Lasting legacies

Published December 1, 2022
The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

NO US senator visiting Pakistan has been as engaging or as pregnant as Senator Kesha Ram of Vermont. She was in Lahore last week with her husband Jacob Hinsdale. They had come to visit the sites associated with Kesha’s great-great-grandfather Sir Ganga Ram, who had contributed so much to the Punjab and in particular to Lahore.

Sir Ganga Ram died in 1927, almost 100 years ago. Kesha Ram began by paying homage at his samadhi on the banks of the old Ravi. One was reminded of the opening paragraph of Lytton Strachey’s biography of Queen Victoria (1921) which begins with the queen on her deathbed in Osborne House. In her dying moments, she recalls the major events of her long reign — her Jubilees, her nine children, her marriage to Prince Albert, her coronation, and her childhood at Kensington Palace — and that leads into the narrative.

At the samadhi, Kesha Ram attended a ceremony rarely seen in Pakistan, where a Muslim imam and a Hindu pandit offered prayers side by side. During her weeklong stay, she was escorted to the various public buildings her ancestor constructed when chief engineer Punjab: the Lahore Museum and its adjacent National College of Arts, the General Post Office, Aitchison College, the Albert Victor Wing of Mayo Hospital, inter alia.

His most notable benefice was the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital and the hospice for widows (now Fountain House). All are still in use today.

For Kesha Ram, her tour was akin to a pilgrimage.

His qualities of “adaptability and ingeniousness” brought him to the attention of the then viceroy Lord Curzon. Ganga Ram weathered the jealousy in his service circle, which regarded his selection as a “slight on European engineers by Lord Curzon”.

After his retirement in 1903, he joined the court of the Maharaja of Patiala as superintending engineer. During the seven years there, he built the Moti Bagh palace, the Secretariat, and other public buildings. He channelled his technical expertise to promoting lift irrigation, a method in which water is lifted with pumps. He was able to make over 80,000 acres of wasteland fertile in Montgomery/ Sahiwal district.

He returned from a visit to the UK impressed by modern agricultural techniques and the mechanisation of spinning. Although he and Mahatma Gandhi never met, they corresponded frequently, through which Ganga Ram tried to wean Gandhi away from his obsession with the hand-driven charkha. Gandhi remained obdurate. In their final correspondence, Gandhi defended his philosophy, to which Ganga Ram replied: “This polite language of yours has led astray the masses of India.” It was a retort worthy of M.A. Jinnah.

Like Gandhi, Ganga Ram could be an indifferent parent. His biography Harvest from the Desert (1940) reveals that when he caught his son Balak Ram eating raw fruit stolen from a tree, he tied him to its trunk for the day.

In his closing years, he supported the DAV College (now Islamia College), Hailey College, and the Ganga Ram Library. By the age of 76, he had given away over Rs3 million. In 1925, he assisted Khem Chand in developing Ideal Town (now Model Town) as an experiment in communal coexistence. It had a mosque, mandir, gurdwara and church in each of its corners.

Ganga Ram died in 1927, in London. His ashes were brought to Lahore, the city to which he had given so much.

For Kesha Ram, her tour of each of the sites associated with her ancestor was akin to a pilgrimage. She expressed wonder that so much of his legacy was still extant and his name still revered here.

On her last day, she talked about her own life — for instance, the trauma she experienced in the US when at the age of 13 she and her school friend were suddenly apprehended by the police “for looking Mexican”. They were held incommunicado overnight without being allowed to contact their parents. That incident changed her life and inspired her to become an advocate for people of colour and immigrants in Vermont.

She and her husband Jacob Hinsdale (both Democrats) shared with an audience in the Lahore Arts Council their views on US politics, particularly the skewed system by which popular votes could be trumped (no pun intended) by an electoral college, a system bequeathed by the American founding fathers more than 250 years ago.

Interestingly, the recent general elections in Malaysia resulted in an inconclusive verdict. The deadlock was broken only after a council of sultans decided to select one of the two elected contenders as prime minister. (Election and selection are not a Pakistani phenomenon.)

Kesha and Jacob are expecting their first child — a daughter. It is perhaps fitting that this future descendant of Sir Ganga Ram should make her first journey overseas to the city which owes so much to his lasting legacies.

The writer is an author.

www.fsaijazuddin.pk

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2022

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