Lahore Aik Shehr-i-Bemisal (Volumes I&II)
By Ahmad Saeed
Department of History and Pakistan Studies, Punjab University
ISBN: 9-789-699-3258-30
Vol 1: 333pp.
Vol 2: 277pp.

How do we write the history of a city such as Lahore when, without a well-organised archive, it is difficult to find even basic information about many of the city’s urban neighbourhoods? What should be a theoretical frame for reading the city?

We are indebted to the classical texts of Kanahya Lal, Syed Muhammad Latif and Nur Ahmad Chishti for information about most of the city’s built heritage. They gave a historical account of Lahore’s rich past and a detailed listing of the historical monuments built from the Mughal to the British period.

Many sites listed in these texts are now ruins or structurally modified beyond recognition. Lal, Latif and Chishti were not interested in writing a social history as such. But they enabled the writing of a social history, as they built an archive by meticulously listing data on Lahore’s historical monuments, Mughal gardens, havelis and British colonial structures of power. The richness of these classical histories compensates for the documentary lack of an official archive on Lahore.

Ahmad Saeed’s posthumously published two-volume book on Lahore, Lahore, Aik Shehr-i-Bemisal, builds on the classical works on Lahore — a veritable archive — to write a richly painted cultural and social history of Lahore during the colonial period. Saeed aims to write the city’s history by recalling its buildings, streets, cafes, houses, people and events. It is a process whereby he re-enchants the sites that were once centres of social life, political strife, religious enactments or generative of intellectual trends.

Ahmed Saeed’s posthumously published two volumes build on the classical works on Lahore to write a richly painted cultural and social history of the city during the colonial period

Through his meticulous reading of Urdu newspapers published during the first half of the 20th century, Saeed recreates the everyday life of Lahore — its charms, markets, perfumeries, cafes, political rallies and so on. It is a rich account of its many eccentric artists, writers, trade unions, shoe sellers, mushairas, bus routes and circuses.

Saeed spent decades collecting information about these diverse arrays of themes from various Urdu newspapers, especially Inqilab, Zamindar, Paisa Akhbar, Partap and Banday Matram, among many others. Most of these — especially the Paisa Akhbar collection at the Punjab Public Library and the Lahore Museum Library — are no longer available or in a dilapidated condition inaccessible to any researcher.

In many ways, Saeed was the last person to have read the complete files of these newspapers and to make extensive notes based on his careful reading. His copious handwritten notes, divided into different sections, became the source of this two-volume history of Lahore.

Although it only covers the 50-year history of the city during the first half of the 20th century, the themes he touches upon had broader intellectual, cultural, religious and political facets, making it one of the most important books that any scholar has written on Lahore. Indeed, it is a new classic, along the lines of the great maestros, such as Lal, Latif and Chishti.

The North Western Railway headquarters were located in Lahore, initially at the main railway station, where maintenance was provided to locomotives, carriages and wagons | Archives
The North Western Railway headquarters were located in Lahore, initially at the main railway station, where maintenance was provided to locomotives, carriages and wagons | Archives

In this review, I only focus on one lengthy chapter of the book and apply Samuel Burgums’s idea of approaching the city as an archive, to show the importance of Saeed’s work and a theoretical intervention for a more critical engagement with the city’s urban text.

Saeed has given a descriptive account of famous political processions that passed through the city. These processions were led by people of different religious and political persuasions, receiving enthusiastic responses from the residents. Among the notable examples cited by Saeed is Sir Aga Khan’s reception in Lahore, when he visited the city in 1911 to collect funds for the Aligarh Muslim University. In 1920, Lahoris welcomed muhajirin, who were migrating to Afghanistan in the wake of WWI following the Islamist fatwa about British India being dar-ul-harb [house of war/ persecution]. Colonel Wedgewood Benn — a member of the British parliament known for his advocacy of labour rights — was also enthusiastically received by thousands of city workers in October 1920.

On the occasion of the annual session of the Sikh League in the same month, Sardar Kharak Singh received a warm reception. Dussehra and Ram Lila processions were also an integral part of city life. In December 1929, Nehru arrived in Lahore to attend the annual session of the Indian National Congress to an enthralling reception from the Lahoris.

Amidst all this political and religious activity, reflective of the truly cosmopolitan character of the city, was the remarkable procession to celebrate the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923. It brought together people, leaders, and groups from diverse backgrounds who had worked under the banner of the Khilafat Movement and the Non-Cooperation Movement. Akalis, Afghans and Khilafat movement volunteers participated in the procession, danced along the route, and raised nationalist and religious slogans.

What added to the enthusiasm was the arrival of 13 Turk mujahideen who had taken part in the war. The Lahori hosts had been misinformed about the Turk delegation’s preference for eating food at a dinner table. But the mujahideen said they were Muslims and preferred sitting on the floor and breaking bread and sharing food at a dastarkhwan. The group leader, Lt Ilyas Effendi, spoke to the crowd in Persian, which one of the hosts translated into Urdu for the Punjabi audience. Allama Iqbal was also in attendance.

Almost all the processions I have referred to followed the same route: from the railway station, through the Lunda Bazaar, on to the Delhi gate and inside the narrow lanes of the walled city. Different participants and religio-political actors claimed ownership of the city through their public presence; they left an indelible mark that can now only be read and understood through Saeed’s archiving of their routes, speeches, and the poetry in Urdu, Punjabi, and even Persian recited on these occasions.

Through our reading of his archival treasure trove, we can re-enchant these neighbourhoods that were once abuzz with political and intellectual frenzy, but are now sadly a slum deprived of basic amenities.

The purpose of this thick description of processions is not a romantic harking back or nostalgia for a cosmopolitan past. It is about reading and understanding the urban text in all its complexities.

The city was also witness to agitation against the Sarda Act Bill — the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 — whereby Indian legislators increased the minimum age of marriage for girls to 14 years. Hindus and Muslims clashed over the publication of blasphemous material in the 1920s and the Muslims had a tiff with the Sikhs on the Shahidganj Gurdawara in the 1930s. Lahore was at the centre of all these communal disputations.

Therefore, the idea is to “not fetishise the past, but instead seek to mobilise [it] actively and genealogically.” As Ann Laura Soler reminds us, “the word ‘street’ has a rough, dirty magic to it, summoning up the low, the common, the erotic, the dangerous, the revolutionary.”

We can use Saeed’s brilliant work to re-explore the streets of Lahore and the people who navigated through the structurally imposed colonial grids of power, charted their way into the city, and from there went on to mobilise and organise, or live their everyday lives, pursue economic activities, celebrate religious festivals and melas and make the city what it was — a centre of sin and splendour, a hub of creative activities and a den of revolutionary struggles.

Let us use Saeed’s text/archive to read, remember and recollect “traces of past contestations, protests, and occupations.” It is by positing these radical and cosmopolitan readings of the past — especially of Lahore’s vibrant history — that we can help to imagine a more liveable, colourful, democratic and equitable city.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based historian. X: @au_qasmi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 24th, 2024

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