Lahore revisited

By Pran Nevile

LAHORE has a long and ancient past. (Top) DAV High School, Lahore.The gateway to the subcontinent, it had through the centuries attracted trade caravans, plundering hordes and conquerors in search of wealth and power. No other city can perhaps be said to have more chequered history than Lahore, a city ruled by Hindu kings, Mughal emperors, Sikh monarchs and British sovereigns.

My visit to Lahore, the city of my birth and upbringing, after a lapse of 50 years, was indeed a pilgrimage to the past. I belong to the fading generation of the pre-Partition days, which was forced to leave its home-land. But we carried ‘Lahore’ in our hearts like the memory of the first love. Overpowered by nostalgia, we still recall the days when Lahore had acquired the reputation of the ‘Paris of the East’, where people of different communities lived in harmony in the sunshine of their common heritage, historic bonds and composite Punjabi culture.

Even after 50 years, most of us consider ourselves rootless and are still groping for an identity. We had to make linguistic and social adjustments. The obituary columns in Indian newspapers still carry announcements describing the deceased as, so and so formerly of Lahore. For all the love that we have acquired for our new places of abode, we cannot possibly forget our roots.

My emotional attachment to Lahore has found expression in my book Lahore — A Sentimental Journey published in 1993. It was well received in Pakistan and resulted in quite a few pen-friends from Lahore. Incidentally, at the request of one of them, Dr Ajaz Anwar of the Lahore Conservation Society, I sent an appeal to the Pakistan authorities not to demolish Tollinton Market, the old landmark of Lahore. One valid reason for not visiting Lahore earlier was my earnest desire to preserve in my mind the images of Lahore of my days, and reproduce them in my book.

Recently, I had been looking for an opportunity to visit Lahore which finally came up last December, when I was asked by my friends P.L. Lamba and Pyare Lal to join them on their visit to Lahore where they were going to attend a wedding in the family of their close friend Kaisar A. Mannoo.

The PIA flight was three hours late due to bad weather both at Delhi and Lahore. The first glimpse of the city from the plane presented a delightful sight of a metropolis with a vast expanse of glittering lights, a glaring contrast to the old image of Lahore still fresh in my mind which had haunted me all these years.

The most thrilling part of my visit was to see my old friend and classmate Saeed Ahmad Khan alive and kicking, particularly when I had been misinformed that he was no more. So much so, that while dedicating my book on Lahore to the memory of my old friends, I had included his name as well. It was a tearful and touching encounter engendering a flood of memories of our eventful student days which began passing like a pageant before our eyes.

The first landmark visited by me was the shrine of Data Ganj Bux, the patron saint of Lahore. The new edifice which encompassed the old mausoleum was immensely magnificent and awe-inspiring. I recalled my days when people from all communities came to worship there and seek the saint’s blessings for fulfilment of their wishes. As students, we too flocked there to pray for our success in examinations.

When the tourist in me went out, I admired the city’s new landscape which has emerged during the past 50 years — modern buildings, five-star hotels, shopping plazas, broad avenues and boulevards in the elegant residential quarters in Gulberg. But, I was more anxious to see the familiar sites on the Mall, Anarkali Bazaar and in the walled city. It was heartening to observe that the Mall, despite its harrowing traffic, still preserved its old ambience. Practically all the principal buildings which adorned the road from the Charing Cross up to the Tollinton Market 50 years ago, were still intact, though quite a few of them were in a state of neglect, perhaps due to multiple or dispute ownership. Most of them also retained their old names, like Dingha Singh Building, Dyal Singh Mansions, Luxmi Mansions, Regal Cinema etc. The High Court and the GPO buildings continue to exhibit the old grandeur associated with the Raj. A view of the Regal Cinema building

Going to the age-old Anarkali Bazaar was an exhilarating experience. As I entered the bazaar from Nila Gumbaz it appeared narrower than what it was in my days and also far more congested. But I found it alive with exciting things. I could easily spot some non-Lahorias gazing at shop windows, obviously visitors from the mofussil who had come to do their shopping in the historic bazaar. I had to jostle through the crowd to reach the end of the bazaar, where it meets the Circular Road. The once famous Bhalla Shoe Co, the dominant landmark of Anarkali, continues to be a shoe under the banner of ‘Milli Shoes’. The other familiar name, I noted was that of Sheikh Inayatullah & Co, a department store dating from pre-Partition days. I was surprised to see the maze of traffic on the Circular Road.

I was reminded of the old familiar scene at the meeting point of Anarkali and the Circular Road, where elegant shining tongas with sturdy horses stood at the two corners, one set shouting for passengers to the railway station, and the other to Taksali Gate,l euphemism for Hira Mandi or Tibbi which was the actual destination. As I stepped towards Lahori Gate, I noted that so little had changed. I saw the florists and other vendors calling to the prospective customers.

When I passed through the Gate, I recalled how as a school kid, I cycled my way towards Chowk Chakla and Sutar Mandi where we used to live before moving to Nisbet Road in the thirties. I found the street rather cramped with the extension of shops on both sides.

I found to my delight the halwai shops with milk bowls filled with jalebis. I could not resist the temptation to taste this concoction, supposed to be the panacea for cold and cough. The next attraction was the dry fruit shop, where I stopped to buy chilgozas, pistachio and almonds and found them cheaper than at the Beadon Road shops. Incidentally, I was struck by the generous gesture of the shopkeeper who offered me a special discount on learning that I was from India.

I made a round of all the familiar places — Simla Pahari, Abbot Road, Egerton Road, Montgomery Road, Cooper Road, Hall Road, Temple Road, Beadon Road, Nicholson Road, McLeod Road, Chamberlain Road and finally the Nisbet Road, the place of my residence where I spent the formative years of my life.

There are still a number of old structures on both sides of the road with Dyal Singh Library the most prominent surviving landmark. I did manage to locate the site of my house but a new building stood at the place.

Another, unforgettable incident was the spotting of the famous ice-cream parlour ‘Carryhom’ dating from 1930s, on the Beadon road. It is now a restaurant but still retains the old name. My friend Dr Ajaz Anwar who took me there for a cup of tea, introduced me to the owner who spoke nostalgically about Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur. We enjoyed hot pakoras and steaming tea, courtesy the owner who refused to accept payment from an Indian guest.

The visit to my school DAV (Dayanand Anglo-Vedic), now Government Muslim High School No. 2, was a sentimental experience. The school building stood exactly the way it did over 50 years ago. Same was the case with DAV College, now Islamia College, on the opposite side of the road. The entire area, strangely enough, still remains spacious and placid unlike other parts of the city which have become noisy and congested.

A really exciting experience was the visit to my Alma Mater, Government College, Lahore. Walking around the historic gothic structure at a raised level, easily the most prominent landmark of the city, I was seized by a surge of memories of those exciting six years I had spent there. The faces of my teachers and classmates passed before my eyes. I was transported back to those glorious carefree days when the world had looked rosy and life a wonderful adventure, free from the humdrum struggle of existence. I went around to see the imposing classrooms, where I had made an entry as a shy boy more than 50 years ago. It was a late winter afternoon and the college was closed. Someone who saw me loitering there came up to me and said: “Would you like to meet the Principal? He is in his office”. I welcomed the idea and met the Principal Dr Khalid Aftab, an impressive personality with charming manners. We exchanged notes about the college activities then and now. The only notable addition in the college complex, I found, was the mosque, near the old milk bar and cycle-stand of my days.

I also went to our favourite haunt, the beautiful laid out Lawrence Gardens, now Jinnah Gardens, with tall majestic trees and row of colourful flower beds. It was just thStar who sang her way into hearts

The last singer star of Hindi films lit up the screen with her acting prowess and bowled over the viewers with her sweet voice. Pran Nevile remembers Suraiya on her first death anniversary 

Suraiya Suraiya was the last one to play the dual role of a singing-star in cinema before the advent of playback singers in the late 1940s. She co-starred with K.L. Saigal, the legendary singer and superstar of those days, not once but in three successive films viz. Tadbir, Omar Khayam and Parwana, all produced during the last phase of Saigal’s life in 1945 and 1946. It is a pity that after her demise, the media carried so many stories of her wealth and estate, her controversial heirs, her remarkable film career and her lonely life but there was hardly any mention of her historic roles as K.L. Saigal’s heroine. For Suraiya, a staunch Saigal fan, the dream of acting with him was fulfilled when she got the leading role in Tadbir.

During the middle of 1940s, the two faces which dominated the film world with their music were Suraiya and Noor Jehan. Khurshid, the leading singing star earlier, lost her position to them. In fact, Suraiya was ranked after Noor Jehan who had created a sensation with her lively acting, tuneful singing and glamorous personality. Both appeared in Mehboob’s musical Anmol Ghadi, and enraptured the audiences. Though overshadowed by Noor Jehan, it goes to Suraiya’s credit that though in a supportive role, she was able to hold her own and make her presence felt with her evergreen melodies like Socha tha kya, kya ho gaya and Man leta hai angrahi.

Suraiya was the only singing star who decided to stay back in India after Partition, while Noor Jehan and Khurshid left for Pakistan. No wonder, her rise to fame between 1947-50 was indeed meteoric. Though the playback system had entered the scene, Suraiya with her distinct individual style, her sweet seasoned voice and direct simple diction succeeded in captivating the listeners and her popularity knew no bounds. Her biggest box office hits in quick succession were Pyar kee jeet (1948), Badi Behan (1949) and Dillagi (1949).

Suraiya with Dev Anand in Sanam
Suraiya with Dev Anand in Sanam

We can still hear old music fans humming those eternal melodies from these films like Oh door janewale, Woh pas rahen, ya door rahen, Tere nainon ne chori kiya, and Tu mera chand main teri chandani. It was this hat-trick during 1948-49 that launched Suraiya to the top. A refined person with a unique personality, professionally there was dignity and grace in her performance. She sang with her heart and soul and became the highest-paid star.

Suraiya did make a short-lived comeback in Mirza Ghalib produced by Sohrab Modi in 1954. Its stunning success brought fresh laurels to Suraiya especially since she had bagged this role when other top beautiful stars of those days like Madhubala and Nargis could not make it. It was not only her superb acting in the role of a professional singing girl as Ghalib’s lover but her lively and enchanting rendering of the poet’s famous verses that won her fame. It was the first feature film to be awarded the President’s Medal and the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had graced the function. Nehru is said to have told Suraiya that Tumne Mirza Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya (you have brought Mirza Ghalib to life). No doubt, Suraiya showed her mastery over marrying music to poetry and immortalised Ghalib’s ghazals viz. Ye na thi hamari kismat, A ah ko chahiye and Dil-e-nadaan tujhe hua kya hai.

In the early 1960s, while still in her prime, Suraiya called it a day and retired from the film world. Unlike Noor Jehan who turned a play-back singer in Pakistan around the same time, Suraiya gave up singing altogether and ignored many tempting offers. So much so that she declined to sing even at private functions. The most-publicised episode of Suraiya’s life was her romance with the upcoming young actor Dev Anand in the 1950s. It was then the ‘talk of the town’, the stuff legends are made of. She was Dev’s heroine in six films which brought accolades to both of them. Under the pressure of her family, Suraiya had to turn down Dev’s marriage proposal and chose to remain single. She preferred solitude and died a lonely woman on January 31, 2004.

Suraiya’s career spanned a period of 20 years and she acted and sang with almost every famous star of her time—from K.L. Saigal to Ashok Kumar to Motilal to Bharat Bhushan and from Mohammad Raft to Talat Mahmud and Mukesh.e same. The only new things that came to my view was an artificial waterfall on the hillock in the centre of the gardens. The famous Open Air Theatre built in the 1940s was very much there. The Montgomery Hall which housed the Gymkhana Club now housed the Quaid-e-Azam Library.

Another highlight of my pilgrimage was my maiden visit to the Government House, one of the palaces of the Raj whose doors were rarely open those days to the natives. I still recall the sight of the elegant sentries who guarded the main gate on the Mall. We could hardly see anything as the main building lay hidden by the trees on its enormous compound. The only visible feature of this forbidden mysterious world was the Union Jack flag which flew from the octagonal tower. It was, therefore, a rare treat to join a luncheon party given by the Governor, Shahid Hamid. I was also delighted to meet some of the old Ravians among the gathering there. I admired the way the Government House was being maintained, retaining its former magnificence and magic. I enjoyed the tantalising vision of the lawns and flowering trees and the chirping of birds over the gorgeous man-made lake near the mini zoo.

The generous hospitality extended by one and all was overwhelming. It was particularly delightful to meet Lahorias of the younger generation who had heard accounts of the city life in the pre-1947 days. I enjoyed conversing with them in that typical Lahori parlance laced with a torrent of spicy invectives. People of the older generation invariably extolled the values and quality of life of their ‘good old days’ and often ignored or disapproved the new attitude, outlook and the lifestyle of the modern generation.

After this brief visit to my beloved Lahore, I realized that the politics of the two countries has practically nothing to do with the people who would like to meet those across the border; bound together, as they are, by historic ties, common language and culture. It is the Punjabis, on both sides, who have suffered the most and paid a heavy price at the time of British withdrawal from the subcontinent.

A major factor that forced the British to quit so soon after the end of World War II was their loss of trust in the 20 lakh-strong Indian army of whom over 50 per cent were Punjabis.

This loss of trust stemmed from the emergence of the Indian National Army, under Netaji Subhas Chander Bose, which again was dominated by Punjabis.

It is important to give the recognition to the ethnic ties and common cultural heritage of the Punjabis on both sides of the border. Though there are practically no divided families in the two Punjabs, there is burning desire among the ageing and withering generations of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims to visit the places of their birth and upbringing across the borders. For decades, the post-Partition generations have been fed on tales and anecdotes by their elders about the towns and villages across the border, from where they were forced to flee for no fault of theirs. So, even the young Punjabis are keen to visit these places not only to satisfy their curiously but also interact with their ethnic counterparts on the other side.

For many Indian Punjabis, the city of Lahore continues to hold its charm more than any other metropolis of the world. It is hoped that the Governments of India and Pakistan will give due consideration to this issue and initiate suitable measures to facilitate such visits on either side. Let them make a beginning by allowing all those aged 65 and above to travel across the border without a visa.

Which two countries have created more destruction through wars than Germany and France in Europe? And yet today, they are part of the European community with free movement of people. Let us wish and hope that one day, India and Pakistan will likewise come together, not politically in the conventional sense but economically, socially and culturally. I think, here the Punjabis on both sides of the border can play a very significant role. Within the framework of Indo-Pakistan cultural exchanges, one can encourage and sponsor the visits of Punjabis artists, writers and theatre groups from the two sides. Lahore and Chandigarh should be made focal points for these exchanges.

I recall the unprecedented reception given in Chandigarh early this year to the Ajoka Theatre Group of Lahore led by Madeeha Gauhar, a renowned theatre personality of Pakistan. Let us wish and hope the cultural exchanges will in due course lead to mutually beneficial economic cooperation and trade exchanges through the Wagha border. And this in turn may even induce the governments to open their respective consulates in Lahore and Chandigarh.