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Book Review: The Illustrated Beloved City – Writings on Lahore

Published in SHE Magazine / March 2013
Edited by: Bapsi Sidhwa
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Bapsi Sidhwa
is an award winning author, essayist and playwright who recently edited an anthology that takes a sweeping view of the ‘Paris of the East’ which is a time traveler’s guide through Lahore based on the recollections of several narrators.

The montage shows the city, a survivor of world wars, under a monarchy, occupation or Raj, between dictators, a victim of pillaging and partition, and beyond. These excursions provide wonderful snapshots of Lahore - ‘a city of untold monuments’ at different junctures. Their collective musings used to commemorate a great city are housed within a structured format, divided into seven parts – each holding a precious set of testimonials from various eras.

It is the Lahore of yore. Kipling, Faiz, Manto and Iqbal hail passerby’s - Ismat Chughtai relives the days when her book was put on trial - Manto joins the hilarious charade. Krishen Khanna talks of a bygone era where ‘relationship between members of different communities’ are described as ‘free flowing and not rigidly determined’.

The memories are bittersweet. Friends and foes become interchangeable. Some ask for a moment of silence for lost souls.

The same passage describes ‘the social fabric’ of the city up till 1947 as a ‘complex unity’ adding ‘…that this was finally shattered is evidence not of its fragility but of the powerful political forces at work.’ Others search for meaning in Kipling’scity of dreadful nights’, ‘....the pitiless destroyer of youth and beauty – the Punjab hot weather.’ Spirited personalities unleash a cascade of memories that depict the city through the ages. Each channels a different medley of realism and fantasy, dreams and nightmares.

It is Lahore at its most ostentatious. E.D. Maclagan in ‘The Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique in the Panjab, 1641’ visits Emperor Jahangir’s court refusing to elaborate on the 12 dancing girls as ‘a subject unfit for Christian ears’ detailing the sheer grandeur and extravagance of his surroundings instead.

It is Lahore at its most charming described as ‘…the city of cheerful people who love unconditionally, without reserve, ‘the heart of the Punjab’'. A little further ahead Khaled Ahmed reflects upon its ironic history in ‘Pavement – Pounding Men of Letters: Intezar Hussain’s Lahore’;‘ ….the one set of people truly innocent of all communal prejudices were the communists – Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims bound together in humanity and by Marxist ideology’.

As they sift though the crumbling old city and the still standing old gates, the faded colours are revitalized. Archived images line the vintage walkways.

Minoo Bhandara who once found himself sitting next to Ava Gardner in Regal Cinema finds an array of characters occupying memory lane including Faiz described as the ‘epitome of the leftist pre-Partition culture, but a lost soul in the Pakistan that followed.’

The contrasts can be startling.

Bapsi confesses that ‘…this metropolis with its checkered history and historical sites was compressed into tiny pockets of familiarity: they provided me with many of my characters.’ Excerpts from her acclaimed works have been added to the collection. A new generation of writers also expound upon their relationship with the City.

Minoo’s essay takes a final look back concluding that ‘…the span between the Lahore of Kipling and Faiz and ours today is vast. But while differences appear profound, there are significant continuities’. It is not all gloom, doom and despondency in the City of Many Lights’, he decides, ‘…some things do remain the same.’ (‘Ava Gardner and I: post Partition Lahore’)

Their words provide a window into the soul of a magnificent old city that has stood the test of time. ‘The Illustrated Beloved City – Writings on Lahore’ is a joyous ode to a noble spirit. Lahore’s most treasured moments lie within its vaults.

Images courtesy of: Link 1

Link 2


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