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I always pity those who were not fortunate enough to be born in Lahore, or to live here, or in the end to die here. For Lahore is more than a city. It is an amalgam of all those elements – history and geography, art and architecture, literature and poetry, culture and gracious living – everything that is uplifting, everything we associate with civics and civilisation. 

To know why Lahore has such an adhesive effect on our loyalty, you have only to open Majid Sheikh’s latest book – 101 Tales of a Fabled City.

This book is like viewing Lahore through a hundred and one windows. Each of Majid’s brief essays opens to provide the reader with a different view of the city, its character, and its composition.   

Majid, as most of you know, writes a weekly column on Lahore for DAWN. All the pieces he has included in this book have appeared there, spread over years. For those addicted to his writing, this book is a handy and valuable aggregation of articles that one has read once before but may want to re-read, or may have missed the first time around, and therefore need to trace without having to scour DAWN’s archives section.

Most of us who write regularly for newspapers know that our pieces have a short shelf life. Today’s article is tomorrow’s waste-paper. That is why we succumb to the vanity of having our pieces re-printed in book form.

Majid’s collection follows a pattern set (amongst others) by E.M. Forster whose Two Cheers for Democracy contained essays, articles and broadcasts written by him over fifteen years, between 1936 and 1951.  Even though the book was published over sixty years ago, it is worth reading even now for its style, perception and wit. 

Closer to home, and closer in time, M.J. Akbar’s book Byline published ten years ago, is an anthology of his periodic writings in Indian magazines and newspapers. MJ holds strong opinions on a number of issues and while the embers of his remonstrance still glow from the pages of his book, there are some opinions that I suspect he would prefer his readers to skip over in India’s present political climate.  

One I can think of is a piece he wrote in March 2002 after the massacre of Muslims at Godhra in Indian Gujarat.

It begins: ‘Narendra Modi has done enough to win the highest honour that a nation can give. Not our nation. What the chief minister of Gujarat truly deserves is the Nishan-e-Pakistan. There are at least two Indians who, to my knowledge, have received this high honour from Islamabad, the late Morarji Desai and Dilip Kumar.   Neither served the interest of Pakistan remotely as much as Modi has done in the last four weeks. […]  If President Pervez Musharraf has not yet sent a thank-you letter to his benefactor in Ahmedabad, then the President is remiss.’

Brilliant as a piece of contemporary journalism, but fatal if one was then to importune for a seat in the Rajya Sabha from a BJP prime minister who happens to be – Narendra Modi.

Majid Sheikh in his articles sensibly steers clear of such dangerous quicksand. He deals with apolitical events, discusses topics that have a historical patina, and describes personalities about whom the only controversy could be why they are not remembered more often.

Through his pen, he restores to life names like Justice Sir Shadi Lal, Lala Lajpat Rai, Sir Ganga Ram, Dr Nazir Ahmad, and even Gama pahlvan. He snatches from the jaws of obscurity a name we should remember – the poet Jagannath Azad, the son of a Lahori poet Tilak Chand Mahroom. 

Majid recounts how days before the creation of our country, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah commissioned Jagannath Azad to compose a national anthem to coincide with its birth. Within three days it was ready. It received the approval of the Quaid and an official notification was issued.

No sooner had the Quaid died than his successors decided that they could not sing an anthem composed by a Hindu. Other compositions were solicited, and out of 723 submissions, Hafiz Jullundhri’s poem was selected, and that highly Persianised (i.e. Muslim) text is the one we have been singing ever since.

In his book, Majid reminds us of the cosmopolitan mix that characterized the population of Lahore. He deplores as we do the extinction of the Parsi community. But that is just one minority community. The Hindus have all but disappeared; the Christians are being threatened beyond endurance; and the Sikhs are accorded a politically motivated lip-service.

I noticed that a large number of articles – about 15 or so out of 101 – are on Majid’s favourite period of Lahore’s history – the eventful, tumultuous years of the Sikh Kingdom of Lahore under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his successors. As that is also my area of specialty, it is with more than an ordinary interest that I read Majid’s coverage of the Princess Bamba collection in the Lahore Fort, of the depredations of the royal toshakhana by the Dogras and then the British, and of the colourful careers of two ambitious Sikh women – Rani Chand Kaur and Rani Jindan.

You will certainly enjoy - as I did - his biographical sketches of Ranjit Singh’s firanghis – Dr Martin Honigberger, Paolo Avitabile and Jean Francois Allard, whom my ancestor Fakir Nuruddin buried in Kuri Bagh, now located behind a bank in Old Anarkali.

If I was to choose a single rose to represent his entire garden, I would opt for Majid’s essay: ‘A heap of corpses has no religion’. It is about the late Sheikh Mubarik Ali who inspired Majid’s investigations into Lahore’s history.

Majid recalls:  ‘[Sheikh Mubarik Ali] became a good friend and because of him I started writing every week about old Lahore almost 16 years ago.  Till the end he remained a source of information about oddly named ‘gallis’, or ‘katras’, or ‘gharris’ , or ‘khoos’, or the hundreds of other places that make Lahore among the finest old cities than humans have inhabited.’

Sheikh sahib had a similar impact on me. I used to visit his shop inside Lohari gate in the late 1960s and 1970s. There I sought rare books I had seen and consulted but longed to possess. More often than not, I would find copies lying on his shelves, often at ridiculous pre-1947 prices. Sheikh sahib never charged more than the price printed on the inner flap. That was the kind of scrupulously honest bookseller he was.

I too, like Majid Sheikh, enjoyed his spartan but open-hearted hospitality whenever I visited that shop. I could therefore imagine vividly the scene Majid describes so poignantly in his essay:  ‘Every time I dropped in, he left everything aside and ordered a cup of tea. We chatted and I sought information about old Lahore. When I went to his ‘qul’ on Friday, his daughter broke all religious protocol and gave me a cup of tea. She added in tears: “This was the last thing he said.  Always give Sheikh sahib tea without sugar when he comes.” 

Majid Sheikh’s book is like Sheikh Mubarik Ali’s hospitality – an open invitation to learn about the city we live in and love – without the distracting taste of sugar.

I had spoken earlier of the how we writers feel about our articles, no matter how regularly or frequently they may appear in newspapers. No one expressed our shared predicament better than Muhammad Asad, a convert to Islam from Judaism and later Pakistan’s first envoy to the United Nations. Asad was a stringer in the 1920s for the German paper Frankfurter Zeitung.

He complained once: ‘Every time I send off an article, it seems as if I am throwing a stone into a bottomless well; the stone disappears into the dark void and not even an echo comes up to tell me that it has reached its goal.’

Afzaal Ahmed sahib of Sang-e-Meel Publications has ensured through this fascinating publication that the echo of Majid Sheikh’s articles on our fabled city will continue to be heard for a long time. They will be heard for as long as Lahoris have eyes to read,         the sense to appreciate the richness of our heritage, and the civic sense to preserve our history, as Majid Sheikh has done in this book. 




Avari Hotel, Lahore, 26 April 2015  

28 April 2015
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