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Updated August 13, 2017


How many of the secrets kept close remain undiscovered? | White Star
How many of the secrets kept close remain undiscovered? | White Star

Lahore in the Time of the Raj takes an academic approach to its subject. The authors, Ian Talbot and Tahir Kamran, in seeking to overturn the “traditional portrayals of Lahore as inward-looking and a world unto itself” argue that the Orientalist description of the Walled City is misleading as during the British Raj, Lahore was neither a “backwater” nor Rudyard Kipling’s “city of dreadful night.”

Instead, Lahore, located at the junction of roads to Kabul, Kashmir and Delhi, “throughout the colonial era was marked by the circulation of people, ideas and goods.”

Rather than dwell on Lahore’s wonders — its mosques, mausoleums, walls, gates and so on — the authors have focused on what went on in the city (which is why it is puzzling that the book’s cover shows a building erected by the British and not a building or scene from the Walled City itself). The roll call of famous names in fields such as literature, politics, law, music, film, cricket and wrestling suggests that neither before nor since have such great numbers of luminaries lived, worked and prospered within the old city. While Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lived, worked and interacted with each other on a daily basis, the engagement of the British was such that they, in the words of the authors, “seldom ventured into the city.”

A wealth of information about famous incidents and fascinating inhabitants of the Walled City

Lahore in the Time of the Raj is not a chronological, narrative history of colonial Lahore. It is a thematic history that highlights Lahore’s cultural, political, economic and social connections in colonial Punjab and with north India and beyond. The themes along which old Lahore’s history is explored are the city’s darwazas and mohallas; poets, wrestlers and cricketers; pilgrims and shrines; martyrs, migrants and militants and the consumption of foreign goods.

Bhati Gate, for example, had a “rich literary heritage.” Inside it, in Mohalla Jalvatian, lived a young poet by the name of Muhammad Iqbal as well as famous musical maestro Akhtar Hussain Khan, whose sons Amanat Ali Khan and Fateh Ali Khan and grandsons gained celebrity in Pakistan. Muhammad Iqbal, who went on to become known as Allama Iqbal, read his very first ghazal at a bazm-i-mushaira [poetry gathering] in 1895 held in Bazaar-i-Hakiman. Amir Ahmad Minai had come from Hyderabad Deccan to attend the bazm.

A young barber by the name of Mohammed Rafi worked in Mohalla Chomala before gaining fame as a playback singer of Bollywood films. Syed Muhammad Latif, “who has been claimed the greatest Indian historian of the colonial era,” lived in Sammion ka Bazaar as did the leading political figure Sir Chaudhry Shahabuddin. Urdu writer Muhammad Hussain Azad settled in the Bhati Gate area where he established his Azad library in 1887.

The reputation of the practitioners of traditional medicine in Lahore drew patients from far and wide. Patients thronged to Hakim Shujauddin’s house in Bazaar-i-Hakiman and Pandit Raghbir Dyal Jotshi’s vedic practice in Tehsil Bazaar of Bhati Gate. In Doctran da Mohalla, Dr Gopi Chand Bhargava — who later became chief minister of Indian Punjab — attended to his patients. This was the world of narrow alleys and bazaars and “chaos” and “disorder” with which the British rulers had chosen to have little connection.

Cricketers Gul Mohammad, Nazar Mohammad, Imtiaz Ahmed and Abdul Hafeez Kardar all lived as neighbours in the same locality close to Bhati Gate. They rose through the ranks of Islamia College’s cricket team to play international cricket, as did Fazal Mahmood and Jahangir Khan. (Lala Amarnath, the first cricketer to score a century for the Indian cricket team, lived at Shah Almi Gate.) The authors capture the cricket rivalry between Islamia College and Government College in which the former outplayed the latter. In fact, “there were no fewer than eight future Pakistan [T]est players in Islamia College’s team that, in 1941, trounced Government College in the Punjab University collegiate final.”

The chapter on “Lahore’s largely overlooked role in the international revolutionary struggle against the British Empire” revolves around the Ghadar movement, Bhagat Singh, Madan Lal Dhingra, and the transnational linkages formed by Muslim students studying in the city. The Ghadar movement, almost forgotten now, is generally thought of as predominantly a Sikh Jat movement. The imperial archives, the authors point out, contradict this view: “there were considerable numbers of Muslims involved in the movement.”

The authors write that Dhingra, who in July 1909 assassinated Sir Curzon Wyllie in London, deserves to be “Punjab’s first 20th century revolutionary martyr.” Dhingra, Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh — who shot and killed Michael O’Dwyer, the ‘butcher’ of Jallianwala Bagh — comprise, the authors write, “the trinity of Punjab’s revolutionary martyrs.”

However, the authors fail to discuss the revolutionary Khaksar movement that had its headquarters in Lahore and presence all over India including the Deccan, Awadh, Sindh, and what was then called NWFP [present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa]. In addition, its founder Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi, known as Allama Mashriqi, had forged connections in the Muslim world even before he had formally launched the Khaksar movement and delivered his famous Egypt Address in Arabic in May 1926 in Cairo.

The authors are also remiss in mentioning that it was inside Bhati Gate, at the Uchi Masjid, where, on March 19, 1940, over 300 Khaksars gathered to march towards the Badshahi Mosque when they were set upon by the British police at Heera Mandi Chowk. The whole incident has been movingly told by Muhammad Saeed in Lahore: A Memoir, a book that Talbot and Kamran appear to have not looked at. Saeed, who later became the editor of The Pakistan Times, was present at Bhati Gate at the time and wrote in his book that, “the shooting was no less ruthless than the notorious massacre O’Dwyer perpetrated at Amritsar in April 1919.”

Even so, Lahore in the Time of the Raj contains a wealth of information. For example, the handmade and hand-knotted carpets woven in the city till the 19th century were of much higher quality than the carpets produced in Persia (now Iran) and Central Asia; Model Town was built on 2,000 acres of forest that was full of rabbits, deer, jackals and snakes; there used to be an extensive garden where the British built the King Edward Medical College and Mayo Hospital; and at one time Lahore had 17 clock towers.

Despite the wealth of information, however, general readers will struggle with Lahore in the Time of the Raj primarily because of its stodgy, academic writing. Better editing could have fixed that as well as the spelling errors and inconsistencies. For example, the word darwaza has been spelled in three different ways: darvaza, darvarza, and darwaza. One would have sufficed.

The reviewer is a communications specialist

Lahore in the Time of the Raj
By Ian Talbot and
Tahir Kamran
Penguin/Viking, India
ISBN: 978-0670089444

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 13th, 2017

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