Updated: March 14, 2020 10:05:09 am
The British Raj ensured freedom of expression to Indians and, in the second quarter of the 20th century, this resulted in the flowering of modern Urdu literature in Lahore. Why Urdu and not Punjabi? Because Lahore was, historically, the nursery for a new “invasive” Persian expression and was, therefore, the court language of the great Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh who had captured the city in 1849. Under the Raj, it became the cradle of a new Urdu expression influenced by European and Russian literature.
Over time, Lahore became the publishing capital of India and printed Urdu magazines with circulation reaching across India to Burma, where the last Mughal king had been exiled. The other cultural centre with a similar reputation was Bombay, where the Indian film industry was taking birth, midwifed by great screenplay writers in Hindi and Urdu, including a Lahore genius, Saadat Hasan Manto. Manto’s friends in Lahore were, among others, three great writers — Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Kanhaiya Lal Kapoor.
In his book, Lahore: Shehr-e Pur Kamal (Lahore, a City of Genius, 2020) Mehmood Ul Hassan narrates how three Hindu and Sikh men of Urdu literature ruled the hearts and minds of Lahore, wrote and ran their publishing houses and were read by a secular-literate population of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
Chander dominated the budding cinema industry in the city as a counter to Bombay, writing scripts featuring the life of all cultural gatherings in the city. In 1976, when the Indian writer Ismat Chughtai visited Lahore, some friends of Chander wept as they recalled him. Before his death, in 1977 in Bombay, Chander wrote a tearful letter to a friend in Lahore to say how much he missed the city of his youth.
Bedi, whose novels “created” a new style of writing in Urdu, began life as a lowly clerk in a post office while working as one of the editors of the famous literary magazine, Adab-e-Lateef. He was soon employed by Lahore Radio, where he wrote scripts for popular dramas — a genre that was catching on because of him. He also wrote film scripts on a salary of Rs 600 a month.
By the time Partition happened, he was running his own publishing house in Lahore’s Model Town after his novels like Ek Chadar Maili Si, Dastak, Garam Coat and Phagun had become Urdu classics. When rioting started in 1947, he sent his family to Ropar to live with his brother, but could not stick around anymore when the violence increased. He landed up in Simla with his family, in time to save a Muslim family in his neighbourhood from a lynch mob.
Lahore had become the centre of taraqi-pasand (progressive) Urdu literature, which was carried aloft by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs together. But what was remarkable was that the non-Muslims of Lahore left behind more meaningful memoirs of abiding love for the city. Bedi admired Rabindranath Tagore and was fascinated by him when Tagore visited Lahore in 1938 to seek funds for Shantiniketan. Bedi’s last days in Bombay are recorded by his Muslim friends from Lahore who visited him there. Lahore city, where Bedi lived out his creative days, was to change after 1947 although the afterglow of the literary utopia created by the likes of Chander and Bedi was to last till the 1980s. Urdu literature started packing up and was replaced soon thereafter by ideology.
Kanahiya Lal Kapoor was a Punjabi who did his MA in English — alongside the famous Balraj Sahni — from Government College Lahore under the principalship of the great humourist, Patras Bokhari. When rioting started in 1947, and Hindus and Sikhs began to be killed in Lahore, Kapoor refused to leave, unpacking three times after being persuaded by his friends to leave. Just like Manto in Bombay.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 14, 2020 under the title: ‘Memory Of A Literary Utopia’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan
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