Dr Ajaz Anwar revisits Pran Nevile’s celebrated book on the pre-Partition Lahore
Nevile, born in 1922, would have been a centenarian today, had he lived four more years. He was amongst the vanishing generation that witnessed the youthful Lahore of pre-independence days when the city’s cultural history was still in the making.
My father, ANWAR, also born in 1922, in Ludhiana, who left his earthly abode on November 27, 2004, had similarly seen the turmoil here and across the border.
Lately, a general interest is developing in the oral as well as written history. While ANWAR, a cartoonist, wrote an autobiographical account, Nevile has penned what I consider the best book on the pre-Partition Lahore. Titled Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, the book took many years to complete, while the author was posted in different parts of the world on account of his diplomatic missions as an officer in Indian Foreign Service.
In Nevile’s other book, Carefree Days, published in 2016 in India, the author says how after his retirement in 1987 he started recollecting his life in Lahore that were eventually published by Allied Publishers Ltd, India, in 1993.
I happened to purchase a copy from Vanguard Books on The Mall. This I believe remains my best investment. The book has also been pirated and translated into Urdu without the author’s knowledge or permission. This happens in both the countries. The divide is more rigid because of different scripts. My father’s book too has been transcribed in India and its titles has been changed (I am privy to this thanks to some friends who sent me a copy).
The original copy by Nevile compelled me to write a letter, with which I dispatched a booklet of mine containing images of my paintings of Old Lahore, requesting the publisher to forward it to the writer. Prompt came the response, by post. Incidentally, Nevile’s father and my grandfather had both served in the postal department. He profusely praised my work, perhaps because he was getting nostalgic about Lahore. Now that he had compiled and published his own memoir, he wanted to revisit the city. Later, he told me that he did not want to visit the city while he was still mentally compiling the events because he did not want to be shocked by any changes that might have occurred to Lahore.
He had vivid memories of his childhood and early youth. In the book, he stresses on the fact that the more recent events often got blurred but the distant ones had remained etched in his memory.
Eventually, he landed in Lahore in December ‘97. I had visited Chandigarh four months earlier, but I could not stop over in New Delhi because it was not my port of entry, even though I was a state guest there and had a ‘non-reporting’ visa. Also, I was guarded against visiting my place of birth, Ludhiana; it being in the Punjab. Although my hosts offered to drive me to the city in an official van, as a law-abiding guest I declined the offer. I am tempted to mention my Urdu-speaking Japanese professor, Asada, who wouldn’t use her cellphone when she’s visiting Pakistan.
Nevile has dedicated Lahore: A Sentimental Journey to his parents, Pt Barkat Ram and Smt Puran Devi. In the first edition, it was also dedicated to the memory of his many friends including Saeed Ahmed Khan whom Nevile on a visit to Lahore had reunited with in a tearful meeting. (By the time the 2016 edition of the book came out, Khan had been included in the ‘departed souls’ list.)
The book includes a preface and an introduction that are followed by articles or short pieces on the cultural life in the city of Lahore. These include Shopping in Anarkali; On thandi sarak in a tonga; A time for fun and games; Bo kata, a tragic fall from a rooftop on a Basant day; Romance on the Housetop; Fazal — the ace pimp; Splendours of Heera Mandi; Going to the cinema; KL Saigol visits Lahore; Mafia dons, Minstrels, Malangs and Mendicants; Government College: Those were the Days etc. He seems to have a special nostalgic longing for the great institute of learning.
At the end, from Page 228 to 235, you have an annexure that gives information about the various college facilities, fee structure, and the staff. HA Dunnicliff was the college principal, and GD Sondhi the vice principal in Nevile’s time. The residences of the staff, the hostels and messes for the students are also detailed. This part of the book also tells you that the college’s rowing club had 17 boats anchored at the Ravi River.
A select bibliography lists many books on Lahore including those written by SM Latif, F Aijazuddin, Baqir, Kipling, Talbot and Thornton. It also tells you that the Lahore district gazetteer was compiled by Walker G.
At the end you find a three-page glossary of local words arranged in alphabetical order which, apart from being a useful appendix for the foreigners, is also interesting for the natives because many of these words are no longer in common use though they are not dead either. For instance, achkan, akhiyyan, akhara, baithak, bhaand, chaubara, and chhapparr.
Nevile wrote most of the book soaking in the scholarly atmosphere of the India International Centre Library, Lodhi Gardens, New Delhi.
Vintage photos of Lahore’s cinemas, marketplaces and historical places arrest the reader’s attention.
The book also offers an interesting anthology of advertising slogans and sketches of the time such as “Hidayat nama -i-khawand,” matrimonial notices, premieres of films at cinemas like Palace and Prabhat etc. Incidentally, Nevile’s love life was also the kind of stuff films are made of: he is said to have eloped with the woman he loved and who was to become his wife.
The book makes a detailed mention of the Faletti’s hotel; its proprietor, J Faletti; electric lights and ceiling fans in the rooms; and a staff that understood and spoke French, Italian and German.
A page from the 1935 Guide and Directory of Lahore has an advertisement of Dhyan Singh and Sons who are described as “Sculptors specialising in Italian Marbles and tiles;” “Austin SEVEN, the most economical car;” “Imperial Airways for London;” “Raleigh, the all-steel bicycle, speed with safety;” and “Nanda Bus Service to Srinagar.”
There are newspapers clippings to be found. These carry headlines on events of the time such as Britain declaring war on Germany; published in The Tribune, on September 4, 1939.
The book has been duly acknowledged by Khushwant Singh, himself a Lahori.
Next week’s column is on Pran Nevile’s many visits to Lahore
(This dispatch is dedicated to Rahul and Anshuman Nevile, Pran Nevil’s son and grandson, respectively)
Note: Free art classes, all ages and genders, are held every Sunday at the House of NANNAs.
A Sentimental Journey
Revised edition, 2016 (Originally published in 1993)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at email@example.com