Under familiar skies

October 29, 2023

Jamile Naqi’s ode to Lahore and Lahoris

Under familiar skies


t has been said that once a Lahori, always a Lahori. In other words, being raised in Lahore means one will have the city in one’s heart no matter how long one lives away from it. They will return to the city as if to a mother’s embrace. This was clearly the case for Jamile Naqi as one reads through her book Though Much is Taken Much Abides, which is a strictly Lahori book.

Having moved to New York in 1979, Naqi returned in 2006, five years after the 9/11 tragedy when “There was no longer a warm ‘Hello, how are you?’ as we passed each other in the corridors [of the workplace]. Instead, there was an averted gaze.”

The book is an anthology of articles published in a local paper. It is divided into seven sections, namely, A Context of Two Cities, Lahore, The Way We Were, Under The Shade, Regional Flora Fauna And Us, Conversations and Miscellaneous Essays.

When Naqi did return, it was as if she had never left, for she seems not to be upset by the changes the city had undergone. Instead, we find a rejoicing of the old life of the time before she left in the 1970s. She takes the reader touring the clubs of Lahore and tells us that the word gymkhana comes from gend (ball) and khana (house). And one had always believed that it was from the Greek gym – naked or scantily dressed because of the shorts the sahibs and mems of the Raj would have worn for tennis.

Clubs, her alma mater, Kinnaird College, and the parks of Lahore make for a lively read. Naqi’s optimism strikes the reader as the pages turn: there is no feeling of hopelessness and loss. There is only a celebration of what Lahore once was and her remembrance of this lively city. In this celebration, she sees all that is still good in Lahore.

Throughout the book, Naqi wears different hats. She is the old-school raconteur who tells us that the word soap comes from the fictional Mount Sapo, where ancient Romans offered burnt offerings to their several gods. The fat mixed with ash from the fires washing down the slope was a good cleansing material, so soap was created. Then she shifts into historian mode to tell us that soap was first used in Babylon about 2500 BCE.

There is still so much left to celebrate in Lahore that many no longer notice as the city transforms itself virtually on a daily basis. 

The book recalls that old fancifully tasselled fan hanging from the roof in pre-electricity havelis worked by a servant sitting outside the room pulling and releasing a rope to swing the apparatus. The last of these might have disappeared from rural homes about fifty years ago, and if Naqi had not preserved this quaint memory, we might have lost all memory of it.

And then, with equal ease, we see the writer switch to natural mode to bring the magic of the spreading banyan tree alive. Or that of the jamun (jambolanum) that can only be found now in Lawrence Gardens and Jam-i-Shireen Park in Gulberg. Besides those few that still hang on for dear life along The Mall and in spots on Canal Bank. Her plaint resonates with anyone who values indigenous flora: “Unaware of its benefits, homeowners have cut down jamun trees from their lawns complaining shedding leaves make a mess and fruit stains ground purple. We need to educate ourselves about our indigenous trees and the value they add to our life.”

Who would have known of Waqas Khan, who won the Jameel Prize in Britain and his long journey from Okara, where his father was a dealer in sugarcane products? Though old Lahoris are acquainted with the Mohkam Din and Sons Bakery in Neela Gumbad, the young generation who hang out in fast food places would do well to read this volume and perhaps sample the bakery’s rich plum cakes.

Again, the most prolific and learned of writers, Muzaffar Ghaffar, would have remained unsung had Naqi not interviewed him. For seventeen years, without any institutional help, this remarkable, soft-spoken man organised weekly sessions at the Model Town Library under his own Lahore Arts Forum (LEAF). He gathered writers, artists, storytellers, photographers and singers here. In a word, he single-handedly and from his own purse tried so hard to keep the cultural scene of Lahore alive – a scene for which this city was once famous. It all came to an end due to this wonderful person’s failing health.

As the title of the book goes, there is still so much left to celebrate in Lahore that many, myself included, no longer notice as the city transforms itself virtually on a daily basis. Jamile Naqi’s work helps us recognise that much still abides. One can but only admire her optimism for the city of her birth.

Though Much is Taken, Much Abides

Author: Jamile Naqi

Publisher: Paramount Books, 2022

Pages: 204, Hardcover

Price: Rs 995

The reviewer, a fellow of The Royal Geographical Society, has authored many books. He tweets @odysseuslahori

Under familiar skies