Sunday, October 19, 2008

"The Only Country Where I am a Non-Muslim is My Own" - Interview with Saira Wasim

"The Only Country Where I am a Non-Muslim is My Own" - Interview with Saira Wasim

Chatting with a Pakistani artist who happens to be an Ahmadi Muslim.

[Interview by Gaurav Sood]

Saira Wasim is a noted US based contemporary artist from Pakistan. Ms Wasim has carved a niche for herself with her innovative and meticulously crafted Persian miniatures, which she employs to make devastating political and social commentary. Her work has been widely feted, and has been showcased in numerous prominent art institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Biographical

You were born and raised in Lahore. Can you tell us a little more about how it was growing up there? Did you ever visit the BRB canal?

While I was born in the city, my parents moved to the suburbs right after my birth. I grew up in Allama Iqbal town, which is a south-western suburb of Lahore.

After my birth, my father built a house in Allama Iqbal town - he always wanted to live away from the city life. Our house was one of the first in the town. My early memories of living in that new town include seeing fields all around our house.

My parents still live in that house though the town itself is much more crowded now.

And yes, I have visited BRB Canal plenty of times; my father loved to take us there on picnics.

Is your family originally from Lahore or they moved there during Partition?

My maternal grand parents were from Lahore while my paternal grand parents were from Pasrur, a small village near Sialkot (near the Indian border).

Many of my family members originally lived in Qadian, a small village in Gurdaspur in Indian Punjab as Ahmadis have long had very strong ties with Qadian.

Can you tell me a little more about your childhood and your parents?

We were raised in a protected environment. Our weekends were spent at my father’s village of Pasrur. Our father always wanted us to have a first hand knowledge of village life because he wanted us to experience how people live in extreme poverty. We were also taught swimming, horse riding, fishing, climbing on trees, and many other activities of village life.

Abu

My father is an engineer. In 1984 my father started a factory for manufacturing capital goods in Lahore. He ran a factory to manufacture control panels and switch gears. ‘Power Electronics’, my dad’s company, was the first Pakistani company that made Switch-gears. Before that, Pakistan had to import these products from Western countries at an enormous cost. It was in fact that realization which prompted him to start manufacturing capital goods.

My father disliked the idea of emigrating to other countries. He believed that we have to make things better in our own country. He thought things would get better after Zia’s regime and that our Caliph, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, would come back. He thought that Pakistan would be on the road of peace and prosperity soon after Zia left but my father was mistaken in his optimism.

Anyhow, while the 1980s were the worst in Pakistan history in terms of freedom of speech and religious freedom, 1990s were the worst in terms of political chaos and corruption in the country.

My father had to struggle hard and faced numerous obstacles due to the constant flip flop of democratically elected governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and because these governments brought a lot of corruption in the country. The common man in Pakistan had thought that democratic governments would bring peace and prosperity in the country but things got much worse.

Ami

She is a very sensitive person.

My mother had a very tough childhood. My Nana Jaan died when she was two years old and she had to live in extreme poverty.

Although my Nana Jaan, a close friend of Mirza Gulam Ahmad (founder of the Ahmadi sect), was a very rich businessman, with interests in Lahore and Bombay, before partition, and left huge property for his four kids and two widows, those four kids and two widows didn’t get even a single penny from that property because my mother’s two Chachas (uncles) were very much against my naana jaan’s conversion to Ahmadiyya faith and his second marriage at the age of 60 to my nani jaan (a young Kashmiri Ahmadi school teacher from a very poor family).

His first wife was a rich lady from a nawab family who lived most of her life with my nana jaan. She had converted to Ahmadiyya faith along with nana jaan but couldn’t have kids so she, along with second caliph Mirza Basir-ud-deen Mahmud and his wife, made my nana jaan do a second marriage with my nani jaan. The first wife died soon after my nana jaan death, and both chachas distributed the wealth among their children.

My nani jaan, who got widowed at the age of 25 with four young kids, moved to Rabwa from Lahore where the second caliph was living, who supported nani just like his own daughter and grand kids and there she started teaching at local school. My nani also died when my ami was 16 yrs old and my mamoo (ami’s elder brother) who was himself just 21 yrs old became the guardian of three younger siblings.

Can you tell us a little more about the impact of growing up as an Ahmadi in Pakistan?

Ahmadis have faced antagonism since the beginning. Ulemas of all the major seventy-two sects of Islam declared them Kafirs in 1891.

In 1974, Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis non-Muslims. The constitution of Pakistan was amended to outlaw Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims. Following the legislation, anti-Ahmadiyya riots broke out in the entire country. Thousands of Ahmadis died in the riots. Their properties were looted and their homes burnt.

My ami (mother) always tells us this story that in 1974 when she was pregnant (with me) and alone in the house with her three year old daughter (my elder sister), the mullahs led a call during the Friday sermon for every Ahmadi house to be burnt in order to secure Islam from Ahmadiyyat.

A huge mob went on a rampage. As the word got around people, including our next door neighbors left their houses to try to save themselves. When the mob, which included some of our own Sunni relatives, was marching toward our house, my abu (father) went to the police to ask for help. The police refused point blank saying that they could not go against the mullahs.

Just when the mob was about to reach our house, there was a sudden severe sandstorm. My ami always says that it was a miracle. The mob couldn’t do anything except break a few windows. My Ami tells us that after the storm there were only shoes and turbans found on the street.

So at a fairly early age we came to know that we had a religious identity which was unacceptable to the mainstream Muslims. We were nurtured in the basic teachings of Ahmadi faith in house, and sent to Convent of Jesus and Mary school because my father didn’t want us to face any discrimination because of our faith.

The discrimination against us has also been endorsed on our passports. If we call ourselves Ahmadis we have to enroll as a non-Muslim which deprives us of all our basic rights as Muslims. For example, Ahmadis cannot cast votes as Muslim and in order to vote, we have to enroll as non-Muslims.

During Zia-ul Huq oppressive regime, our Fourth Caliph (spiritual leader) Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad was compelled to migrate to England. Since then many Ahmadis in Pakistan have emigrated to European countries. Most of my relatives moved to USA and Canada.

Zia’s oppressive regime left a long lasting legacy of turmoil in the country and religious extremism. There were many incidents of animosity that I witnessed, and now living in US I realize how much we were denied of our basic religious rights. Ahmadis were not allowed to practice their faith in public places or build their mosques.

So my father volunteered our house for congregational prayers in Ramazan and other Ahmadis meetings. When Mullahs of local mosque got this news my father had to face huge threats and warnings that we were using our residential area for un-Islamic activities. It is against the constitution of Pakistan to build Ahmadiyya mosque or use a building as Ahmadiyya mosque and activities. My father was sued by the local mullahs but my father took the fine in his stride and paid the penalty.

I find it ironic that the only country where I am a non-Muslim is my own. In the past I have never commented on these issues in my work. And although I was very willing to address such controversial issues, the general air of intolerance in my society always discouraged me from doing so.

When did you first realize that you were interested in art? Was it a Eureka moment for you or a slow eventual realization? South Asian societies generally see art as a hobby. From art as a hobby to choosing it as a profession, this transition is especially difficult in Asian societies. Were your parents supportive of your decision? If you feel comfortable, please tell us a little more about your parent’s professions and their impact on you.

From the earliest that I can remember, I have always been very fond of drawing. Every wall, cupboard and door was covered with silly figurative drawings and portraits of family members, relatives, and who ever visited our house.

I watched the visitors secretly and drew their appearance on the wall and when they were gone I showed it to my parents and said, “Look, I made the picture of Baba Chokidari, motti Chachi, and Apa ji - don’t they look like this?”

In the beginning my parents were amused by the drawings, my parents said, ‘look how creative and clever she is’, they laughed at those silly drawing on every wall of the house, and then they realized that every wall was covered with scribbling and drawings, and it gave them a very untidy appearance.

So I was given blackboard and white chalks to draw on and instructed to draw on the blackboard only. The blackboard had two sides, one for me and one for my elder sister. We were told to do anything on our given area of blackboard. My sister’s side was always covered with homework and my side was always covered by drawings. It is funny that now my sister is a Doctor (a general physician in Missouri), and I am still doing those silly drawings.

Let me share one another interesting story with you, my mother was also interested in art and always wanted to be a professional painter. Unfortunately, being a woman, she was not allowed by her family to paint or to pursue a professional carrier. When she was young, art was considered un-Islamic, and a waste of time. She used to make miniature paintings on fabric, newspapers and vases, from scratch and without any guidance or training.

At that time, parents decided what careers the children would pursue and with whom they would marry. My widowed grandmother, who was a teacher and vice principal at a local school, decided that my mother should become a doctor. However my grandmother died untimely and the male guardians of my mother disallowed her from continuing her education. So, with her hidden passion for the arts and her mother’s unfulfilled dream for her to be a doctor, she was married away.

Since early childhood my mother has been mentally and academically preparing my sister and me to eventually become doctors. My sister fulfilled my mother’s dream and became a doctor. But when it came my turn to choose a career, I disappointed her. She always said “I didn’t get permission to be an artist by my mother, so how can I allow you?”

At the time my progress in school was getting very weak and she had to face complaints from my school teachers that they had caught me drawing in the class.
So whenever my mother caught me drawing or painting, she would destroy whatever artwork I had created. The only safe time I had was in the middle of night.

I used to wake up in the middle of night when everybody was asleep, switched on a torch, covered myself with a big blanket, and pursued my art underneath it. Now I feel funny sharing all this but I was still caught, and received a good beating from Ami. My mother had a special beating stick for me. If I ever said I wanted to be an artist my sister immediately fetched that stick and put it in front of Ami.

My mother was not an anti-art person but she feared that her daughter wouldn’t have respectable place in the society and that pursuing art would kill my professional abilities. As you know in South Asian society artists are deemed to be mere craftsmen.

My ‘secret’ decision of being an artist was totally opposite to what my mom had decided for me. What I was painting was an even graver threat to Ami and Abu because starting 8th grade, I started painting compositions on ‘human suffering’ ‘persecution on minorities and women issues’.

Eventually, after years of persistence, my parents realized the intensity of my devotion to being an artist and I was granted permission to go to an art school. My Abu was a very big support from the very beginning - he always supported me in whatever I did or chose except we were supposed to be good in studies and elite in our fields. Like, “Kasbeh Kamal khon khe Aziz-e-Jhan Shohri’’ Iqbal

My Ami had her own very strong principles and believes, she always taught us it was a rigid patriarchal society (secondly we were a religious minority) where there was much discrimination against women and minorities and so women must pursue a career of utmost prestige and which would be considered safe and money making too.

Another reason for these strong anti-art sentiments in the 80’s was Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. Every sort of art except for calligraphy was condemned; figurative art was considered un-Islamic. In fact, engaging in any form of art was considered a great sin.

I was careful to never show my work to my family till it was exhibited or published because if they saw the content and imagery of my work, they would never allow me to continue making such paintings or display them. So, belonging to a family from a controversial religious minority, and one that didn’t support the arts, I grew more politically conscious by the day.

On Art, why did you choose miniature art? What specific affordances does miniature art provide for your overtly political work?

Even today, Pakistani audiences perceive miniature painting as decorative, a form of art that reflects and glorifies their rich traditional heritage. Miniatures, for me, however, have a a more transcendental role; it is a vocabulary for the artist to engage in a sociopolitical dialogue with viewers towards a more humane society.

Of late, the miniature has drawn attention from foreign curators, museums, and art institutions. Yet, in Pakistan, my work was accepted by just one gallery––Rhotas2, the only serious gallery in Lahore–the others being reluctant to display anything controversial.

Moving to Chicago in 2003, I gained the artistic and religious freedom that was somewhat precarious in my own homeland. I began responding to my new environment. The post 9/11 climate of fear, scrutiny and surveillance of Muslims in the West thus shaped my current works. Global politics has become a consistent theme.

Western societies in general - and the United States in particular - tend to be less aware of other societies in the world, particularly about Islam and Muslim culture. This is an era of cross-cultural misunderstandings; misperceptions created by a Western media that is mostly hostile to Muslim societies and Islam. Much of this misperception is attributable to the Western media, which often presents a distorted version of reality and only one side of the global debate. My new works unmask the injustices and hypocrisy of both Eastern and Western worlds.

My work has journeyed through several boundaries, from employing the centuries-old miniature format to a contemporary stage where a human drama unfolds every day, to cross-cultural forays and political interventions. And the inspirational sources have been many –– the courtly propaganda of the Mughals, the grandeur of baroque opera, the fun and enjoyment of circus performances, icons of pop culture, and the glamor of South-Asian cinema.

With Mughal allegorical symbolism, we miniaturists have created our own visual semiotics and metaphors. For example, the extremist mullahs who have hijacked Islam for their own political agendas and manipulate Muslim youth in the name of Jihad are allegorized by Greek-satyrs; Muslim leaders are depicted as string puppets in the hands of President Bush; Pakistani army generals wearing Hawaiian sandals indicate the irony that this nation is the world’s seventh nuclear state and is spending on a defence budget of over $3.5 billion a year in spite of a national debt of over $40 billion; the Shia-Sunni clash in Iraq is a bull-fight and the bogeyman media is a monkey with a camera.

Although they provide comic relief, they are critical of ignorance and prejudice, manipulation of governments and religious heads. The ironies and paradoxes of a post 9/11 world permeate my tragi-comic paintings. Mine is a plea for social justice.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Special - Life, Love, Lahore

Jahagir's tomb-complex, Lahore

Life and times of Pakistan's premier monstropolis.

[Text and picture by Raza Rumi]

There was a Lahore that I grew up in, and then there is the Lahore that I live in now. Recovering from an exile status for two decades, I find myself today turning into something of a clichéd grump, hanging desperately on to the past. Yet I resist that.

Writing about Lahore is a sensation that lies beyond the folklore – Jine Lahore nai wakhaya o janmia nai (The one who has not seen Lahore has never lived). It has to do with an inexplicable bonding and oneness with the past, and yet a contradictory and not-so-glorious interface with the present.

Lahore is now the second largest city in Pakistan, with a population that has crossed the 10 million mark. It is turning into a monstropolis. Had it not been for Lahore’s intimacy with Pakistan’s power base – the Punjab-dominated national establishment – this would be just another massive, unmanageable city, regurgitating all the urban clichés of the Global South.

But Lahore retains a definite soul; it is comfortable with modernity and globalisation, and continues to provide inspiration for visitors and residents alike.

Over the last millennium, Lahore has been the traditional capital of Punjab in its various permutations. A cultural centre of North India extending from Peshawar to New Delhi, it has historically been open to visitors, invaders and Sufi saints alike.

Several accounts tell how Lahore emerged as a town between the 6th and 16th centuries BC. According to commonly accepted myth, Lahore’s ancient provenance, Lohawarana, was founded by the two sons of Lord Ram some 4000 years ago. One of these sons, Loh (or Luv), gave his name to this timeless city.

A deserted temple in Lahore Fort is ostensibly a tribute to Loh, located near the Alamgiri gate, next to the fort’s old jails. Under the regime of Zia ul-Haq, Loh’s divine space was closed and used as a dungeon in which to punish political activists.

Later records, such as Ptolemy’s “Geographia”, written around 150 AD, refer to Lahore as ‘Labokla’, and locate it with reference to the Indus, the Ravi, the Jhelum and the Chenab rivers. Another readable account from the past is that of Hieun Tsang, the famous Chinese pilgrim who visited Lahore during the early seventh century AD. He described it as a large Brahminical city – mullahs beware! There is many a contradiction within these accounts, of course, but the important point is that Lahore was not built yesterday. Its ancient moorings explain its indomitable will, ability to survive the upheavals of time, and an innate life beyond the limits of recorded histories, fancy notions of urbanity and cultural evolution. Lahore is also about its centuries of residents.

The mystique of the city thus is a personalised experience, as if a city were in permanent dialogue with its residents even while speaking to a newcomer.

Little Ghazni

I spent my early years in a Model Town colonial bungalow, which was originally the creation of a Hindu doctor who had to leave the city at Partition. This was an age when birds were an integral feature of Lahori skies, and the seasons played out their glory.

As the name suggests, Model Town was an ‘ideal’ suburb, created during the Raj by the advanced citizenry on the idea of ‘cooperative urban life’. Established in 1922, it was the fruition of advocate Diwan Khem Chand’s unshakeable belief in the values of self help, self responsibility and democracy, loosely the principles of cooperative societies.

This was the reason why Model Town was established as, and still is, a ‘cooperative society’. What fewer people know is that these values of cooperation were first popularised by George Jacob Holyoake, a 19th-century English social reformer responsible for the cooperative movement. Incidentally, Holyoake was also infamous for the distinction of having invented the phrase ‘secularism’, for which he was the last citizen to be convicted for blasphemy in England.

Khem Chand and the renowned engineer and philanthropist Sir Ganga Ram (founder of the two famous Ganga Ram Hospitals, in Lahore in 1921 and Delhi in 1954) together created Model Town.

As a child, I would hear these stories from my father, also a lawyer, connecting his surroundings with his profession and middle-class dynamism. The importance of Model Town is such that it became the 20th-century standard for urban living in Pakistan. In every city in the country, you can find a Model Town or its close relative. As author Ranjana Sengupta writes, “Many of the elements of Model Town, Lahore, were followed in the colonies that came up in post-1947 Delhi, including one also named Model Town.” Lahore and its trends can be infectious.

But this suburban delight was not the Lahore with which my grandmother was acquainted. She called it a jungle, and returned to the walled city on any given pretext. The journey involved a bus ride, hopping tongas and walking along the ancient streets of surreal Old Lahore. I would accompany her on each of these visits. We would move through the gates of Old Lahore, which sported no signage or self-conscious tourism-promotion gimmickry. Rather, passing through these gates was entering into a domain of lived history. And this is what Lahore remains – a lived and a living city.

Under the early Sultans of Delhi, especially during the 11th and 12fth centuries, Lahore assumed considerable importance as the easternmost bastion of Muslim power, and an outpost for further advance toward the riches of the East. Apart from being the second capital, and later the only capital, of the Ghaznavid kingdom, Lahore had great military and strategic significance: whoever controlled it could look forward to sweeping the whole of East Punjab to Panipat and Delhi.

Long known as ‘Little Ghazni’, Lahore attracted mystics and scholars from Central Asia. Ali Hajweri (who died in 1077), also known as Data Saheb, was one such luminary of that age, whose primal book Kashf-al-Mahjub (the Unveiling of the Hidden) remains an authentic treatise on an Islamic variant of mysticism, and whose shrine is today busier than ever.

My Old Lahore visits were never complete without a salaam to the great saint, and this habitual halt continues even three decades later. The value of Kashf-al-Mahjub lies not only in the experiential accounts of contemporary mystic orders, but also in the fact that it is a seminal, systematic exposition of personalised mysticism.

Over time, Kashf has become a standard textbook for Sufis. In popular lore, Ali Hajweri is also the protector of Lahore. During the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, many a Lahori attributed the city’s survival to the saint, and to his fantastic ability to catch Indian bombs in his green fakiresque robes.

Mughal dream

It is not that Lahore did not face devastation during what is commonly known as the ‘medieval’ ages. The fearless Mongols were there to inject fear into the Lahore-walla, and in 1241, during the chaos following the death of Sultan Shams-ud-din Iltutmish, the Mongols attacked and levelled the city. Thousands were killed.

Lahore was a desolate place until Sultan Balban, who, after 1270, restored the fortifications of Lahore and proceeded to rebuild the city. True, the sultans were more focused on Delhi as the Islamicate capital, with Lahore being only a strategic outpost to be protected. However, the walled city lived on and expanded.

During the early 16th century, the victory of Babur and the defeat of the last sultan, Ibrahim Lodhi, ushered in a new era in Indian history. Babur captured Lahore in 1524, before he was proclaimed emperor of India.

This was the beginning of Lahore’s expansion and beautification, much of which can be seen today – notwithstanding the population explosion and atmospheric pollution that seem to put the Mongol threats of yore to shame.

The prime of Mughal rule – from 1524 to 1752 – and the special attention by Mughal emperors, particularly Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, transformed Lahore into the ultimate representation of Mughal aesthetics. For the two centuries following the ascension of Akbar in 1556, Lahore was a Mughal dream translated into architecture. Little wonder the adulation with which the English poet John Milton wrote in 1670:

His eyes might there command whatever stood
City of old or modern fame, the seat
Of mightiest empire, from the destined walls
Of Cambalu, seat of Cathian Can,
And Samarcand by Oxus, Temir’s throne,
To Paquin of Sinaen Kings, and thence
To Agra and Lahore of Great Mogul...


The Delhi-obsession of the Muslim rulers of India was interrupted when Akbar made Lahore his capital from 1584 to 1598. The majestic Lahore Fort was rebuilt, next to the Ravi River, and the urban habitation was enclosed within a red brick wall boasting a dozen gates.

Jahangir and Shah Jahan further extended the fort, building palaces and tombs, and laying out gardens, among which only the Shalimar Gardens survive today in their unkempt glory. Jahangir loved Lahore, and he and his wife, Noor Jahan, chose to be buried at Shahdara, on the outskirts of Lahore. The tomb of Jehangir and Noor Jahan is today a majestic and melancholic monument.

Shah Jahan, the most extravagant of the Mughals, was born in Lahore, and his eldest son, Dara Shikoh, also found the city enticing.

Dara was a popular figure in Lahore, and it was there that he found his spiritual mentor, Mian Mir (also buried in Lahore). Dara’s nemesis and Shah Jahan’s successor, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), bestowed on Lahore its most famous monument, the Badshahi mosque and the Alamgiri gateway to the Fort. Even during the anarchy that followed Mughal rule, Lahore remained a city with a formidable reputation; under Sikh rule, from 1780 to 1846, it was popularly referred to as the ‘Mughal capital’.

It took almost a century for the British to move towards the Punjab, from their foothold in Bengal. The annexation of the Punjab in 1849, and the successful control of the 1857 uprising in many parts of North India, resulted in the consolidation of the British Empire.

Due to its strategic location, the Punjab was subsequently central to the architecture of the colonial power. Lahore was to become a major outpost of the empire in the ‘Great Game’ that continues to be played out in Afghanistan, as the sahibs ventured to create social and cultural spaces for themselves in otherwise unfriendly and unfamiliar surroundings.

The earliest signs of colonial Lahore are found within the Lawrence Gardens (baptised the Bagh-i-Jinnah following Independence), representing the quintessential Raj ethos. Built primarily for the sahibs and memsahibs, the park has managed to maintain its dreamlike beauty for a century and a half, with halls and pavilions that play on the nostalgia for ‘home’.

A garden in the heart of British Lahore was essential. True to the colonial policy, the new garden was a continuation of the Mughal tradition of creating baghs as the aesthetic expression of self-indulgence. This project also reflected the expanse of the British Empire. Thousands of saplings of various exotic species were imported from colonies around the world, and by 1860, the gardens were set up as a Lahore version of the famous Kew Garden in London.

During chilly winters and unbearable summers, for years I have walked in the Lawrence Gardens. Indeed, my fondest memories of Lahore are in one way or another linked to this splendid park. Whenever I have wanted to hear the sound of trees, I have not been disappointed.

The contemporary core of Lahore’s architecture and spaces are rooted in the British period, with a marked emphasis on the brick-based Anglo-Mughal architecture style, a combination of the Mughal, Gothic and Victorian.

The famous Young Men’s Christian Association and General Post Office buildings of Lahore were built to commemorate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria, an event marked by the construction of clock towers and monuments all over the Subcontinent.

This was also a time when institutions were intrinsically linked to their buildings – such as the High Court, Government College, Forman Christian College, Lahore Museum, Governor House, National College of Arts, Tollinton Market, Punjab Assembly and the old campus of Punjab University. The latter was once considered the largest centre of education in Asia.

The ‘Paris of the East’ had already emerged as a cosmopolitan and cultural capital of British Punjab, where poets such as Iqbal and artists such as Amrita Shergil, as well as future writers like Khushwant Singh, Amrita Pritam, Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmed Faiz were all to emerge.

But the multicultural spirit of Lahore was to be ruptured by Partition. In the new state of Pakistan, Lahore therefore became ‘provincialised’, while the large-scale exodus of non-Muslims inevitably worked to limit the city’s secular credentials.

Layers and layers

I studied at Aitchison College, known as Lahore’s top college and one that had the dubious distinction of aiming to educate the relatives of the ruling chiefs of the Punjab.

Aitchison’s foundation stone was laid in 1886 by the then-viceroy, the Earl of Dufferin and Ava, and it was named after the then-lieutenant-governor of the Punjab, Charles Umpherston Aitchison. During my years at Aitchison, the quality of the academics remained at best tentative, but its sprawling 186-acre campus was a veritable treasure trove of the finest Anglo-Mughal buildings. Its tree-lined boulevards and playgrounds still return to me at times in my dreams.

The most memorable of experiences was living in one of the bungalows in the Government Officers’ Residences, known as GOR-1. Located in the centre of Lahore, GOR-1 is to Lahore what the so-called Lutyens bungalows are to Delhi.

The verandas, little gardens next to each bedroom, and the fragrance of Lahore’s monsoons and springs, all of these were best experienced in this part of the city. Others will, of course, have loved where they grew up as well, for each Lahori has his or her own store of memories and attachments.

Beyond the annals of history, there are as many Lahores as the number of its residents. This is why those who migrated from Lahore to India after 1947 could not take Lahore out of their system. Khushwant Singh has to reconcile with his memory time and again; his writings replete with Lahore tales. Prem Kirpal, a Lahori migrant to Delhi, wrote these lines to sum it all up:

My beloved City of Lahore
Still standing not far from Delhi
Within quicker reach by air or train,
Suddenly became a forbidden land
Guarded by a sovereign state
Of new ideologies, loves and hates


Kirpal’s poem is befittingly titled “Spirit’s Musings”. A spirit will break free of limits. These individuals were not locating their selves in the politics of Partition per se; this was the personal that gets submerged in the cruel and indifferent political.

It was in Lahore that I met the Indian writer and former diplomat Pran Neville. He was there to launch his own book on Lahore, A Sentimental Journey. It was a monsoon evening, heavy and similar to the weather on the day when his family packed their bags for Delhi.

Unusually fit and active for a man who had lived over seven decades, he appeared timeless. Sitting in Lahore, he walked various paths and cities in his conversation. Having travelled the world as a foreign-service officer, Neville had concluded that foremost, he was a Lahore native.

In a conversation, he declared, “In a way I never left Lahore, because it was always with me. I am an un-reconstructed Lahori, you could say, who never thought he would live anywhere else.”

When riots shook Lahore in July 1947, Neville’s siblings moved to Delhi, but his parents were reluctant to migrate. Finally, persuaded by their Muslim friends, his parents also left, though with a fantastic certitude that they would return after the dust settled.

That has been one of the foremost tragedies of Partition: many who left in the flurry of events were convinced they would return some day to their homes, villages and cities. This was never to happen. The lines instead got thicker on the canvas of history.

Today, in Delhi, Neville leads a group composed of Lahore’s former residents, who meet regularly and share memories of a city that lives on within them. Memory needs a playground, seeks indulgence and reconciliation. Pran Neville, Ajeet Caur and Khushwant Singh, in Delhi, try to inject some order into the chaos of their ruptured memories.

Yet in many ways, Lahore remains one of the most invisible and underappreciated cities in the region. The journalist Simon Jenkins once wrote: “For centuries the Grand Trunk Road from Delhi through Punjab carried the history of the subcontinent streaming beneath the walls of Lahore. But while India is at least fighting to rescue what remains of its past, Lahore is left to languish.”

Despite the appearance of neglect for its monuments, however, Lahore’s upkeep has not been all that bad, by Southasian standards.

Under the former chief minister of Punjab and later prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, Lahore found a new builder. Sharif’s interest in and fondness for Lahore has been given continuity by his efficient younger brother, Shahbaz, now twice the Punjab chief minister.

The upgrading of infrastructure and serious (though admittedly ad hoc) attempts at urban planning has ensured that Lahore’s untrammelled growth does not become a nightmare. But no amount of goodwill can hide the fact that this wondrous city is one of the most polluted in the region.

It is a separate matter that one of the most robust citizen-led urban mobilisations in Pakistan during recent years has been the Lahore Bacaho Tehreek, the Movement to Save Lahore. Saving the trees along Lahore’s canal, which cuts across the urban jungle, has been the focus of this movement, though it also laid the foundation for the 2007 lawyers’ struggle for rule of law in the country.

Other groups, such as a spectrum of conservation associations, likewise, testify to the electric zest of Lahoris. Indeed, since the inception of Pakistan, Lahore has been a nerve centre of political mobilisation and public opinion. I am reminded of writer S Asad Raza’s evocative lines:

The world in general has few cities that interweave so seamlessly a great vitality today (the city is about the twenty-fifth largest on the globe) with an unbroken and luxurious history (spanning the last two millennia). Only in Lahore do you find the sepulchre of the legendary Anarkali, the star-crossed dancing girl buried alive for her love of the young prince Salim (the film Mughal-e-Azam is a version), inside the dusty Archives of the Punjab Secretariat, which was a mosque that the British whitewashed, and is now decorated with portraits of British colonial governors. Layers and layers: it’s that kind of place.

When a city delineates the cultural and political contours of a country, and handles the conflicting layers of past and present, it has to be out of the ordinary. And this is why Lahoris love to say: Lahore, Lahore aye.

[This piece was earlier published in Jahane Rumi]