The Lahore We Lost

The tragic transformation of a literary hub.
By Khaled Ahmed


The Lahore We Lost


Living in Zaman Park and going to school in Dharampura, my ruling passion growing up was cricket followed by reading Urdu novels and magazines. The early ’50s belonged to Faiz, Manto, and Abdul Hameed Adam. As literary types gathered at the Pak Tea House, I read Lail-o-Nihar edited by Sibte Hasan (and even got a letter published in it), Chattan by Shorish Kashmiri, and Tarjumanul Quran by Maududi in parallel with Parwez’s Tulu Islam. I got into Government College on the basis of cricket, ragged there by Salman “Crusher” Qureshi, whose poetry in Pieces of Eight I would later admire.

In Class 12, I and Khalid Ranjha, later Pakistan’s law minister, started versifying in English. Sample: “How can I be gay/when you are away?” My teacher Abdul Qayyum Jojo, the thespian inspiration behind the G.C. Dramatic Club, told me my prose as written in my exam sheets was unreadable. Shoaib Hashmi taught me economics. I saw him being subjected to rehearsed harassment in class by Tariq Ali, Salmaan Taseer, Salman Peer, and Shahid Rahman. I learned from Shoaib how to succeed in life non-confrontationally—only I am not so sure about success in my case.

In the late ’70s, I was at Pakistan Times, writing editorials together with Siddiqi and Zim. This was the place Mazhar Ali Khan and Faiz spent their best days at. It smelled of raw meat, which had been scattered all over by sports reporter Asif for cats who in turn dealt with the vermin that nibbled at newsprint. The rooms were dark; you needed to turn on the lights during the day. I used to call tongue-tied on Mazhar Ali Khan at the office of his weekly Viewpoint for which I secretly wrote a column under a telltale pseudonym, Janus, which Zim once changed by removing the ‘J’ in it and which change senior editor I. A. Rehman could not detect. Both were definitely less anal than I was.

I was influenced in those days by Saleemur Rehman, whom I met afterhours in his Anarkali haunt together occasionally with Munnu Bhai, who probably wrote as good Punjabi poetry as his Urdu columns. Saleem got me to write my first lit-crit piece on novelist Aziz Ahmad. Lahore adeeb types didn’t treat me too nicely when I reviewed Intizar Hussain’s novel Basti and indiscreetly declared it one of the 10 great novels of Urdu literature. In 2013, Intizar may actually win the Booker Prize for best non-English writer.

I met a lot of the adeeb types in Kishwar Naheed’s salon-like house: everybody from Jamiluddin Aali to Gopi Chand Narang was found there at one time or another. My hero prose-writer in English was Safdar Mir then. I heard Gopi Chand Narang at Kishwar’s. Talking to him, Safdar Mir didn’t come out shining which made me realize that Zia Mohyeddin is right when he says very few adeeb types speak Urdu well. When Narang spoke, “flowers cascaded from his mouth.”

Later Daud Rahbar, visiting Lahore long years after he had been maltreated by the closed-minded academics of the city, told me Patras Bokhari spoke like an angel, calling him the Khaqan-e-Takallumof Lahore. Needless to say, Daud Rahbar himself, I discovered, wrote Urdu like an angel. Saleemur Rehman, guilty of getting me crazy about word origins by lending me his Khan Arzoo, told me Nasir Kazmi spoke like the archangel himself, if that expression is possible. I never heard Nasir Kazmi, but I thought Qayyum Nazar, who taught Urdu at Government College, was probably the worst speaker of Urdu, especially after he subjected me to what I thought was an undeserved tongue-lashing during the 1964 convocation.

Saleemur Rehman wrote his short history of ancient literature in which he insisted on using the authentic pronunciation of names: Cicero was actually Kikero, Cyprus was Kuprus, Thucydides was Thukidides. He wrote a highly idiosyncratic style in Urdu, which I loved, as I loved that of Khan Fazlur Rehman Khan. Later when I got together with Intizar I fell for his prose for the same reason.

I wrote verse in English that I don’t want to see today. I got it published in the college gazette first and then The Ravi, most probably because I was on the editorial panel and no one could stop me. I wrote unreadable prose too. While I was thus wasting my time, Intizar Hussain was writing ethereal columns before getting out to pound the pavements of Lahore in search of places where he could drink tea with friends.

Sheikh Salahuddin and Haneef Ramay engaged in philosophical discussions when not dozing or restaurant-hopping with Intizar. After Coffee House succumbed to the parsimony of the adeeb types, Pak Tea House took them in. Ijaz Hussain Batalvi, Qayyum Nazar, Zia Jalundhari, Yusuf Zafar, and Mukhtar Siddiqi attended the Halqa Arbab Zauq meetings at the YMCA, then betook themselves to the uncomfortable seediness of Pak Tea House.

One day as I was bent over yet another editorial praising Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, in walked Ustad Daman spouting Russian because someone had told him I could speak it. He told me he was rewriting Hir with Ranjha as the hero, complaining that the Punjabi classic had built up its heroine while ignoring the hero. In the city, Habib Jalib was versifying the same kind of political jibes against the rulers as Daman.

Taufiq Rafat arrived at G.C. with Kaleem Omar in tow. Taufiq looked at my verse. He was steadfastly encouraging; Kaleem Omar was brutal, and on reflection honestly accurate. Taufiq was a poet of wisdom but he was essentially a pagan who celebrated nature. He was the big poet. He wrote a play in verse in which I actually acted, directed by Farrukh Nigar Aziz.

Taufiq lived in his poems because he was strictly nonjudgmental. He stayed close to the senses and let them give their verdict. He was not obsessed with transmitting a message of any kind because that would fall in the category of judgment. He lived a life without final conclusions, creating pathos and beauty by refraining from imposing on us any moral assessment of the object he was looking at.

He accepted the flux of time but not the ideologies that tried to arrest it. He was rewarded for this impartiality of the soul by a freedom that few poets of our time have achieved. His nostalgia for the past was not based on any values that have been robbed by time; he simply noted the passage of a way of life that was no more. What moved him most about transition was death, the death of those he had known, of people who lived without bearing the doubtful burden of being acknowledged by society as great.

Kaleem Omar wrote with sensitivity to emotional humbug rare in Lahore. Omar and Taufiq experienced life’s turbulence and suffered but their tutelage left behind a group of versifiers who went on to write good verse, led by Athar Tahir and Alamgir Hashmi. Lahore was becoming intensely conservative, transforming its literary circles, at times rebuked by the intellectuals of Karachi for abandoning humanism in favor of ideology.

Lahore began responding to General Zia’s Islamization on the basis of its negative memory of a nationalizing Bhutto era. Conservatism, once known as an effort to put a brake on the tendency of opinion to divorce itself from the past, was now radical rather than reactionary. You could get beaten up. All the literary magazines closed down one by one. Urdu Bazaar sold only religion. In 2013, you can, of course, be killed for writing with freedom. After writing a dangerous book you pray no one reads it.

Pakistan Times was broke and the government was no longer willing to subsidize it. I ejected and landed at The Nation from where I transited to a liberal, cleverly named The Frontier Post, run by Rehmat Shah Afridi. After nine years of stability at Pakistan Times—begun at Rs. 1,700 per month—now came the slippery slope of uncertain journalism.

I joined Najam Sethi’s The Friday Times, edited his Urdu weekly, Aajkal, and was shocked at the conservative backlash against it. The Frontier Post had collapsed financially. Aajkal didn’t survive either in a city that no longer had stomach for secular magazines in Urdu. Saleemur Rehman and Intizar Hussain wrote columns in Aajkal. I followed Najam to Daily Times, followed by Intizar after Daily Times gave birth to a revived Aajkal in daily form.

One day Intizar Hussain invited me to come into his circle of friends at Dada’s gallery. It is now over a decade that I have been spending my weekends with friends who don’t accuse me of being an American agent or an Indian spy and share my fatigue with ideology. There I enjoy the company of Masud Ashar and Ikramullah, who write limpid short stories in Urdu, and Shahid Hameed, the lexical giant in the tradition of Saleemur Rehman.

At The Friday Times, I was visited by Mushfiq Khwaja from Karachi whom I had admired from afar. He just walked in suddenly. Abdullah Hussain, whose Udas Naslain I counted among the 10 great novels of Urdu, always defended my ‘unpatriotic’ journalism while I thought some of his stories—especially the one about expat Pakistani laborers in a London flat—were written in a wonderfully naturalist style which no one has appreciated.

Insulated against an increasingly intolerant city, Dada’s gallery features Intizar Hussain in his late 80s with almost total recall and keen to be present when something good happens like the annual readings of Zia Mohyeddin at Syed Babar Ali’s Ali Auditorium. When he speaks, it is all Urdu and he doesn’t make a fool of himself like other adeeb types. I am glad I am still learning.


Ahmed is the author of several books, including Sectarian War: Sunni-Shia Conflict in Pakistan and its Linkages with the Middle East; Word for Word (which won the 2010 Patras Bokhari award for best book from Pakistan’s Academy of Letters); Pakistan: Behind the Ideological Mask, and Pakistan: the State in Crisis. Ahmed is consulting editor at Newsweek Pakistan. He has served as a director of the South Asian Free Media Association. From Newsweek Pakistan’s March 1 & 8, 2013, issue.