April 5, 2008 ·
Khalid Hasan writing for the Friday Times
I first came upon Pran Nevile when Saeed Ahmed Khan, a gentleman from Lahore, whom I unfortunately never met but with whom I used to correspond, told me about him. He said the two of them were classmates back in the old days and the best of friends. He also sent me two or three clips of Pran Nevile’s Lahore reminiscences. Some time later, I was able to lay my hands on his book, Lahore, a sentimental journey, and we began to write to each other. Some years ago, he came to the United States and we met. On my last visit to New Delhi I spent time with him and his family and we talked about many things, but mostly Lahore. Pran Nevile is and has been a “ chalta phirta Lahore” as Saadat Hasan Manto was a “chalta phirta Bumbaii”.
Pran told me that in all the years he had been away from Lahore, there wasn’t a day when he had not remembered and longed for the city where he was born, where he had played as a child, where he had spent his early youth and where he had gone to college. Lahore has been the love of his life. Last year when he came to Lahore, his third visit, he brought his grandson and his daughter-in-law with him so that he could show them “my city.” This time, what had brought him back was the release of the official Pakistan edition of his Lahore book. Pran Nevile also recorded a long interview with the progressive journal Awami Jamhoor Forum, in the course of which he remembered Lahore as it was and as he had found it.
Pran said it had taken him 51 years to return to Lahore. The year of his return, something he had waited for and dreamed about all along, was 1997. When asked if he agreed that Lahore (which to him has always been “Le-hore”) had changed, he replied, “That may be true but man himself has changed, so has the world. Hasn’t London changed in the last 50 years? There is no city in the Subcontinent that has remained the same during these 50 years. Change is part of life. I don’t say that those times were better and these times are not. Every age has its high and low points. While the present generation should know the past, the old generation should learn from the present and move on. I am not one of those who find fault with everything contemporary. I don’t bore the young of today by telling them, for example, that pop music is rubbish and there has been no voice like that of the old Nur Jehan. I never bring these things up, which is why the young like me.”
Pran said he was delighted with the way the city looked today. “The way you have maintained and taken care of the Mall’s upkeep is a wonderful sight to behold. From Charing Cross to Tollinton Market, the Mall has been preserved. What changes have been brought about, I find most pleasing. The Dinga Singh Building, which is Lahore’s hallmark, is still where it was. The High Court, the Sir Ganga Ram Trust Building, the Laxami Mansion, the Dyal Singh Mansion are all still standing.” He recalled that when some people wanted to demolish Tollinton Market, he too joined hands with the Lahore Conservation Society to save this historic 125-year old Lahore landmark. After all, it was built by the people of Lahore and it belonged to them. Nobody had any right to bring it down.
Asked about his childhood, Pran said that he was born in Lahore and the family lived in Jwaharian di Galli, which branched out from Gumti Bazaar. The family then moved to Chah Teliyaan, next to the Vachoowali Bazaar. The next move was to Sutar Mandi, from where after eight years they moved to Nisbat Road, one of Lahore’s finest residential areas in those days, and almost entirely Hindu (after 1947, most of the abandoned homes were occupied by Amritsari refugees). They lived on 35 Nisbat Road, just next to Dyal Singh College. The house still stands. Pran said, “The Lahore that lives in my heart is the same Lahore. It has the same air, the same people, the same bit of earth. People still talk the way they used to talk. The atmosphere is unchanged. My childhood was spent in “Le-hori” Darwaza and a visit there is to me like a pilgrimage. I only feel at peace after I have felt the old city’s fragrance touch my soul.”
When independence came, Pran was not in the city, having already found a job in Delhi, but his father, a civil servant who opted to stay in Pakistan, was in Lahore. When riots engulfed Lahore in June and July 1947, Pran’s siblings moved to Delhi but his parents refused to leave. Finally, on the advice of their Muslim friends, they left, certain in the knowledge that they would return in a couple of weeks after things quietened down. That has been the tragedy of partition. Everyone who moved, as Pran’s parents did, believed that it was just a matter of time before they returned to the homes they had always lived in and the people they had always lived amongst. It was never to come about. My own family, moving from Srinagar to Jammu via the Jehlum Valley Road, got stranded in Sialkot, secure in the belief that the 28 miles between Sialkot and Jammu, they would be able to cover after the excitement of independence had died down. That day never came and my father and two older brothers died longing for the land of their birth. Those 28 miles between Sialkot and Jammu could as well have been 28 million miles.
Pran said before 1946, there was no Hindu-Muslim tension in Lahore. The riots began in Rawalpindi and the areas around it, then moved to Lahore. Pran is philosophical. “Look, what has happened we cannot change. It was a great human tragedy but we should not look for conspiracies. Perhaps this was the fate of us Punjabis, because it was the Punjabis who paid the greatest price for the division of the country, for the independence of India, for the establishment of Pakistan. When the two governments were celebrating their independence, the people of Punjab were looking for the dead bodies of their dear ones, while hoping that they were still alive.” He agreed with the interviewer that it was only Punjab where non-Muslim Punjabis went to India and Muslim Punjabis moved to Pakistan. The Bengalis of Bengal did not move from one side to the other. Not really.
Pran said when he came to Lahore for the first time, he looked down at the city as the PIA plane from Delhi flew over it. It was evening and below him lay his city of lights. “I felt that I was finally home.”
– Khalid Hasan is TFT’s Washington correspondent.