LAHORE: Topophilia of Space and Place, says the author, was written under the impact of a deep affinity for Lahore. The author is Dr Anna Suvorova, a scholar from Russia, who specialises in Islam in the subcontinent as well as in classical Urdu literature. She is Professor of Indo-Islamic culture at the Institute of Oriental and Classical Cultures, Russian State University.
Asian cities that carry the aroma of a rich culture have always attracted Suvorova’s attention; she was already under the spell of Lucknow. Her thoughts on Lahore are: “My notions of Lahore were very vague and based on associations with the Mughal capitals of Delhi and Agra. For this reason, my first encounter with this city in 1997 was a strong and direct experience that stirred up my fantasy and kindled the desire, not only to know Lahore better, but also to fall in love with it”.
Talking about the love for ‘other’ cities, Suvorova says that “if our imagination suggests to us that we could be happy in this foreign city, it, together with its streets, squares, mosques or churches, colours and sounds, immediately sails into the harbor of our consciousness”.
That is exactly what happened with regards to Lahore. Gradually and slowly the city, together with all its streets, squares, crowded bazaars, noisy tea-houses, historical monuments, festivals, seasons, sounds, colours and gardens sailed into the harbor of her consciousness. Her book is not simply a researched historical account of the city, but much more. It is a lively cultural portrait of Lahore. In this portrayal of the city even a Lahori may find to his surprise and immense pleasure that his city has some fine points which he too was not aware of before.
While depicting Lahore’s rich past, Suvorova has shown that the city’s social and economic space was organised around its gates, while “its spiritual chorology extended between the mosque and the tomb.” Additionally the gardens, which also had some symbolic meanings, formed the third dimension of Lahore’s life. After describing the historical mosques and the tombs in the city graphically, she moves on to the gardens.
She starts the story of Lahore’s gardens by revealing that “the Mughal history of Lahore literally began in a garden”. In fact, she claims, King Humayun, after capturing this city pitched his camp in a garden which was “the most charming spot in Lahore”, and spent his first night under the shade of its trees.
The history of Mughal gardens, according to Suvorova, begins with the garden Kabul Bakht Babur had built to mark his victory at Panipat in 1526. She discusses Muslim gardens with particular references to Mughal gardens at length and argues that their fondness for gardens and their conception can be traced back to the concept of Bagh-i-Bahisht as depicted in the Quran. And she concludes that “simultaneously images of paradise (that is divine metaphors) and symbols of temporal power, Mughal gardens accompanied people during their entire lives from birth to death and burial.”
Such is that past of Lahore, as depicted by Suvorova, so rich culturally and glamorous. Portrayed in this manner, it stands side by side with cities like Delhi and Agra, speaking volumes about the glory of the Mughals and carrying in its fold a legend of love ending in the tragic death of Anarkali. Suvorova reminds us that before partition, Lahore was often called the Paris of the East.
Here she borrows “from Baudelaire a term ‘Flaneric’ (strolling aimlessly about a city in order to discover and experience it) to describe the pastimes of Parisians.” She has discovered this predilection in Lahoris, who, she says, feel more at ease in the streets than at home. “Lahore’s Parisian spirit,” she says, “is also embodied in its inhabitants’ habit of spending time in the literary and artistic cafes”. Here she refers to the Pak Tea House, which, according to her, “has been the equivalent of the celebrated Café de Flore and Café Les Deux Magots in Paris, and the Caffe Greco in Rome,” places which attracted intellectuals and artists.
Then Suvorova talks about the Mall, which Lahoris at one time called Thandi Sarak. “The modern Lahore,” she says, “is literally a man of the street. In the gardens and on the streets he primarily looks for sights, amusements, celebrations and games”. In this context, she in particular refers to Basant which was celebrated as a spring festival.
Should we regretfully inform our esteemed scholar, who is in love with Lahore, that the Pak Tea House has been closed and that the Mall is no more Thandi Sarak and that now there is no restaurant on this road, and no spots of the kind which had once been the favourite haunts of the intellectuals. More than that, thanks to the administration of the city, Basant celebrations also have been banned.