Dr Ajaz Anwar on why Nicholson Road was so named
n the early 1960s, as a young lad I cycled from Rawalpindi to the Youth Hostel in front of the Taxila Museum. My floating ribs started itching involuntarily. As I peddled over the steep slopes, I desperately needed a break. Soon I saw an obelisk-like tall monument beside a portion of cobbled road from Sher Shah Suri’s era.
It turned out that it had been built in the memory of John Nicholson, an Anglo-Irish officer in British East India Company’s army who was mortally wounded by Kale Khan, the topchi who was defending Kashmiri Gate during the siege of Delhi. The builders of the monument were the nawabs of Wah.
This piece of information aroused my curiosity, especially because we used to live on Nicholson Road, Lahore, and our landlords had been the most benevolent nawabs from Wah.
The small stretch of the road outside Gujjar Singh’s fort, built over a hillock and having two tall banyan trees, seemed most appropriate to be named after the controversial Nicholson. I believe that it might have been suggested by M Hayat Khan.
In this age of internet it is not difficult to find more about the history of the family. That this small part of the road — which stretches from the Empress Road crossing up to McLeod Road — should have been named after Nicholson, where later Nawab Muzaffar Ali Khan built a mansion in the early 1940s, leaves some queries unanswered. This piece of land was previously occupied by an old dilapidated bungalow where a motor workshop was run (as related by some old-timers). The new building had a tube well for water supply and septic tanks for toilet waste.
A very large ground was left behind this L-shaped building for children to play. When Tahira Mazhar, our landlady, moved here, she proved to be a great environmentalist. She laid the foundation of a big botanical garden in the open space, and even had organic chicken farming.
Tariq Ali, who later led the combat with the goon police of Kalabagh, played cricket with us. He was one restless soul. He was escorted out of Pakistan and wrote his first book, titled Street Fighting Years — An Autobiography of the Sixties. Later, he took to writing about the ‘Reconquista’. His famous novel, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, caught my fancy and I named one of my paintings of that compound after the title of the novel.
It is also said about the family that their great forefathers accompanied the Arabs who had settled in Hispania.
Nicholson Road crosses the prestigious Empress Road that connects the Governor’s House with the Railway Station. The largest number of churches is located here. These include Naulakha and Don Bosco. The Railway Headquarters was located on a piece of land leased from the Qizilbash family whose palace is also to be found right across the road.
Incidentally, Lahore’s most revered shrine — Bibian Pak Daaman — is also located nearby. Thanks to the Railways, a large number of Christian and Anglo-Indian families came to reside here. Many Parsi families including the Kandawalas and Gandhis too lived here. The Gandhis ran a wine shop in a beautiful building called Suraj Mahal. This place graciously allowed pedestrians to enter its green area and cross over to the adjoining McLeod Road.
Daulat Ram Street was named after a leading ophthalmologist. The prominent bungalow at the end of the street also had access to the road behind it which housed the Toosi family. This family was friends with the Nawab of Kalabagh.
Manohar Street was famous for hand-knotted carpets. In a corner, Nanda Building was home to a family that ran a transport service to Srinagar. Much of the historic district has been torn down by the Orange Train blitz. Now train riders can freely peek at the half-demolished sleeping chambers of the unfortunate occupants who were never adequately compensated.
Muzaffar Mansions was sold and knocked down in 1983, and an ugly plaza built in its place where the two peepal trees have been cut down to usurp more public land. The private tube well and the septic tanks are all gone.
The Kinnaird School for Girls, founded at the crossing, was later converted into the Kinnard College and an Irish lady, Joan McDonald, appointed as its first principal before the college was relocated to Lake Road. Diagonally opposite to it, Dyal Singh Majithia built a hostel for the students. Sadly, this evacuee property was converted into Haji Camp. A large chunk of its land was usurped by another private party under the sacred name of Ayesha Siddiqa College. This historic district had the largest number of banyan trees and was therefore named Bohr Wala Chowk. Lahore’s oldest dairy that provided pasteurised milk was based here in 1913. It was famously called Model Dairies. It was here that in his later years Nawabzada Nasrullah came to reside. Lahore’s biggest flea market (Landa Bazaar) also came up around this place.
Nicholson was a racist. He hanged many a ‘disobedient’ Indian, without allowing them any trial.
Nicholson joined the East India Company army at a young age and went on to participate in many battles against the Afghans and Sikhs. In a skirmish with the Sikhs, circa 1848, he got badly wounded. It was here that Karam Khan from Wah district helped him out. A wounded Nicholson is said to have written on a piece of paper with his own blood that Karam Khan be duly rewarded. It was in memory of this rescue that a monument was erected by the family.
After Karam Khan was killed in his sleep by his half-brother who had sided with the Sikhs, Khan’s two sons were adopted by Nicholson. One of them, M Hayat Khan, accompanied Nicholson to the siege of Delhi.
In Delhi, in 1857, Hayat raised a large lashkar of Afridis. He was quite young at the time. Born in 1833, he lived until 1901. On the recommendation of his ailing officer cum friend, Hayat was given the Mutiny Medal which he proudly wore across his chest. Besides, he was posted as a police officer in various districts, and rose to be a magistrate.
Hayat wrote many books in Persian about the Afghans. He proved an efficient administrator and rapidly rose to high ranks as a police officer and a civil judge. The title of Nawab was bestowed upon him towards the end of his life.
Hayat contributed a lot towards promoting education among the Muslims. He was friends with the great educationist, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.
The suggestion to rename the road after Nasrullah Khan is tantamount to erasing the memory of our valiant freedom fighters during the full-fledged war against their colonisers, especially Kale Khan. As long as this stretch of the road is named after Nicholson, future generations will keep on digging and ultimately arrive at the information about our struggle.
Changing names does not alter or deny history. A more horrid example was set by changing the name of the nearby Gujjar Singh da Qila into Qila Shah Faisal. They even tried to change the names of localities including Dharampura and Krishan Nagar. Shara’-i-Bin Bandees is the new name of Empress Road.
A postman is never transferred. The only letter he receives during his entire service reads, “You are permitted to retire.” That’s because he knows everyone in the locality. If you change the names of the roads, he won’t be able to deliver your letters.
Athar Tahir, a senior officer and a former commissioner of Lahore, had strongly opposed the changing of names.
(This dispatch is dedicated to my childhood friend Tariq Ali)
The writer is a painter, the founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org