August 09, 2020
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On An Ancestral Trek

A Punjabi adage: one who hasn't seen Lahore hasn't been born. A birthday boy's account.

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On An Ancestral Trek
On An Ancestral Trek
As I looked up the scroll of medallists (1922-1945) at the Veterinary College in Lahore, Punjab, I found the name I was looking for. Mela Ram Sharma. My paternal grand-uncle and a gold-medallist, 1925 alumnus. He is no longer in this world, Lahore is no longer in India and the college has been elevated to the status of a university. The vice-chancellor, principal and his colleagues helped me spot his name out. And there were flashes of cameras around to record that moment of ours looking momentarily into the eyes of history.

Then I discovered one Mela Ram Road in Lahore, close to the legendary Anarkali Bazaar near Bhatti Gate. If you think it was named after my grand-uncle, then you are deceived. It was named after the great 19th century elite Rai Bahadur Mela Ram who owned a spacious haveli in that locality. His son Rai Bahadur Ram Saran Dass, a great patron of the arts, celebrated all major Hindu, Muslim and Sikh festivals with great fanfare at his bungalow. The illustrious list of invitees included Allama Iqbal, Sir Abdul Qadir, Raja Narindranath, Sikandar Hayat Khan and Sardar Joginder Singh. Rai Bahadur Mela Ram was one of the key contractors when the Lahore-Amritsar railway was being laid out in 1880.

Bringing the railways to this 'Pearl of Punjab' meant laying waste to a large number of mosques, palaces, gardens and other old city monuments. For four decades till the arrival of Lord Curzon, a lover of Indian archaeology, the Britishers tried to expunge every Mughal or Sikh sign from Lahore to make military barracks, schools, hospitals and railways. But overall, they enriched the architectural heritage of the city in a remarkably unconventional 'Mughal-Victorian' style: The Lahore College (where Iqbal studied), Foreman Christian College, Lahore Railway Station, among other buildings, are a testimony to this fact.

Before Partition, Hindu-Sikhs comprised 70 per cent of the city's population and owned an equivalent share of urban assets. Though there are few Hindus or Sikhs now, some important roads like Sundar Dass Road and Mohini Road, localities like Laxmi-Narayan Chowk and buildings like Dayal Singh College and the Library still stand—without being renamed or the plaques defaced. In fact, Pakistan traces the roots of Lahore to Luv, Lord Ram's elder son.

Of course, the Islamic hand worked. An independent Pakistan converted the Race Course into a park as horse-racing and betting are un-Islamic... but so is drinking (this one for the late Yayha Khan and Faiz Ahmed Faiz who virtually used to wake up drunk). Compared to New Delhi, one finds Lahore idyllic and laidback. Vehicular congestion is low and slums do not quite botch up the cityscape. The city doesn't have many industries, perhaps that explains why its population doesn't burgeon.

Lahore is made of history. It was the capital of undivided Punjab for a thousand years and a grand one at that. Empress Noor Jehan said, "I have purchased Lahore with my life. By giving my life for Lahore, I have actually purchased another Paradise." Lahore evokes nostalgia. It is magical and ingrained in our collective psyche. This feeling is not specific to Punjabis. Nobel laureate S. Chandrasekhar was born here in 1910; late painter Bhavesh Chandra Sanyal ran his famous Lahore School of Fine Arts between 1936-47; Rash Behari Bose, who decades later commanded the ina, had plotted from this city a military insurrection against the British Empire.

The Raj-era Lahore was a vortex of intellectual, cultural and political life in Punjab. Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha, Lahore Conspiracy cases associated with the Ghadar movement, Lala Lajpat Rai's martyrdom, Bhagat Singh's assassination of Saunders, the Purna Swaraj Resolution of 1929, Bhagat Singh's martyrdom, all touch a raw nerve in our memory enshrined in one word—Lahore.

I was born in the village of Lalowal, Gurdaspur, a day's walking distance from Lahore, but alas, two years after the Partition. And that made a world of a difference. As a child, the fabled city held a mystique for me. I first heard my great-grandmother Dhanno speak fondly about the enigma called Lahore, which was so near till yesterday and now had become a foreign land overnight—an ugly reality she found difficult to comprehend. It is where her fatherless and resourceless sons Mela Ram (of Veterinary College) and Sukhdayal (of King Edward Medical College) had gone and come back from as "big men". "One who hasn't seen Lahore," she would often repeat the old Punjabi adage, "hasn't been born." The family owed its upward mobility due to opportunities and facilities offered by the city.

Mela Ram, born a few months after the death of his father, joined Punjab Veterinary Service and rose to its higher echelons. His elder brother Sukh Dayal, a doctor, was also a success in his profession but reached India penniless after Partition and settled in Dehra Dun. Unable to get over the loss, he died comparatively young. Most families in Punjab have a saga punctuated with extreme sacrifices, heroic deeds for the family or community and occasional betrayals.

Dhanno's brother-in-law Pundit Kripa Ram, with his immaculate white beard and eyebrows, looked like a sage of yore. He entertained us with tales of Lahore, which he used to visit periodically for procuring supplies for his village shop till Partition happened. To him, Lahore was the last word in civilisation and though he did enjoy living in Delhi at the fag end of his life, he could not take Punjab and Lahore out of his system.

I reminisced about all this at the Wagah checkpost while visiting Pakistan recently as part of the 60-strong safma delegation. We received a rousing welcome from the Pakistani side. As Robert Frost noted, "Good fences make good neighbours." But the chasm between India and Pakistan notwithstanding, positive civilisational divides never ran deep till the eruption of Kashmiri militancy in 1989. Now, the atmosphere at the border was euphoric and nothing in the air betrayed the fact that the countries had fought three bloody wars.

It must be the waters of Ravi flowing through the canal that transects Lahore. I couldn't visit the river on whose banks the Purna Swaraj Resolution was moved in 1929. Destiny had chosen an ironic venue indeed. When the 'Purna Swaraj' dawned upon India, Lahore remained inches outside it. In fact, it had been widely anticipated that Lahore city would be awarded to India by the Radcliffe Commission and the river Ravi to its west would form the natural boundary between the two independent countries. That was not to be.

Now to the present. Ahead of Mela Ram Road on the northwestern edge of Lahore but central to the concept of Pakistan stands the 60-metre-high Minar-e-Pakistan. It was built in 1968 as a commemorative memorial at the spot where the Muslim League had demanded a separate homeland for Muslims on March 23, 1940. The most recent addition to the city's architectural landscape is the plush Lahore International Airport, which replaced the old, ramshackle one just six months ago.

Divided Punjab retains its rich traditions of warm hospitality. We were treated to a ceremonial multi-cuisine dinner with traditional Punjabi gusto by Chowdhry Pervez Elahi, the chief minister of Punjab, at the British-era Freemason Hall now converted into a government guest house. Singer Ghulam Ali weaved magic with his melodious ghazals. For a moment, it hardly seemed we were in an alien land—same food, same warmth and same faces. But howsoever we might speak of our common past, of similarities between the two countries, or friendship, we must realise that Wagah is our Lakshmanrekha.The Partition is final and irrevocable. Our clamouring for Lahore is no more than sentimental Greeks pining for Constantinople.

(The writer, a Rajya Sabha MP and convenor of a BJP think tank, can be contacted at
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