Pran Nevile
Pran Nevile

“Lahore can never be understood. It has to be felt. There is no place like it in this world”, so said Pran Nevile, the influential writer, researcher and scholar of Lahore who represented a unique chronicler of the 1930s and 1940s of this great city.

Last Thursday this amazing Lahori, born and bred inside the walled city whose bazaars, ‘galis’ and ‘katras’ he remembered by heart, passed away in New Delhi at the age of 95, just 11 days short of his birthday. Just how does one write about a man who was larger than life, for he was unique and what surprised me most was that he would occasionally email me after reading a column and would add to my knowledge of ‘our city’, a phrase he invariably used when he dropped in every year to grace a conference or meet old friends. Mind you his friends were young and old, just about any person who tried to understand Lahore. That is why his patent advice was: ‘Feel Lahore, do not try to understand it for you will get confused’.

The first mention of his name in our house was when my father, himself a journalist and ‘pucca Lahori’, mentioned him as his junior in Government College, Lahore. They had met after years in East Berlin at a conference. “Very bright student” was how he was described. Then one day I picked up a book titled ‘Lahore: A Sentimental Journey’. That was the best description of life in old Lahore’s Walled City I had read till then.

One can never forget the story of the ambitious unmarried official who hired a servant. As fate would have it he was also unmarried because, as he said, he did not have the dowry money. So the official donated half the expected expense. When the servant returned with his beautiful bride from the remote hills - where women normally have two husbands - the official immediately got him a job as a railway guard. This meant that he stayed away for a week at a time. The bride shyly reminded the official that he had paid half the expense. Hence ... there was silence. Then comes the immortal sentence: “The next morning there was a spring in his step and a smile on his face”. Could anything be more subtle?

It would be an injustice to describe his passing away as the passing of an era. That is not the way I would like to think of Pran Nevile. If anything he revived interest in the social and cultural life of Lahore of the 1930s and 1940s. Indian newspaper obituaries have described him as “The Lahori in India”. My view is that his contribution in reviving research on old Lahore has given a continuity to the city. Very few people wrote about pre-Partition Lahore. His work and writings gave life to interest in the old city.

After his Masters in Economics from the Government College of Lahore, this outstanding Ravian at the age of 23 appeared for his Indian Civil Service examination and went to Delhi for training. Every month he would return for five days to enjoy classical dance and music with his childhood friends in Hira Mandi. That experience stuck in his mind. But then 1947 came about and he had to leave the city of his dreams. The shock of this tragedy he probably mentally compartmentalised and blocked it out during his 45 years as a diplomat. On retirement his true self flowered.

When as an Indian diplomat in Japan he was taken “on expense account” as he was to say to a geisha house, he saw the dignity of those women and the respect afforded to them. It was to profoundly change the way he saw the singers, musicians and dancing women and men of Lahore.

Much later in life after retiring he was to write about them. A comment from him would make sense: “The word ‘tawaif’ deserves respect, not disdain. A lot of them were singers and not sex workers. People think of them as prostitutes, undermining their value as great musicians. The colonial missionaries dubbed them as fallen women, which they certainly were not. The Western-educated Indians are influenced by these writings and still write in the same manner. There was no patronage and the institution collapsed”.

After he retired he was to spend seven years in the libraries of Britain and USA, as well as India, researching the issue. The result was in 1996 an amazing and lavishly illustrated book titled ‘Nautch Girls of India: Dancers, Singers, Playmates’. It was a pioneering effort and will remain the starting point for change in our societies. But his first book ‘Lahore: A Sentimental Journey’, published in 1992, had set the trend for his future creations.

For the next 26 years he followed his passion, all stringed up in a way to the city he loved more than most. Every two years he produced a masterpiece starting with his ‘sentimental journey’. He followed this with ‘Love Stories of the Raj’, and then in 1996 came the classic on ‘nautch’ girls. It immediately shot him to fame the world over. Probably every library of any standing has a copy of that classic.

Then came a book titled ‘Stories from the Raj’, followed by an amazing study of ‘Beyond the Veil – Indian Women in the Raj’. But his love for classical and light-classical music honed in Lahore resulted in the book: ‘KL Saigal – Immortal Singer and Superstar’. In Delhi he set up a Saigal Foundation to promote the ‘lost songs of old India’, a venture that has achieved considerable fame. His last book ‘Marvels of Indian Painting: Rise and demise of Company School’ is yet another masterpiece.

So in his life he concentrated on four subjects, they being Lahore, The Raj, KL Saigal and other famous singers of Lahore, and the misunderstood ‘Nautch Girls’ of the sub-continent. This was his broad canvas and he painted on it with relish. Every year he would drop in to attend and speak at the Lahore Literary Festival, as well as other ones in Karachi and Islamabad. His subject, invariably was Lahore. He implored the young of the city to “look back at your glorious past, filter out the evils of colonialism and religious bigotry, and then move forward to a dynamic future”.

He was a great believer that “one day the entire sub-continent would collectively be the best place to live on earth, just like his Lahore was the greatest city that goes back in endless time”. Was he a dreamer or a visionary? There is no answer to this. All we can do is feel for what he says.

My numerous encounters and dinner sessions with him at the Lahore Gymkhana Club were delightful as he often got carried away by his passion for Lahore. As I watched on in silence, adding a word or two, he would keep repeating: “Keep up the good work, read, research, walk the streets, meet the characters inside the old city and encourage youngsters to take up the baton”. That is how he had reached the correct conclusion that Lahore is there to be felt. Trying to understand it will never work. But then he will remain Pran Nevile the brilliant student, one of India’s finest diplomats and Soviet Bloc expert, an outstanding connoisseur of music and dance, writer, author, speaker, a man of peace and a ‘pucca Lahori’. He will be much missed.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2018

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