Away it went in ignominy, on hundreds of wheelbarrows to be dumped in a dirty, humid and putrid discarded horse stable. I am talking about one of the world’s finest, and surely the second largest collection of rare books, manuscripts and document dealing with the history of Punjab, from Kabul to Delhi and from Kashmir to Sindh over the last 500 years.
In the old horse stable of the Lahore Civil Secretariat, in dark, moldy, dingy conditions, lies this amazing collection, all official record let me clarify, of over 70,000 rare books and under one million rare manuscripts and documents, piles upon piles, on the floor, on old broken desks, in cupboards without glass panes. The stink and humidity overwhelms the senses. Only in the British Museum Library of London is there a better collection, all kept in mint condition. They respect our rich history. In terms of our own history, we are the wretched of the earth.
I do not know the daft former chief secretary who ordered this evil move. All I have learnt from officials inside the Secretariat, and I have no reason to doubt their opinion, that after retiring he sits on judgment on the fate of other bureaucrats. His antics, they claim, still reads like a mad hatter’s tea party. But then that is what our present rulers probably want. I leave his bizarre ways for younger journalists unearth.
My attention today is focused on the old official horse stable in Lahore’s Civil Secretariat and the damage done to our heritage. In any other sane society he would be arrested and tried. In his reign he got vacated the old world-famous library and record-room in General Allard’s old home, where once Lawrence, Kipling and Garrett studied and researched and produced books that will live forever. Small men need a lot of space; such is their ‘imagined greatness’. A spacious second conference hall and a new rest room emerged. The brown ‘sahib’ acted his part with a vengeance.
In wheel-barrows by the thousands went the world’s finest record, rare manuscripts, rare documents and books, even the first litho prints the world had ever seen from the year 1600 onwards. In heaps he got them stacked in the horse stable, throwing them on the floor to decay. Mind you I am talking about over 70,000 rare books and under a million documents and manuscripts, the world’s second largest collection after the British Museum Library. If you are shocked, I am not surprised, for you have no idea what the Punjab bureaucracy has morphed into. The brilliance of Hallard is a distant dream.
You might well ask just why I am stung. Well let me share just a few, only a few examples of what lie in these heaps, in the putrid humid environment with the smell of dampness and decay heavy in the air. Initially I did not believe what an honest official had told me, so I went to the place myself. Let me begin by telling you that the original letter written by the great poet Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’ in his own hand seeking a restoration of his pension lies among this heap. What would the poet have said? But then who really cares, save a few sorrowful ‘letters to the editor’ that might, maybe, follow this piece.
Forget the fact that by any measure this is a national crime. Bureaucrats are never punished, especially of the ilk I am talking about. When the rulers are ignorant and insolent, bureaucrats fear for their jobs. Heritage has no place in the scheme of traders, who only know how to sell what everyone collectively owns.
Next let me tell you of a rare document that once lay in the record of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. It is the 1616 original litho print, among the first of two left in the world, of Sir Thomas Roe. It is an original, and in Lahore original rarities lie on the floor. The only other version in the world is in the British Museum Library in a nitrogen-filled glass casing, a rare manuscript that the British are proud of. In Lahore such rarities lie in heaps, only to be picked up and put on a table by an enlightened public servant. Beyond that he dare not. Honesty brings no laurels.
The original record of the Bhagat Singh incident, known as the Lahore Conspiracy Case, also is in this collection. Among the books are the original prints of all the great masters of Punjab, which once included Delhi and Kabul. Just run your mind from the year 1600 to 2000, a full 400 years of rich heritage, a collection of the Mughals, the Afghan rulers, the Sikhs, the British and the finest record of the early Pakistan years, and all you can see of this glorious period lies on the floors of the dark main halls and verandahs. Our retired bureaucrat ordered a huge bathroom to be built in the middle of the horse stable, one last stab at immortality which adds to the stench.
The roof of the main hall collapsed just six months ago, and given the way bureaucracy runs in Punjab, funds for the roof’s repair were denied. The rain did the rest. A deft educated bureaucrat of another department spared funds from another project to erect a makeshift roof. But then it is a matter of time before it gives way and we will have a massive deluge, which will, all things going the way they are, produce a massive killing field of the finest collection of rare books, documents and manuscript the world has ever seen.
Yes Sir, it is a matter of time only. The fun is no one is bothered, least of all the ruling family. The funds allocated for the library repair, in a stroke of ‘genius’ were diverted to construct a huge new ‘canteen’ serving burgers and sandwiches. Life goes on and the heap continues to grow where once horses treaded.
Tucked away in the heaps are the rare manuscripts of letters from royalty and rulers of the world over 400 years to the various rulers of Lahore. There is an array of secret documents about the hundreds and thousands of happenings in Punjab and its neighbourhood over the centuries. This is a researcher’s goldmine. The original record of the entire 1857 Uprising (War of Independence) is there. Mind you Lahore was the epicenter from where was controlled the fight for Delhi. This is a world original that not even the British have. Our khaki rulers demolished the historic ‘1851 Barrack’ which was the operations headquarters to make way for housing plots. Who dare challenge their intellect?
Mind you among the record are even older manuscripts, one almost 1,000 years ago which, in Sanskrit, records the invasion feared from the ‘looting Afghans who know no morals’. Excuse me, morals. That concept died a thousand years ago. In any other country all this would need 20 massive libraries the size of the Quaid-e-Azam Library, built by the British, to hold. Mind you these foreigners – the British – left behind almost 900 libraries in Punjab, of which only 179 remain. Who needs libraries now?
The head of libraries sits in the Lahore Civil Secretariat with just one typist. That is his department and mind you he is a secretary level bureaucrat. Full stop. That is his status in the present scheme of things in Punjab. A very hurt friend signed and commented: “There is a difference between the strokes of an ironmonger and a goldsmith”. Aptly put.
The table on which the chief of Punjab libraries sits is the original teak table built by the former principal of Government College, Lahore, and once Punjab’s first Record-Keeper, the great Lt. Col. Garrett. Even that was retrieved from the rubble that our daft former chief secretary created in the horse stable. I am not surprised at just where we are headed.