Making & breaking

Making & breaking

Lahore in the Time of the Raj,
Ian talbot & Tahir Kamran,
Penguin,
2016, pp 269,
Rs. 599

Lahore was once the shining star of undivided North India, a glittering crown that was the hub of trading, higher education, culture, architecture, travel and freedom struggle, but soon the glory of the city known as the Paris of the east was to end with one swish of a sword called Partition.

Lahore was the seat of Mughal power long before the East India Company annexed Punjab, but it was the British that left their mark on the city. Lahore in The Time of The Raj, by Ian Talbot and Tahir Kamran, is a scholarly work that chronicles the city’s incredible journey under the colonial rulers. Unlike historians like Ramachandra Guha who have romanticised the past in their works, this book, which meticulously records the events of the period, would be of immense interest to an academician than a general history buff.

In the Mughal era, the city’s strategic location at the junction of the roads to Kabul, Multan, Kashmir and Delhi made it a seat of power, but the turning point came with the inauguration of the railway station in 1862. The eye-catching edifice not only served to move troops and goods, but was also a gateway to a large number of migrants who became the key to Lahore’s growth and transformation.

During the British Raj, Lahore was a prosperous and cosmopolitan city. As early as the 1920s, a model town came up outside the traditional walled city of Lahore, with parks, streets and bungalows. Touted as the most celebrated colonial development, this soon became the template for all new towns in the subcontinent. Though a bounded city, old Lahore did not allow its darvazas (gates) to become impenetrable barriers. Instead, they served as egress to the outside world. This was symbolised by the naming of two of the city’s famous 13 gates, Delhi and Kashmir, after the direction they faced.

These gates, and the public spaces around them, played a significant role in shaping Lahore’s political and cultural history. The Mochi Gate was the nucleus of political activity and served as a gathering point for Muslim League rallies in support of the demand for Pakistan in 1940. Lahore’s film industry took birth at Bhati Gate, which drew on the skills of the artists, musicians and writers of the locality.

The construction of Civil Lines and Cantonment provided new opportunities as Lahore emerged as a leading administrative, educational and communications centre not only for Punjab but for the entire North India. By the close of the colonial era, Lahore had 300 institutions of higher education in the field of arts, science, medicine, engineering, teaching and veterinary science.

As trade boomed, Lahore was called the chief city of trade in all of India, and its connectedness to the world introduced it to globalisation, with the wealthy emulating European consumption patterns by buying foreign cars, western clothes, fountain pens, gramophone records and Swiss watches. As early as 1923, cars were available on hire purchase with Chevrolet offering a monthly instalment of Rs 240 for those who could not afford the price of Rs 3,600.

Rail and sea connectivity saw hordes of travellers descend on the city from across the world, the most prominent being Queen Victoria’s grandson, the future George V, and the Princess of Wales. Advertisements for hotels in 1913 indicate that French, Italian and German were spoken in the region. Though Imperial Airways connected to Lahore, the airliner regarded mail rather than passengers as its core activity. In 1938 Christmas season, over 200 tonnes of mail was carried by the airline.

Migrants drawn from all religious communities contributed not only to the city’s economic growth, but also to its cultural development. The 1857 revolt in Delhi saw a large-scale migration of poets to Lahore. With the British patronising Urdu, the mushairas of Lahore left an impression throughout North India. The city also played host to reputed musicians like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who resided inside the Mochi Gate.

Lahore also did not lag behind in the freedom movement, though as the book points out, its role in the international revolutionary struggle against the British empire is largely overlooked. The city played host to the Ghadar movement, Arya Samaj and Sikh Sabha, among others. It was here that Bhagat Singh and his accomplices were sent to the gallows.

However, the British departure from India violently ended the colonial chapter on Lahore’s long history. With Partition, Lahore, a multi-ethnic melting pot, now part of Pakistan, became a Muslim city and lost its cultural and commercial links to the world. Over the years, the city has declined in every sphere that it once excelled in: administration, trade, industry, cinema, tourism, culture and sports, quietly slipping into near-oblivion. A sad story, indeed, of a city that once held immense promise for the future.

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