From a distance discontinuities rule North Indian history: Hindu Kingdoms and rulers are replaced by Islamic Turko Afghan Sultans, who in turn give way to the Mughals from Central Asia to be replaced by the Marathas, Sikhs and finally the British. A colonial Raj finally made way for India and Pakistan. These periods appear as distinct and self-contained substratum of the history of the past millennium. For the more perceptive scholar and observer who applies a magnifying glass to this cross section of history, it is the continuities rather than sharp breaks in history that also stand out. Haroon Khalid employs precisely such a magnifying glass to Lahore and gives us a readable and most interesting syncretic history of a city he obviously identifies with and cherishes deeply. This is a book about lesser known sites—temples, havelis, mosques and gardens and also people who populated Lahore through the Mughal, Sikh and British periods of its history. Below all this is the substratum of older Hindu Kingdoms and rulers. What makes the narrative interesting and readable is the mixing of past and present through history, mythology, anecdotes, all combined with personal observation of the state of things today. So Lahore’s medieval and ancient history jostle with modern Pakistan politics with the city providing the backdrop.
For many, Lahore alone amongst the subcontinent’s great cities has that enigmatic quality to it that attracts historians, novelists and poets. At the trisection of Mughal, Sikh and colonial history, the first half of 20th century encapsulates the respective Indian and Pakistani experiences in many different ways. This was the city of the National Movement, Bhagat Singh, Lala Lajpat Rai and of the Poorna Swaraj resolution of the Congress in 1929. But equally it was also the crucible of social fragmentation and division, as exclusivist movements both among the Hindus and Muslims from the late 19th century made Lahore a centre of communalism and separatism. The writings of Kushwant Singh, KK Aziz and a host of others give to it in the 1930s and the 1940s much of the quality which Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender and others endowed inter war Berlin with. Art, poetry, music and literature flourished amidst great friendships cutting across religious divides. Beneath however was a more fundamental churning that escaped them all and in 1947 Lahore saw an ethnic cleansing more thorough and comprehensive than any other comparable place in the subcontinent.
Imagining Lahore is a description and detailing of the city’s many historical layers—Hindu, Afghan, Mughal, Sikh, British and finally Pakistani. Haroon Khalid writes with an eye for detail, a keen sense of historical perspective and with real feeling. In his narrative we get a glimpse of the multiplicity of cultures that formed the different strata of the city’s social universe—from Jain and Hindu temples to the persecuted Ahmadiyyas of the present. Sikh religious shrines, the great samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the havelis of prominent generals jostle in his narrative with the imprint that successive Pakistani rulers from Ayub Khan, ZA Bhutto, General Zia ul Haq to Nawaz Sharif have left on the city. Rich in history and anecdote, the book will be invaluable for present day residents, the curious tourist or the steeped in nostalgia enthusiast whose parents or grandparents once lived there.
The great merit in Haroon Khalid’s narrative also is that he is unsparing in detailing present and past realities of the raw prejudice and greed that inevitably informs much of Lahore’s history. He is at the same time sensitive to the continuities that survive notwithstanding the great traumas the city has witnessed. These range from the superficial—for instance the forlorn sign that remains of ‘Rama Krishna and Sons Booksellers’ in what was predominantly a Hindu area of pre-Partition Lahore while the mausoleum of Qutb al-Din Aibak stands renovated at the orders of ZA Bhutto. Khalid Hassan notes that the renovation of the resting place of an Islamic ruler while other Hindu structures in the vicinity disintegrate is symptomatic of the binary view of history of Pakistan’s rulers. On the other hand, at the shrine of Shahjamal in Icchra in Lahore, an area once populated by Lahore’s most ancient Hindu temples, Khalid Hassan encounters a group of dervishes, high on charas, feverishly responding to the rhythm of the dhamaal. Khalid Hassan explains: ‘There are many similarities between the devotees of Shiva and dervishes from the Malamati Sufi school of thought. The Malamati within Sufism represent a group of devotees who do not adhere to any religious law. The dhamaal is an integral part of their religious experience. It is a carefree ecstatic dance in which a devotee loses control over himself or herself and is blown away by the rhythm of the music, much like Shiva’s tandava, in his form as Nataraja. The dhamaal is only one example of similarities between Sufi dervishes and devotees of Shiva. Like them, the dervishes too sit around a fire in the night consuming hashish or bhang. The ash from the fire in both these traditions is regarded as sacred and is believed to contain healing properties. Shiva, as a mahayogi, has dreadlocks piled on top of his head, and it is believed that the River Ganga flows out of his hair, signifying its spiritual powers. The Muslim dervishes too let their hair grow long. Their locks signify life-energy and are believed to contain magical powers.’
So despite all that has happened in the past and despite the complete and comprehensive ethnic cleansing that took place in 1947 clearly some subterranean continuities, howsoever unconscious, remain. If there is some merit to unearthing and highlighting these, as this book does eloquently, nevertheless larger questions also arise. The past and nostalgia perhaps offer fewer lessons for the future than is generally conceded. Lahore’s future is tied to its modern politics and to that of Pakistan’s and its citizens will have to awaken from the reverie evoked by the stories of its past syncretism.
Nitpicking in a review is a must. Would the absence of an index, to be expected in a book of this kind, fall in that category? I also noticed what is almost certainly an error of fact. On p. 194 it is stated that Jahangir’s mausoleum, when Lahore was capital of the Sikh kingdom, ‘was removed and shifted to a small space between Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque’ the area now known as Hazuri Bagh. Surely, the reference cannot be to Jahangir’s tomb which has remained where it always was and is to this day one of the great examples of our medieval architecture and aesthetic.
TCA Raghavan, a former diplomat and currently Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs, is the author of Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, Courtiers and Poets in Mughal India and The People Next Door: The Curious History of India-Pakistan Relations.