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Lahore reimagined

No history of Lahore, from this point onwards, will be considered complete without acknowledging its debt to this book

Lahore reimagined

The historian’s job is unenviable. He must deromanticise historical narratives, which in their essence, are often literary, with their roots in the archetypes, myths, legends, folktales, and epics which have been imagined mostly by poets but remain at the roots of all human discourse. To attempt a demystification of legendary historical characters such as Ashoka the Great, Aurangzeb Alamgir, and Adolf Hitler requires a re-evaluation of not only the existing narratives that glorify or vilify them, but also entails an approach that can at best be described as distanced and indifferent.

This task becomes even more uninviting when a historian, writing not from the comfort of his couch but from inside the more forbidding confines of academia, takes upon himself the task of writing the story of one of the most romanticised cities in human history. Much like Delhi, Lahore has been a mystical, mysterious, and mystified city, weaving in and out of the dreams of migrants, settlers, natives, rulers, subjects, mystics, poets, and the general flow of humanity that has inhabited it over the centuries, and has acknowledged the famous epithet: “Lahore Lahore Aye”.

Like Delhi, Lahore has been the subject of various novels, poems, and more recently, academic research. Like Delhi, it defies definitions that are purely theoretical and academic. Pran Nevile’s Lahore: A Sentimental Journey in the genre of the autobiographical, Noor Ahmed Chishti’s Tehqiqat-e-Chishti in the realm of research, Kanza Javed’s Ashes, Wine and Dust in the fictional, Bapsi Sidhwa’s City of Sin and Splendour in the form of a compilation of writings on the city, and Anna Suvorova’s Lahore: Topophilia of Space and Place in the realm of the purely academic and theoretical are some of the most important forays into chronicling the history of Lahore.

All these chronicles underscore the theoretical problem that Lahore remains a city which defies historicity. While Delhi’s romance lies in its cycles of rebirth after several destructions, Lahore’s majesty and magic lie in its permanence. To reiterate, the duality of the city’s dream-like mystique, and its reality as a constant centre of power, is a difficult terrain to negotiate for the academic historian. Professors Ian Talbot (of the University of Southampton) and Tahir Kamran (who collaborated on this book from his posting at the University of Cambridge) bravely venture into the liminal space described earlier, and present the resultant academic work under the title Lahore: In the Time of the Raj, published recently by Penguin Random House in India, and by Hurst & Company in London under the title Colonial Lahore: A History of the City and Beyond.

Lahore: In the Time of the Raj fills in the gap that historical narratives about the city often ignore… Not only do Talbot and Kamran reorient the focus on the British colonial period, their epilogue to this book rounds off significant post-colonial events, connecting the city’s past with its present.

Locating the discourse specifically in the period of British colonisation, Talbot and Kamran shift the focus from the traditional discussions of Lahore’s glory during the Mughal era Recent books like Anjum Rehmani’s Lahore: History and Architecture of Mughal Monuments continue to posit that the city’s golden period was the Mughal reign, and that it was during this period that the city was bequeathed with its famous landmarks. John Milton wrote of Lahore and Agra as cities of the Mogul in the 17th Century, indicating thereby that the Mughal Empire was recognised and known in the rest of the world.

However, the emphasis on Lahore’s Mughal identity actually has its origins in the city being a centre of power during Ranjit Singh’s rule over the Punjab. Since the Sikh ruler was rooted in the Punjabi tradition, he is relegated to the annals of historical amnesia as a king who mercilessly ravaged Lahore’s Mughal monuments, which are considered a symbol of the larger pan-Islamic Indian nationalism popularised in the latter half of the previous century. By creating this binary of Lahore’s Mughal architectural heritage as the bastion of resistance against Ranjit Singh’s allegedly anti-Muslim government, academic history has unfortunately ignored the important British period which changed the face of the city’s architecture, ethos, and culture in the same indelible way that the Mughal colonisers had done. Lahore, as we know it today, is a melting point of these two empires. Given that the current rulers are leaving their own imperial stamp on the city through various transport and infrastructure projects, Talbot and Kamran’s chronicling and analysis of the British Raj’s imprint on Lahore is a timely publication, which will henceforth form the basis of further academic exploration.


The volume demystifies the orientalist myth of a diseased and insular Walled City — tourism in the city still focuses on a sentimentalised remembrance of life inside the gates — by delineating the British identity of the Civil Lines, Donald Town, and the Cantonment, which all became part of the ‘built’ environment of colonial Lahore.

The arrival of the North Western Railway, with its headquarters situated in Lahore, made the city a centre of commerce. This further necessitated the administrative alienation of the old city, and the establishment of British-administered new Lahore as the modern and ‘built’ anti-thesis. The authors analyse the vibrant life of localities inside three gates — Bhati, Shah Almi, Mochi — to deconstruct this binary opposition. The point they emphasise is that these inner city lives also had the kind of political, cultural, and personal linkages and connections with the rest of India that the British appropriated as their singular contribution to the environment of the city.

The authors, perhaps advisedly, refrain from a direct reference to Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’. However, the discussion is pointedly critical of the administrators’ efforts to create ‘docile subjects’ who would learn to view their own city as a territory bifurcated into a cut-off, backwards-looking inner city, and a connected, progressive British part of the city.

One of the great strengths of this book is that Talbot and Kamran tap into several unexplored sources. These include the travel records of Thomas Cook & Son to highlight how the British travel business perpetuated orientalist stereotypes about Lahore. Mushairas and the stories around wrestling arenas (‘akhara’) also form part of the source material. The colonial sport, cricket, also created connections between various touring teams and the Lahore teams which toured the rest of India. These unique source materials reiterate the inter-city and intra-city connectivity negated by British colonial administrators.

Another important aspect that the book explores is the trading of ‘goods’. Analysing advertisements during the colonial period in the Tribune and Eastern Times (another original source henceforth little explored), the authors detail the wide variety of international products that were easily found in the markets of Lahore. Visiting the Anarkali Bazar, for example, became a status symbol.

Lahore: In the Time of the Raj fills in the gap that historical narratives about the city often ignore. Periodisation of history into pre-Mughal and post-Mughal periods results in a sweeping generalisation about Lahore’s various influences. Not only do Talbot and Kamran reorient the focus on the British colonial period, their epilogue to this book rounds off significant post-colonial events, connecting the city’s past with its present.

Despite its rather forbidding forty-seven pages of notes which one must repeatedly turn to, the narrative does not lose its tightly knit structure. The short conclusions at the end of each chapter emulate the motif of connectivity that is the underlying thematic unity of Talbot and Kamran’s argument. No history of Lahore, from this point onwards, will be considered complete without acknowledging its debt to Talbot and Kamran, and will derive from the seminal work that is Lahore: In the Time of the Raj.

Lahore: In the Time of the Raj
By Ian Talbot and Tahir Kamran
Publisher: Penguin Random House India
Pages: 288
Price: Rs1095

Mahboob Ahmad

The author is pursuing a PhD in English in the US

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