Pran Nevile says though he left Lahore fifty-five years ago, thatâs where his heart has always remained. âœIn a way, you can say, I never left Lahore because it is always with me. I have carried it with me wherever I have gone, and when I look back and there is no place on earth I havenât been and all through those years, Lahore has stayed with me. I am an unreconstructed Lahoria, you can say, who never thought he would ever live elsewhere.â€
I first âœmetâ Pran Nevile at Vanguard Books in Lahore. That was where I picked up his book, first published in 1993. He had called it, âœLahore, a sentimental journeyâ. I was fascinated by his recreation of Lahore as it was in the thirties and forties; and although I had never seen the city then, I have had a lifelong nostalgia about it. That is the Lahore I would have liked to live in, and if not that, then, once again, in the Lahore of the sixties, the city the uncrowned king of whose streets was the great Sardar Muhammad Sadiq, who now lies in Bibi Pakdamanâ™s little acre off Empress Road.
My subsequent contact with Pran was maintained through his childhood friend Saeed Ahmed Khan, whom I never met but with whom I began to correspond when he sent me a piece Pran had written in an Indian newspaper. These two friends were inseparable before independence and retained the same affection for each other and longed to meet again as the years passed. Saeed Ahmed Khan, from one of Jullandhurâs Pathan bastis, had come to Lahore for his schooling. He and Pran were in Government College together. Saeed Ahmed Khan, I report with regret, passed on some years ago, but not before he and Pran had a tearful reunion in Lahore.
This is how Pran described it to me when I met him for the first time in a Washington suburb in the first week of December. He had come from Delhi and he was staying with another old friend from his Lahore days. â€œIt was the most emotional meeting of my life. We had met after more than fifty years and both of us broke down. It all came back in that one magic moment. It was as if we had never been separated.â
I asked Pran what he meant when he wrote that Lahore did not have a âœcomposite cultureâ. What it had could not be given a name, but it was a culture all its own, something wholesome and vital, something that lay in perfect harmony within and without. â€œThis term composite culture,â he said in his rich and pure Lahori Punjabi that fifty-five years of exile from the city have not altered or affected, âœis a term invented by the new intellectual elite. These new fangled terms, enough of which we hear in India also, are beyond me.â
âœWhy was Lahore called the gem of India?â I asked. âœThat it indeed was,â Pran replied, âœIt was totally different from the rest of India, in every way. It was the educational centre of North India. It had more colleges than any other city of India. The student population of Lahore was lively and wonderful. Co-education came late, but there it was. Lahore was always very prosperous; it was the hub of North India right up to Peshawar. Everything about Lahore was special. If you wanted to see the best-dressed young men in India, they were to be found in Lahore. The best food in India was to be found in Lahore. It was a city of gourmets and it had romance. A popular film song of those days went: Ik shehr ki laundia, nainoon ke teer chala gayee.And this doggerel that we all knew and I to this day remember: Tibbi mein phir ke jalwa-e-Parwardigar dekh: Hai dekhney ki cheez issay baar baar dekh.The great stars, the great movers and shakers of the Bombay movie world were all from Lahore.â
Pranâs father, a government servant, opted for Pakistan. âœHe used to say, as did everybody, â˜All this is going to pass, this Hindu-Muslim rioting.â We never could imagine that people would have to move across in such massive numbers, never to see their homes again, never to meet their friends again. My father was advised to take some leave, stay away from the city and in a few weeks, all would be well when he could return. That was never to be.â Pran reminisced about Lahoreâs old and now vanished Mall restaurants: Lorangâs, Stiffles, Volga, Elphinstone, Metro, the last one, he said, was the gathering place of movie stars. âœIt was a very classy place,â he recalled, a distant look in his eyes.
Pran said the best â˜mithaiâshop in Lahore was run by Umrao Singh outside Lohari Gate. At the other end of Anarkali that turns into Ganpat Road was the popular â˜lassiâ outlet of Bhagwan Das. Close to it was another famous â˜mithaiâ place called Kundan Lal Sweet House, not too far from the Kesari Aerated Water Company â“ ah those pre-Coca Cola days â“ whose lemonade was much sought after. Anarkali was the main shopping centre â“ even Atal Behari Vajpayee when he came to Lahore recalled visiting Anarkali as a boy â“ where the cityâs best cloth and apparel store, Dunichand and Sons, was located.
Pran said his earliest memory of Lahore dates back to 1929 when from a balcony he saw the historic Congress procession led by its newly elected president, Jawaharlal Nehru, riding a white horse. Flower petals were being showered on him as the marchers wended their way through Anarkali where they all came to a stop in front of the Bhalla Shoe Store where the proud owner Dhani Ram Bhalla placed a garland of crisp banknotes around Nehruâ€™s neck. As Pran talked, I recalled Nasir Kazmiâs lines: Shehr-e-Lahore, teri raunaqain dayam aabad: Teri galyon ki hawa khainch ke layee mujh ko.
Before I took my leave of Pran Nevile, the unreconstructed son of Lahore, he signed his new book for me, Beyond the Veil, Indian women of the Raj.He was flying to Delhi the next day. When I came home, I opened the book, scribbled across the flyleaf was the inscription, â€˜In remembrance of my dearest friend Saeed Ahmed who introduced me to you.™ (Friday Times)