The celebrated chronicler of pre-Partition Lahore, Pran Nevile, is already famous for his seminal book, Lahore: A Sentimental Journey. He has now published his memoirs which cover his very eventful long life. The author was born in a Hindu household of Lahore in 1922 in a rented house in Mohalla Mohlian inside Lohari Gate of the walled city. In those days there was no electricity. Water was drawn from wells and delivered in large vessels by men who charged six paisas per vessel. By 1930 electricity had arrived. He writes:
“Lahore boasted of a friendly division of occupations. The entire vegetable and fruit trade, the bulk of milk supply to the city halwais (milk and sweets vendors), mostly Hindus, were handled by Muslims who were also skilled craftsmen. An enterprising Muslim lady in our mohalla ran a tailoring shop at her house and womenfolk of all communities, wanting to avoid male tailors, flocked to her. Kite making, a big business in Lahore, was dominated by Muslims who were experts in the art.”
The most exciting thing in his childhood was his admission to the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic (DAV) high school founded by the Arya Samaj. Here, he was instructed to cultivate high morals and stress was laid on Brahmacharya (celibacy). It seems such strict inculcation of abstentious morals induced a lifelong reaction in him. Beginning with his first visit in Lahore with his friends to a brothel – from where he and his friends at the last moment chickened out and ran away – he continued to have an abiding interest in dancing and singing women wherever he went as an officer posted with Indian foreign missions: Japan, Poland, the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, Eygpt, Greece and elsewhere. His first book as an author was unsurprisingly about the nautch girls of India.
The second factor which impacted his life in a profound and lasting sense was the Partition of India and of the Punjab. However, it did not generate any bitterness in him. On the contrary he took a philosophical, mystical approach to it and has spent his life trying to heal the wounds inflicted on both sides through his indefatigable efforts to promote shared India-Pakistan culture, especially music. The chapter on Partition in the book is written in a mild manner when reporting the safe exit of his parents from Lahore on the 14th of August 1947. He was then in Delhi, working with the Information Bureau. He and a Sikh gentleman saved the Khan family because they got to know that a mob was planning to raid their house.
The greatest inspiration in his life has been Government College Lahore, now a university. He obtained a First Class in Economics from there in 1943. He has vividly described the six years he spent there (1937-1943), which he tells us exposed him to cosmopolitan views and values. The atmosphere in the college was such that Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and others studied together and established lasting friendships. Of course in the student hostels there were separate Hindu and Muslim kitchens, but he notes that the students freely exchanged dishes. The teachers were role models of academic excellence as well as of liberal, progressive views. Such grooming converted Nevile into a true cosmopolite: a citizen of the world. Consequently, when he describes his postings in Japan and a host of other countries he presents the native cultures in a balanced and appreciative manner. His life as an author after retirement too is reflective of his cosmopolitan worldview. His highly appreciative works on the British Raj too are reflective of an open mind willing to acknowledge the achievements and contributions of the British in the making of modern India. He notes that while the rest of India was up in arms against the British in response to Gandhi’s ill-fated Quit India Movement, Punjabi men were flocking to the military and civil departments seeking jobs in the expanded British Indian Army and several other branches of government.
The book begins with his life in Lahore and ends with a chapter describing his first visit to Lahore in 1997 – half a century after Lahore became a foreign city in the aftermath of the Partition for its former Hindu and Sikh citizens. Since then he has visited it several times a year.
It was a most touching occasion when Pran Nevile’s book was launched from his alma mater, Government College Lahore, on the 19th of April 2016. I was one of the speakers. In the end I said, “Pran Nevile sahib you are a great man. Keep on writing!”
I would like to add here: “And keep coming to Lahore. Lahore is as much yours as it is mine.”