NON-FICTION: DISSECTING LAHORE

Published February 13, 2022
Delhi Gate, one of the six remaining gates of Lahore’s Walled City | Wikipedia Commons
Delhi Gate, one of the six remaining gates of Lahore’s Walled City | Wikipedia Commons

Lahore is one of the cities of Pakistan whose history has been written about perhaps most of all. Kanhaiyya Lal Hindi wrote his Tareekh-i-Lahore in 1882. This was followed by the Lahore District Gazetteer of 1883-84, then by Lahore, Its History, Architectural Remains and Antiquities by Syed Muhammad Latif in 1892.

After Partition came Muhammad Baqir’s Lahore: Past and Present in 1952, and literary magazine Naqoosh’s ‘Lahore Number’ in 1962. Pran Nevile wrote Lahore: A Sentimental Journey in 1993. All these books, except Naqoosh, either focused on the history of the city or were personal memoirs. Lahore has been the locale/setting of numerous books and novels too. The process is on-going and, every few years, one finds a new book on Lahore.

Most recently, Dr Shahid Imtiaz, a PhD in English Literature, has brought out Amorphous Lahore: Colonial and Postcolonial — A Journey Through History and Fiction. As the title suggests, besides history, it looks at fiction as well.

The seven books through whose prism Imtiaz studies the city, its socio-political past and life, are Dina Nath’s The Two Friends: A Descriptive Story of Lahore Life, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man, The Bride and An American Brat, Sara Suleri Goodyear’s Meatless Days and Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke.

The first chapter of Imtiaz’s book, ‘The Making of Lahore: Historical Survey of Amorphousness’, traces the city’s origin in the prehistoric era and development through the Mughal period. It also explains the concept of amorphousness — a lack of physical form or shape — and sets the tone of the book and its thesis.

An academic studies the city and its socio-political past and life through the lens of history, geography and fiction

In trying to determine the development of Lahore, Imtiaz shows how it spread from the confines of its original walls — an expansion that began in British colonial times and continues to this day. This chapter also looks at how the city is portrayed as a character in the literary works mentioned above.

The second chapter, ‘Situating Lahore in the British Colonial Era: Analysing Dina Nath’s The Two Friends: A Descriptive History of the Lahore Life and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim’ brings Lahore out of the old Walled City and takes it through its colonial phase. This is the setting as presented in Nath’s novel, published in 1899, and his contemporary Kipling’s work, which was published as a series in 1900, and a year later as a complete book.

In Imtiaz’s words, Nath “had a great fascination for the new Lahore, colonial Lahore.” He further writes: “Both Nath and Kipling were contemporaries but, interestingly, both treated Lahore differently in their novels. In Nath, Lahore is the locale where political, social, cultural and religious differences and clashes amongst the major communities, the Muslims, the Hindus, and the Sikhs were beginning to deepen. As a result, disintegrating forces made inroads into the social and cultural fabric of the Lahori society. Kipling, on the other hand, has confined himself to the Great Game being played between the British and the Russians. Furthermore, [Kipling] looks at Lahore from the lens of an imperialist.”

Imtiaz does not confine himself to fiction in this chapter and, keeping both novels as the pivot, he looks at the changes in the city’s geography, structure and architecture during the colonial era by referencing other source material, such as William J. Glover’s article ‘The City in Colonial Modernity: Living the Lahore Life’.

Indian writer Nath’s novel is more focused on imperialist Lahore. Through its characters Rama and Nath and their “keen observation, wit and penetrating eye”, we are given a look into “what Lahore was a century ago.” Shuttling between colonial and old Lahore, they are “fascinated and awed by the former and dismayed by the latter.”

Meanwhile, British writer Kipling’s Kim, about a white Irish orphan boy begging on the streets, is a stroll through the Walled City and gives a stereotypical presentation of the natives. According to Imtiaz, “Kipling like a true [W]esterner, holds the natives responsible for the Mutiny by calling it an act of madness, therefore, justifying the brutal punishment they deserved and received.”

At this point, Imtiaz digresses from the subject somewhat, going towards the historical side of Lahore instead of remaining focused on the literary works at hand. However, he regains focus with his discussion in chapter three on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man, which depicts a time when the city’s ethos and multicultural character receive a shock as Partition approaches.

Some stark changes occur in Lahore at this point. Imtiaz writes: “So Lahore, from a place where all major communities had the tradition of celebrating different and social festivals with enthusiasm, harmony and tolerance, had been transformed to a space in the 1940s where these communities had begun to doubt and suspect the intention of one another.”

While this changing social-scape is most prominent in Ice Candy Man, it can be seen in Sidhwa’s other novels as well — The Bride again encompasses the upheavals and violence the city witnessed during Partition, when communities turned against each other.

The narrative shifts from pre- to post-Partition Lahore via Sidhwa’s novel An American Brat (1993), Goodyear’s memoir Meatless Days (1989), and Hamid’s debut novel Moth Smoke (2000). These three books cover the era from the 1950s to the 1990s and explore the many political and social changes the city witnessed, including Gen Ziaul Haq’s so-called ‘Islamisation’ project, the rise and fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the expansion of the gated housing schemes. Here, the narrative turns more political, a bit tilted against Bhutto, if not completely in favour of the army general.

To give the impression of Lahore’s undefined shapelessness, the author delineates a picture of the city from socio-political and geographical points of view, showing how the city witnessed different changes, altered its colours and survived ups and down. However, the books he studies give the impression of the city’s continued fall from grace, as it went from the glory it enjoyed during the Mughal and Sikh eras to worse and worse.

But the reasons he gives for Lahore’s amorphousness apply to other metropolises of the Subcontinent as well, since they too were ruled by different rulers coming from different religions, regions and nations. Every city witnesses changes with the passage of time, and Lahore is no different. The question of how it differs from other cities in the region remains unanswered.

Imtiaz ends his analysis with a study of Moth Smoke, Hamid’s novel about the city’s disintegrating fabric, a Lahore riddled with class divides and drug mafias. He writes: “Moth Smoke is set in the terrible times of the 1990s, when Pakistan was rocked by an unending chain of crises, financial, political and social.”

He further writes: “Moth Smoke projects Lahore as a space occupied by two diametrically opposed groups, the rich and the poor, both occupying their respective territories.”

It is not the most uplifting analysis, and one comes away feeling that Amorphous Lahore is more of a dirge about the city than a tribute to its amorphous nature.

The reviewer is a member of staff. He tweets @IrfaanAslam

Amorphous Lahore: Colonial and Postcolonial — A Journey Through History and Fiction
By Shahid Imtiaz
Kitab Trinjan, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9699141256
262pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 13th, 2022

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