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A success story

Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni’s life in his memoirs

A success story

Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni’s (1863-1948) memory was confined to GC University’s Chemistry department until his great granddaughter Neera Burra brought out his memoirs for public consumption.

Lala Ruchi Ram was a renowned alumnus of the Chemistry department of Government College Lahore where his elegant portrait embellishes one of the walls of the office of Department’s Chairperson. Later, he was one of the most inspiring teachers of that institution as well. He was a meritorious scientist whose services in popularising science in the Punjab were widely lauded. The book entitled A Memoir of Pre-Partition Punjab was edited afresh by Neera and published by Oxford University Press Delhi, which, to my reckoning, is quite useful for the students of Punjab’s history as well as for general readers.

This book tells the story of a self-made man who had sheer talent and will to sustain and survive. That of course was possible only through hard work and self-belief. Undoubtedly, it is one of the best autobiographical accounts I have ever read. It is written in lucid and accessible style and language — a laudable feature of the book.

That is not only a memoir of a person but is a comprehensive history of an era which was most crucial for both Punjab and its capital; Lahore. More importantly, in Pakistan not much has been written on that period. Thus, the book will fill in a big knowledge gap that exists regarding the social history of the region. More so, the era the book is concerned with was important in one peculiar sense: The Khatri Renaissance in the Punjab province. Khatri Renaissance was indeed a phenomenon which astounded many including British themselves.

I have already argued in some of my articles that the annexation of Punjab in 1849 brought new opportunities for the people of the province. Modern education, laissez faire economy, new system of governance, political stability made the circumstances quite conducive for the ambitious and the talented. Such people were found in great numbers among the Khatri castes and clans from the Hindu community.

That is not only a memoir of a person but is a comprehensive history of an era which was most crucial for both Punjab and its capital; Lahore. More importantly, in Pakistan not much has been written on that period.

Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni was an avid representative of that particular stratum. One should also be mindful of the fact that under the British, things had not always been favourable for the Punjabi Hindus. For the  Punjabi Hindus who were residing in the urban areas, difficulties were compounded particularly when Land Alienation Act was passed and promulgated in 1901. According to that act, Urban Punjabi Hindus were barred from owning agricultural property because, according to several analysts, British had enforced the rural urban divide among the Punjabis just to safeguard the interests of the landed elite of the province. Sahnis too were no exception to those circumstances.

Sahnis originally came from Bhera, a small but historic town of Shahpur district but Lala Ruchi Ram’s father moved to Dera Ismail Khan for business purposes where Ruchi Ram was born on April 5, 1863. Dera Ismail Khan then was part of the Punjab province (North West Frontier Province was separated from the Punjab only in 1901). His father had a flourishing business and, as a kid, Ruchi Ram was also imparted basic training of running his family business.

Unfortunately, his father’s business came to grief and they fell on bad days. His father was left with no choice but to send Ruchi Ram to school. At school, he was a precocious child and passed every exam with flying colours. At Dera Ismail Khan, education beyond grade 8 was not available as there was no high school. Therefore, he was admitted to the High School in Adhiwal in Jhang, which was situated on the other side of the river Indus. In that school, he got an inspiring teacher in Babu Kashi Nath Chatterjee who was also the headmaster of the school.

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Much to Ruchi Ram’s despair, Kashi Nath Chatterjee retired and he was succeeded by “another man who was as incompetent to teach the high classes of a school as Mr Chatterjee had been able and keenly interested in the progress of his students”. Therefore, Ruchi Ram decided to go to Lahore where he had learnt from someone that the Government School had a very able staff of teachers.

Thus, he set out from Jhang and, via Chichawatni and Montgomery, arrived in Lahore on October 24, 1879. At the Government School (currently known as Central Model School), which was housed in Raja Dhayan Singh’s Haveli, he managed to convince the headmaster, Mr J.D. Staines to grant him admission and also to help him in transferring his scholarship from Jhang to Lahore. It was at this school that he met Pandit Shiv Narayan Agnihotri who taught drawing and mensuration there.

It was at his behest and motivation that Ruchi Ram joined Brahmo Samaj. Brahmo Samaj was a reformist organisation, founded by Raja Ram Mohan Rai in the 1820s in Calcutta. It had modernist character; therefore it professed Western education and condemned superstition. Gradually, that organisation gained popularity and its branches were opened up in every nook and corner of India, including Lahore. Educated Hindus gravitated to that organisation in large number. Ruchi Ram remained an ardent member of Brahmo Samaj throughout his life.

After having passed his Entrance examination held in 1880, he joined Government College Lahore in 1881. In his memoirs, a lot of space has been devoted to Government College Lahore, and the phases of evolution that it underwent in 1880s and 1890s have been graphically described. Ruchi Ram belonged to the 2nd batch to pass the Punjab University BA examination in 1884. Thus he saw much of the institutional development in the province with his own eyes that adds considerable value to the book. At Government College, his close interaction with luminaries of the calibre of Dr. G.W. Leitner, Mohammad Hussain Azad and Mr. J Campbell Oman makes the narrative extremely interesting and informative.

While still a student, Ruchi Ram was recruited in meteorological department as assistant meteorological reporter to the government of India but he continued his studies at the Presidency College Calcutta. His stint at meteorological department was quite eventful but, after a couple of years, he came back to his alma mater (Government College Lahore) as Assistance Professor in Sciences. He kept on serving his alma mater till his retirement in 1918.

As it has already been said, the book provides good insight about the Indian National Congress and its influence in the Punjab. Similarly, Ruchi Ram’s initiative of establishing The Punjab Science Institute and his endeavours in popularising science are commendable features of his personality. But one striking aspect of the book is the specificity of its focus on the Hindus of the Punjab. The sense that oozes out of the narrative is the increasing communal polarisation in the province. Ruchi Ram had sympathy with Sikhs but he seldom alludes to his interaction with Muslims except on very few occasions. Thus the representation of the plural and eclectic tradition of the Punjab seems conspicuously missing in the book. 

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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