Writing a city that was

March 8, 2020

Another book on Lahore that promises to be a literary history of the city but turns out to be a lot more

As a city Lahore is much written about. There are memoirs of all sorts: sentimental journeys, historical and architectural accounts of a city that was, and so on. Two years after he published his first book based on conversations with Intizar Husain, Mehmood Ul Hassan has come out with his second book, a tribute to his favourite city. But Lahore: Shehr-e Pur Kamal, a 140-page thin volume which you are likely to finish in two sittings, is much more than a eulogistic account of the city. Though he is not the first one to write one, it can rightly be described as a literary history of the city,that like all good books also serves a wider purpose.

It records the impressions of three greats of Urdu literature, who called this city home, about Lahore. They were forced to leave it at the time of partition and could never return. Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Kanhaiya Lal Kapoor, who were also contemporaries, began their creative journeys here. Through the book, we are, in a way, reintroduced to these authors whose stories were set in the very mohallas and streets where they lived their lives and worked, met with friends, and gained fame as writers.

Mehmood Ul Hassan is a walking-talking encyclopedia on books and authors, publishing industry and cricket alike. His earlier book gives us a taste of the special relationship he enjoyed with Intizar Husain. His day job as a literary journalist gave him a chance to publish individual essays on these three Lahori writers in a newspaper. There was enough in those essays to be elaborated along with some other scattered material and put together in a book form, which he has now done.

Dedicated to Maulana Salahuddin Ahmed and Nazir Ahmad Chaudhry whose lives intersected with the three writers, the book has a fine introduction by none other than Shamsur Rahman Faruqi who sets the tone of what is to follow. Faruqi reminds us of what writers and poets, artists and architects can give a city, gives examples of cities like Lucknow and Delhi, and builds a case for the unique and special status that Lahore enjoys in comparison.

The sense of Zeitgeist in the book is both a celebration of pre-partition diversity and a sad reminder of what the partition took away from the city. The loss, evoked in the memories of these writers, is equally felt in the place that became barren once they left.

The apocalyptic events of partition that brought in its wake migration of writers on both sides of 1947 became a subject of great discussion, especially the question of ‘national’ literature. Language too, it seems, was divided along religious lines, and in this part, at least the contribution of non-Muslim Urdu writers was sidelined, if not completely ignored. This is where the book Lahore: Shehr-e Pur Kamal becomes important because it excites our curiosity not just about the city, but also about its ‘Hindu’ and ‘Sikh’ writers and their works.

The book is not just all sombre nostalgia. An endearing anecdote is narrated by the writer in his introduction to the book. In 1976, Ismat Chughtai came to Pakistan and was surprised to see devoted fans of Krishan Chander everywhere. Ismat wrote that it was Eid day when a flustered young boy came to meet her on a bicycle, told her he had driven fourteen kilometres to meet her and had had great difficulty finding her house. All he asked her was: “Krishan Jee kaise hain?” [“How is Krishan Chander?”]. She told him he was fine, after which the boy immediately left.

The book draws lively sketches of the three authors, where they are shown communicating with other literary luminaries, going back and forth between their places of residence and offices, their schools and colleges, and talking about the works that earned them fame. Some of the neighbourhoods are indeed immortalized in their stories.

There are important discussions, too, for instance, progressive writer Krishan Chander’s views on Iqbal have the potential to ignite a new literary debate.

There is a lot of value in the pre-partition history recounted through the lives of these writers. Bedi who used to live in Dabbi Bazaar remembers a brutal incident of communal violence from his childhood that rendered him literally dumb for some years. His fascination with Bhagat Singh’s movement as a boy of 14 or 15 is an interesting phase of his life, and so is his meeting with Krishan Chander. The chapter on satirist Kanhaiya Lal Kapoor captures the mood of the city before and at the time of partition and contains some significant anecdotal references of those times.

Mehmood Ul Hassan is not just a collector of books and manuscripts; he is a keeper of our collective cultural memory. We should expect more such refreshing works from him in the coming years.

Lahore: Shehr-e Pur Kamal

Author: Mehmood Ul Hassan

Publisher: Qausain, 2020

Price: Rs500/

Pages: 140

Mehmood Ul Hassan's Lahore: Shehr-e Pur Kamal gives literary history of city