance and manicured spaces of the new colonial city with landmarks that are familiar in every such city. These include the Civil Lines where most of the civilian bureaucracy lived and worked; the Cantonment that housed the military units with separate quarters for the colonial masters and the natives; the inevitable club and the messes that were the indispensable watering holes for the ruling class, which in a later time included some privileged “brown sahibs.” 

As they point out, the colonial city was a constant reproach to the “disorder” of the traditional and supposedly insular city and was meant to reflect the civilising influence of colonial rule. Lahore became an important transport and trading hub in the British Indian empire, linked by new roads and railways with the modern ports of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Karachi. But this was, as the authors point out, only adding a more modern layer to a city which through history had flourished at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. This also gave the city a cosmopolitanism that was much older than that bestowed upon it by colonial rule. Along with Delhi and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Lahore was acknowledged as a premier cultural centre for the whole of northern India and also as a centre for both Urdu and Punjabi language and literature. Above all, Lahore was (and in some ways still is) a Sufi city, its landscape dotted with shrines dedicated to the great Sufi saints. The most revered, the Data Ganj Bakhsh, still atracts large numbers of devotees.

The book recounts how the city also became caught up in the political ferment leading up to the end of colonial rule and the partition of India. Its crossroads character, its emergence as a centre of modern (English) education and its steadily increasing prosperity through trade and industry placed it at the centre of nationalist and revolutionary networks like the Ghadar Party, the Khilafat Movement and the later movement for the creation of Pakistan. The image of Punjab as a model and loyal province in British India proved to be a myth, as dissent and defiance bubbled dangerously under its ordered exterior with Bhagat Singh its most celebrated and iconic representative.

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Pages: 288

Price: Rs 599
Lahore is the one city in Pakistan whose loss is felt most deeply in India. It was a truly plural city with a large Hindu and Sikh population, perhaps as much as thirty per cent, but with a profile much larger than the numbers indicate. The city’s business and industry were in the hands of the Hindus and the wealthiest families were almost invariably Hindu. It is the Hindus, many of whom had migrated to the city from other parts of India, who had profited most from the construction and expansion of the colonial city. There were quarters of the modern city that were mostly inhabited by this emerging elite. Some like Sir Gangaram also engaged in much admired philanthropy, setting up schools, colleges and hospitals. These still stand as reminders of their generosity. But with Partition, the networks that bound the city with its larger sub-continental neighbourhood were severed. 

The departure of its large Hindu and Sikh population amidst scenes of terrible violence and slaughter and the continuing effort by Pakistani authorities to stamp out the vestiges of its cosmopolitan spirit and its even older sense of elegance and refinement have taken their toll. As the authors point out, Lahore flourished on the basis of its long history of inter-connectedness, acquiring a unique and multi-layered character as it assimilated influences streaming in from all directions of the compass. In the epilogue they observe, “During the colonial era Lahore had been at the centre of a web of religious, cultural, ideological and personal connections reaching out not only to Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and the up-and-coming Karachi, but also to Afghanistan, Arabia, Europe and North America.” 

It is this Lahore that came to an end with the partition of India.

The book is divided into seven chapters with an introduction and an epilogue. Frankly, I found the first four chapters dealing with the old Lahore and the beginnings of the colonial Lahore and their juxtaposition, the most readable. The later chapters tend to become somewhat tedious. The final chapter, entitled “Martyrs, Migrants and Militants: Lahore’s Transnational Revolutionary Networks”, covers  an interesting theme but is packed with too much scattered details and loses focus.

The attempts to embellish the text with half-baked forays into theories of urban growth and sociological change detract from the narrative rather than add to it. 

Another view of courtyard of the mosque of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh which underlines Lahore’s Sufi heritage
Despite these shortcomings, the book is worth a read. Having visited Lahore and savoured the many delights of this still vibrant and culturally sophisticated city, I found it a well researched and empathetic guide to one of the sub-continent’s remarkable cities.                 />
The reviewer is a former foreign secretary. He is currently Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research                                                                

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