A welcome addition to scholarship on Lahore
Published on April 19, 2017

A welcome addition to scholarship on Lahore

A welcome addition to scholarship on Lahore

The interested reader will understand the pain of losing Lahore to insensitive planning better after being more cognizant of its history

Despite the saying that ‘If one has not seen Lahore one has not been born’ (best savoured in Lahore’s Punjabi), there is actually not as much scholarly work on Lahore as one would expect. There are, of course, more memoirs and reminiscences featuring the city than there are on any other city of Pakistan. But among the scholarly works the following may be mentioned: William Glover’s Making Lahore Modern (2008), Saeed Malik’s Lahore: Its Melodic Culture (1998), Pervaiz and Sajida Vandal’s The Raj, Lahore and Bhai Ram Singh and Nadhra Khan’s ongoing work on Sikh architecture. In the literary sphere, apart from the number of Urdu and some English novels with Lahore as a backdrop, we also have Bapsi Sidhwa’s edited book insouciantly entitled The City of Sin (2005) with a focus on literary work and nostalgia. But so multi-faceted is the history of this city that a book on its social history, Lahore in the times of the Raj, by such well known historians as Ian Talbot and Tahir Kamran is very welcome indeed.

Apart from an introduction and an epilogue, the book has seven chapters covering almost all aspects of life in this city during British rule. One point made by the authors is that Lahore was not an isolated urban phenomenon on the Western fringes of the empire. It was situated on the borders of the empire opening out both to the east and the west, and thus its crucial feature was interconnectedness. This theme is mentioned in the first chapter aptly subtitled ‘the city and beyond’ and developed in subsequent chapters which bring out the linkages of the city with the Gangetic valley, Arabia, Afghanistan and Czarist Russia of the Great Game. This openness is symbolised by the gates of the old city which the authors mention in the second chapter on ‘place and space’. The old city, represented as a closed old world reality best understood in the thousand and one nights tradition in British memoirs, was in fact full of ‘professional, political and cultural connections that spread across North India’ (p. 64). The colonial state made these connections faster, more reliable and more far-reaching through its technology but these remained autonomous of the state in some sense. However, because the travelers and the guide books they chose to negotiate the city, romanticised the old world of the walled city, certain stereotypes persisted till political movements began to bring about manifest changes in old Lahore.

The book’s chapters on poets, wrestlers and cricketers (chapter 4) and on pilgrims and shrines (chapter 6) represent two disparate faces of Lahore: the first of those who made up the culture of the city; the second who imported other sub-cultures into the city while also putting colour and vivacity into it. In a sense, the first group represented static identity; the second mobile identity through diversity. The colonial state shaped both types of identity. For instance, the poets started writing in Urdu which was the vernacular language of colonial Lahore (and still is). Indeed, Lahore became an important centre of Urdu in north India. Similarly, had the colonial state not made Lahore ‘the city of colleges – it had 270 colleges with 88, 000 students by the end of the colonial era – and introduced cricket, the city’s sub-culture of street cricket could not have been born. The pilgrims benefitted from the railway and the ships which sailed to Arabia for pilgrimage. And, of course, the colonial construction of modern Lahore cannot be understood without an account of its economic history. This is provided in chapter 6 (A World of Goods) which uses archival material from the raj — especially advertisements—to create a profile of consumption in Lahore. This chapter is important for understanding how modernity affects lifestyle and self image.

With new ideas and a large student population it is not surprising that revolutionary ideas—Marxist, anti-Colonial, nationalist, religious—found a welcome niche in the city. Chapter 7 sheds light on some of the better known movements of this kind: the Ghadr movement, Pan-Islamic anti-British movement, the movement of Bhagat Singh etc. This is yet another connection with the U.P heartland of Muslim resistance of which Maulana Mahmudul Hasan and Husain Ahmad Madani as well as Ubeidullah Sindhi of Deoband were a part. This movement in turn connected both with Afghanistan and Arabia as well as Turkey, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Then there was the Ghadr party with activists in London, America and Canada. In short, Lahore served as an exchange centre for people and ideas out to destroy the colonial world. These people and ideas had given it life in order to create a new world.

The book ends with complaints about globalisation ‘exacerbating social inequalities and destroying Lahore’s historical heritage’ (p. 177) which are both required as correctives to the folly of destroying people’s ways of living and the physical space which connects them with their history. While it is true that things are always changing there can be a method to the madness of badly planned change. Paris, London and Moscow have also changed and are changing even now but the distinguishing features of the old city have been complimented with new landmarks. In the paintings and novels of these old cities one still finds descriptions which mark out the distinctive character of the city. This, unfortunately, does not seem to be happening to Lahore. Thus, it is very timely that the authors should have ended their book with a plea to save Lahore.

This book is a social history which is a contribution to historical scholarship on Pakistan since it is a neglected field. It also connects with urban studies and the construction of identity with reference to colonial modernity. One very endearing feature of the book is that it is very accessible though not lacking in scholarly authority if one reads the notes and references tucked away in the end. The book is recommended not only to historians but also to urban planners, environmentalists and the interested reader who will understand the pain of losing Lahore to insensitive planning better after being more cognizant of its history.

-         www.dailytimes.com.pk

Book Name: Lahore in the times of the Raj Delhi

Author: Ian Talbot and Tahir Kamran

Publishers: Viking, 2016

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