Indian writer who visited Lahore despite travel advisory says city remains the most broad-minded of all towns
* Says city’s intelligentsia worried about ‘being abandoned by the world’ * Writes young man at hotel told him he had visited Sikh family in India as attempt to ‘reclaim a fast-disappearing past’
The provincial capital of Punjab stays linked to its past, said writer Ramachandra Guha in an article published
in the Financial Times recently.
The author of the article first visited the city in 1995, “illegally”. Given a single-city visa to visit Islamabad, he said he was “determined to get to Lahore”. Growing up in a north Indian town of refugees from this side of the Punjab, Guha said his friends’ fathers – all educated in Lahore – “spoke in elegiac tones about its colleges, parks, theatres and shops”. He noted that a book they “passed lovingly from hand to hand” was Pran Neville’s ‘Lahore: A Sentimental Journey’.
“Neville’s memories were emblematic,” he wrote. He described the city as a “multicultural city in living memory that is now dominated by people of a single faith”. He noted that the city, which popular legend says is named after Luv, son of Ram, was “governed by Hindus before coming under a succession of Muslim rulers”.
According to Guha, the Mughal empire – responsible for the forts and mosques that adorn the city of Lahore – “collapsed under the weight of its contradictions”. He noted that Lahore then became the capital of Ranjit Singh’s Sikh kingdom. The Sikhs were in turn replaced by the British, who made the city the capital of the province.
Guha wrote that on his 1995 trip to the city, he was accompanied by a Bangladeshi, a former student of the Forman Christian College, whom the writer met at a conference in Islamabad. “He took me through Lahore’s main sights – the magnificent, white-domed Badshahi (“Emperor’s”) Mosque, built by Aurangzeb; a medieval watchtower on an island in the river Ravi; the mazaar, or resting place, of the mystic saint Data Ganj Baksh; and the mausoleum of the modern poet Allama Iqbal,” he said.
Guha went on to mention that he was invited to a meeting of historians in Lahore last year, and got his visa on November 24, only two days before the deadly Mumbai terrorist attack. India’s foreign ministry issued an advisory warning Indian citizens not to travel to Pakistan.
“My mother, for whom this 50-year-old is, well, still a boy, urged me to heed the advisory. An aunt added that I had no business in an ‘enemy country’. Their sentiments and reservations were vetoed by my teenage daughter, who insisted that I must go, if only to demonstrate that ‘not all of us hate all of them’,” wrote the historian. Guha then mentioned Portuguese priest Fra Sebastian, who in the 1640s described Lahore as a “handsome and well-ordered city with large waterways and pavilions of various colours. The abundance of the provisions and cleanliness of the streets surprised me much; also the justness and rectitude of the people towards each other…”
Broad-minded: Guha noted that Lahore “remains the most broad-minded of all the towns in Pakistan”.
He noted the city’s rich musical tradition, and its status as the centre of modern art and theatre. “The Islam on display in Lahore is pluralistic, mystical and suffused with song and poetry,” he wrote, but wondered how long the city would be able to “withstand the austere and puritanical strain now sweeping across Pakistan”.
Worried intelligentsia: Guha noted that Lahore’s “intelligentsia” worried about “being abandoned by the world”. He said the fact that he visited the city even when advised not to, “made my hosts even more expansive”. He wrote that the stewards on his flight “fell over themselves” to attend the 18 passengers. The same went for the staff of the hotel where he stayed. “When the time came for me to depart, I found they had lined up in a sort of guard of honour. The manager invited me to come back, and to bring friends next time. I asked them to come to my homeland. One person said he had been to India. When I asked whether it was to call on relatives, he answered (in Urdu) that no, he had gone to see friends, a Sikh family living in Delhi,” he wrote.
Fast-disappearing past: The writer said he was “moved by this attempt to reclaim a fast-disappearing past”. He believed the young man, who knew that many foreigners now think the country could be run over by fundamentalists “wished to tell me that among his own friends was an Indian who was not a Muslim”.