01 Sep 2019


A model of the old city of Lahore, secured by walls, showing the layout of the original 13 gates of which only six survive | Wikipedia Commons
A model of the old city of Lahore, secured by walls, showing the layout of the original 13 gates of which only six survive | Wikipedia Commons

The famous walled city of Lahore has long been a source of mystique in literature. Hailed as one of the largest and probably the oldest walled cities in South Asia, Lahore’s architecture is globally considered a cultural touchstone. Part of the lure of old Lahore is the fact that the inner city was fortified with an encapsulating wall during the Mughal era, but this was subsequently destroyed by the British after the annexation of Punjab in 1849 and replaced with gardens.

‘Old’ Lahore used to have 13 gates in its heyday. All except one were demolished when the British de-fortified the city. These gates were later rebuilt and six of them survive until today. These gates comprise the cultural landmarks of the city’s architecture, but their particular historical significance has been largely ignored in local literature. The Inside City by Anita Mir aims to rectify this by paying homage to the fascinating history of Lahore’s iconic architecture.

Set during the pre- and post-Partition era, Mir’s novel is a family drama which unravels against a momentous, but chaotic point in history. The story begins in the year 1919 — the year of the Amritsar massacre when hundreds of unsuspecting protestors were killed by British troops. We are introduced to the Dars and their four children. Their sprawling, three-storeyed house boasts of many rooms but, like any other desi family, they usually congregate in the rooftop courtyard.

An earnest debut that juxtaposes a family saga with the zeitgeist of pre- and post-Partition turmoil is richly detailed, but as meandering as the walled city of Lahore

A pir predicts that the Dar family’s firstborn son is destined for greatness. Consequently, even though Amrau has other children after him, for the rest of her life, none of them is able to hold a candle to Awais. Her obsession with the boy and his imminent prosperity persists as he grows older.

When Awais fortuitously discovers the famed 13th gate of the inside city, Amrau feels as though the prophecy may finally be coming true. Awais, oblivious of his foretold destiny, develops a keen interest in mapmaking and discovering the architecture of the rapidly changing old city with its many hidden gems. This is after he spots suspicious-looking British men trying to map the area. He becomes entranced with his father’s friend, Shams, who is the local historian and who tells him bewitching tales of the city. Shams will later on play a key role in determining the trajectory of Awais’s life.

The writer deftly captures the intrigue of a young boy who is captivated by the secrets hidden within the alluring city in which he lives. The dusty, meandering streets of inner Lahore and the escalating anxiety of the locals at the increasing presence of the British in their area is potently brought to life. However, despite the promising set-up, the family saga at the centre of the tale is feebly plotted and far too many diversions in the narrative make for a disjointed storyline.

Awais is eventually made aware of the strange prophecy of which he is a part. The burden of this prophecy and the weight of his mother’s expectations is one he cannot shake off and the story follows how it significantly affects the decisions he takes as he becomes a man.

Meanwhile, Amrau’s younger daughter Maryam is largely ignored as a female middle child but, pretty soon, her extraordinary genius becomes undeniable. She is a prodigy in mathematics — a field not commonly associated with women in that era. Maryam also suffers from epilepsy, which makes her older brother Awais instinctually more protective of her. He is one of her constant supporters in the Dar household, despite their mother’s borderline hostile treatment of Maryam. In this vein, the narrative tackles Amrau’s anomalous maternal instincts. Rather than feeling proud of her daughter’s extraordinary intellect, she harbours pent-up spitefulness towards the girl since she feels that Maryam’s illness and exceptional faculty has somehow robbed Awais of his destined brilliance. The subtext of this thread is to address the misogyny that comes to the fore when the person who possesses any sort of superlative capability is not male. Maryam’s talent, therefore, is largely sacrificed at the altar of patriarchy.

The significance of the pir in Amrau’s life is alluded to repeatedly throughout the book, although at some point the character himself mysteriously disappears from the story. Amrau’s real name used to be Khurshid, but she changes it to Amrau after the pir asks her to do so. But the author does not give an explanation as to why such a suggestion was made in the first place. The narrative initially addresses the mother’s character with both names, which leads to frequent confusion on the readers’ part. This change, though, is symbolic of the dominating influence that the pir has had on Amrau/Khurshid’s life.

Interwoven through this family saga are historical milestones from the 1930s to the 1960s. The dialogue includes men having casual conversations about Jinnah and Gandhi which — while occasionally seeming a little forced — do manage to precisely capture the zeitgeist of the tumultuous pre-Partition era. The story follows the Dar family through the years leading up to Partition till subsequent decades. The latter part of the novel shines a light on the post-Partition turmoil faced by both Pakistan and India, which resulted in countless splintered families.

If William Dalrymple is the chronicler of Delhi, Bapsi Sidhwa is Lahore’s. Any novel which eulogises the charm of old Lahore runs the risk of being compared to Sidhwa’s prolific work which invariably reflects her abiding love for the city. Such appears to be the case here, too, as sections of Mir’s novel seem to be inspired by City of Sin and Splendour: Writings on Lahore — an incandescent collection of essays, poetry and short stories edited by Sidhwa. However, The Inside City lacks a certain vivacity which could have made the story less tedious to read. The novel could be considered a reasonable addition to the annals of Partition literature, and it also has something substantial to say about the family we are born into and the destiny we choose. Unfortunately, like the actual inside city itself, the narrative of The Inside City threatens to be endlessly meandering and sprawling. There are sudden time jumps and frequent interludes which make for disconcerting reading. Scrupulous editing could have easily made this book a lot shorter and the plotline tauter. On a more positive note, however, the exposition is richly detailed and illustrative passages depicting the dusty, winding streets of Lahore are well written.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications

The Inside City
By Anita Mir
Unbound, UK
ISBN: 978-1789650082

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2019