By Ahmad Rafay Alam
I was born into one of those families that presumes one completes their studies in a Western university. And so it was that I found, like the many other Pakistani law students who read law in the United Kingdom, preparing for my bar qualification as a student barrister at Lincolns’ Inn. Though the bar was dreadfully boring and, as I later discovered back home, totally irrelevant to the Pakistani legal system, I was lucky to find accommodation in the Goodenough Trust’s William Goodenough House in London’s quiet McLenburgh Square.
Under one of the terms of the trust governing the William Goodenough House, accommodation is open only to post-graduate students from outside the United Kingdom. This was refreshing because, in place of the drunken undergraduate shenanigans common at other student accommodation, “Willie G” offered an amusing alternative in the drunken shenanigans of international post-graduate students.
Willie G had quite a few Pakistani residents. United, I suppose, by a shared social and cultural background, we forged the type of deep friendships one forges when they live thousands of miles from home. Of course our revelry came at the cost of our grades. I once heard an admissions tutor comment about how it was dangerous to recruit more than a dozen Pakistanis into any academic program: “They form a cricket team and never do any work.” Though we never formed a cricket team – a good idea, in hindsight – the sentiment echoes true enough.
It was when I was in Willie G that I met and became friends with Martand. Martand was from India, and for a Pakistani like me he was a great way to get to know about India, the country next door that figured so prominently in defining what my country was. At the time, I had never been to India. I had no notion of what India was like or what Indians were like other than the opinions I’d picked up in school text books, novels, television, the press, movies. You get the picture. Like anyone else, I suppose, I was coloured by the prejudice of history. In the case of India and Pakistan, nothing attracts more prejudice than the fractural events of Partition.
Martand was studying to become an architect. Despite our academic pursuits, we hit it off immediately. Of course, as inevitably happens, we made some social connections. Martand and I had been paying guests, although at different times, in the same apartment in Queensway. Then we found some more interesting ones. His maternal grandfather, Bisham Sahni, the great Hindi writer, was a contemporary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the legendary Pakistani poet. I learnt that both his grandparents and my father shared the same alma matter, Lahore’s famous Government College. I learnt that part of Martand’s family were from Lahore, and had been forced to flee to India during Partition. I’ve always been a proud Lahori, a vekhiya tay jamiya nahin (if you ain’t seen it, you ain’t seen nothin’) sort, and his connections with the city of my birth, along with his wit and intelligence and the fact that my girlfriend got along with him, made my relationship with Martand stronger.
Still, it was a shock when, one evening Martand barged into my room at Willie G and said, in mock outrage “Oi b*** ch*d, you’re living in my fu**ing house!”
Mr and Mrs Mehmood Alam, my paternal grandparents, shifted to Lahore some time about Partition. Mehmood Alam was quite a tennis player in his day. He was a contemporary of Delhi’s Prem Pandey, amongst others, and has the distinction of being the only person to have played Wimbledon as an Indian (1938, where he lost in a qualifying round) and as a Pakistani (1948,where he qualified but didn’t get much further than that). I mention the tennis because it was his dexterity with the racquet that got him a job at Bird & Co., the largest trading house in India at the time. During the build-up to Partition, the company decided to send Mehmood Alam, who was a manager at the firm’s Delhi operations, to Lahore. Mobs were setting about Muslims in Delhi. Best to have a Muslim manager for Muslim Pakistan’s Lahore, they must have thought. Prudent.
The Alam’s initial stay in Lahore was brief. Within a few months of being transferred, my grandfather was hired by the Associated Cement Company (Bird & Co. did the marketing for ACC), and was sent for training in Bombay. It wasn’t until 1953 the couple returned to the city and they have lived in it ever since.
The move wasn’t easy. Families that had opted to migrate to Pakistan were compensated, if that is the correct term for this situation, for what they had left behind. What they were often compensated with, and this is why the word compensation isn’t quite right, was the properties millions of Hindus and Sikhs who, having found themselves overnight religious minorities in a hostile Muslim majority country, left everything in their life behind when fleeing the violence of Partition into the relative safety of India. After Partition, with the flood of mohajirs into the newly formed Pakistan, there was a rush of compensation claims. Given that, in the words of a New Yorker of the time, the maturity of the Pakistani establishment could be likened to a gang of enthusiast novices, these compensation claims succumbed to manipulation. They became politicized and, even quicker, the source of great corruption.
That political machinations of the compensation system wasn’t the all of it. For Mr and Mrs Alam – now the parents of two children with a third on the way and anxious to find a home to settle into – what all this meant was that there weren’t any good houses left to pick from.
My grandfather is one of those old school Muslim gentlemen who thought themselves modern if they didn’t insist their women cover their heads but balked at the thought of women exercising “their independence” any further. My grandmother, Surraya Alam, is one of those old school Muslim ladies who thought themselves independent if they challenged female stereotypes but would, eventually, always yield to their husband’s final opinion. A keen tennis player in her college days herself, Surrayya met Mehmood at a tennis match and, from what I gather from family lore, set her eyes firmly on him. When their affair was finally discovered by her father, Mehmood did the honourable thing and they were married. On her husband’s direction, however, Surrayya never played tennis again.
Young, athletic and beautiful, the Alams were embraced by post-Partition Lahore’s social circle. If Lahore’s social circle is small now, it must have been tiny in the early 1950s. Mehmood opted for membership of the Gymkhana after deciding that the relatively more exclusive Punjab Club’s “No Dogs or Natives” mentality wasn’t to his liking. By regularly playing at the Club’s manicured grass courts and dining and dancing in the magnificent clubhouse situated in the heart of Lawrence Gardens, Mehmood Alam rubbed shoulders with the bureaucratic and political elite. Chief Secretary and fellow tennis buff Akhtar Hussain was very helpful in arranging young Mehmood Alam a tour of the remaining houses in Lahore’s evacuee compensation pool.
The first house my grandparents toured was located near Lawrence and Mason Roads. It had somehow been occupied, in my grandmother’s words, by “people so backward they didn’t know how to use the electricity. They were sitting in the living room twirling a stick tied to the fan. They didn’t even know how to turn it on.” Despite having been years since Partition, the house was still “fully furnished.” My grandparents described it as surreal. There was a dinner service on the dining table and, in a study in an annex in the back, a glass of water lay on a desk as if someone had just risen to answer the phone. “I told them I didn’t want a house like this,” my grandfather told me. Now over ninety, he stiffens whenever he talks of Partition. His eyes gaze away. Although he never talks about it, he must have witnessed some of the madness. He certainly doesn’t like thinking about it.
The next house my grandparents saw was in Zaman Park, which is tucked away between Aitchison College and the Canal and is now also the area where, incidentally, Imran Khan lives. Since it was available, the Alams opted for it and set about renovating it. After fairly costly civil works and on no less the day they moved in, someone claiming to be the owner of the property showed up at the doorstep. It turned out the property wasn’t in the compensation pool at all. It had been requisitioned by the Indian government during the Second World War and its owner hadn’t been compensated. When asked why he chose to crawl out of the woodwork at such a late stage, he replied he liked the renovations and had waited for them to be completed.
Eventually however, it was Qurban Ali Khan, the SP Delhi before Partition and now the IG Police of the new Pakistani Punjab, who was instrumental in getting my grandparents a place they could call their own and where they could raise my family. Khan Sahib, who was later the Governor of NWFP as well as Baluchistan, had known the young Alam couple from his days in Delhi and their friendship had grown in Lahore.
The house eventually found was on Mall Road, between the Canal and the Cantonment. It was part of the compensation pool but some powerful bureaucrats had set their eyes on it and were refusing to vacate it. According to family lore, and this is quite a measure of the type of officer he was, Qurban Ali Khan had to get the Chief Minister, Nawab Mumtaz Daultana, himself to arrange the eviction. This is how, after several years of living in a variety of flats, friends’ homes and rented bungalows, the Alams found themselves a home in Pakistan. According to the Record of Permanent Transfers kept by the Board of Evacuee Property, Mehmood Alam was transferred a 2½ acre plot with a large two storey bungalow in the middle of sprawling gardens located at 90 Upper Mall in November 1959.
Another figure in the Alam’s social life in post-Partition Lahore was Mr. Manzur Qadir, the brilliant lawyer, later Foreign Minister of Pakistan and well documented friend of pre-Partition Lahori social figures Khushwant Sing and G.D. Khosla. According to one of Khushwant’s many reminiscences, Manzur Qadir actually stood guard over his house when his wife and he fled the city to Delhi. He stood at the gate of their residence, armed, challenging any looter who dared set foot into his friend’s home. And it was Manzur Qadir who, as Foreign Minister, arranged for all their belongings to be carried over the border and restored to their original owners.
Auntie Asghari, Manzur Qadir’s wife, had opened the only pre-school in Lahore ostensibly to impart the Montessory Method but, in reality, as a means to provide social interaction to her sons who, having been born without pores, couldn’t otherwise interact with children their own age. She had originally asked Surrayya, whose children were roughly the same age, to help out. It seemed like a good idea, and it developed into another close relationship the Alams fostered in Lahore. Initially, however, old-school Muslim that he is, Mehmood refused to let Surrayya work. When she persisted, he finally relented, provided she didn’t accept any salary (in his mind it couldn’t be said she was actually “working”).
The school was first located in Manzur Qadir’s home behind Lawrence Gardens. But when Mehmood was allotted the 2½ acres at 90 Upper Mall, it seemed a good idea that the school relocate. The “Toddler’s Academy” has been operational for over half a century, and has been located at 90 Upper Mall since just about anyone can remember. The school was successful in part because of Auntie Asghari and Surraya’s ingenious idea to open the first kindergarten in Lahore and in part because it tapped into the high-end market where all the parents know each other or have enough money that it doesn’t matter. As a result, the roster of children who have passed out of “Mrs. Alam’s school” now reads as much of a who’s who as it does a wanted list.
My father, the eldest of Surrayya and Mehmood’s children was married in the front lawn of 90 Upper Mall. So was my sister and, after I convinced my girlfriend to come to Lahore to work as a lawyer, so was I.
The house is huge; large enough to allow my grandparents and two generations of their offspring to live comfortably while in the kindergarten over 100 toddlers are given their daily dose of music, art class, gymnastics and other devices prescribed by the good nurse Maria. In the Seventies, my grandparents constructed a block of two apartments in the back garden, which they put on rent. The flats are now occupied by my aunt, the potter Sheherzade Alam and Mehmood and Surrayya’s second child, who lives in the first-floor apartment, and by my immediate family, which lives downstairs. There was enough space left that my uncle Shaban, Mehmood and Surrayya’s youngest child, has built his home, a two storey flat, in one of the side gardens. And none of this has taken an inch from the kindergarten playground.
I’ve lived in the back of 90 Upper Mall for the better part of my life. While it’s amusing to wake up every morning to the strains of a hundred toddler’s counting to 100 or repeating their ABCs, let me tell you, nothing’s better than growing up in a house with its own swings, slide, merry-ground, sand-pit and tuck-shop. The house has been thoroughly lived in this past half-century, and is now firmly associated with my family, the Alam’s of Upper Mall.
When she left Lahore to spend the summer of 1947 in Simla, as the families of the judges of the Lahore High Court did every year, Shakuntala Khosla had no idea she would never see the city of her birth again. The wife of a High Court judge, she had only just won the ladies singles title at the grass courts of the Lahore Gymkhana. The club had offered to loan her the trophy for a short period, but she declined. She was confident enough in her game to say that she would take it from the club permanently if she won again the following year.
Shakuntala was the daughter of Bawa Natha Singh, a canal engineer in the service of the British Raj. Having risen to the post of Chief Engineer of Canals, Bawa Natha Singh tucked into his savings and bought himself some land outside Lahore, on the other side of the Canal and near the railway track that marked the outer limits of the Lahore Cantonment.
The plot he bought was located on the Mall Road, the tree-lined avenue built by the British in the early 1860s, and testament to whose beauty and splendour is the fact that it is mentioned in the literature of Kipling, Manto and others as the thandi sarak. The road was the link between the city and, five kilometres away, the Lahore Cantonment. So affected by the events of 1857 were the British that they thought this segregation was the least they could do to keep the politics of the bazaar from the ears of their troops.
Thus around the mid-1920s, on this tract of land some five or more acres in size, Bawa Natha Singh built his family a stately home surrounded by gardens. Then, in a stroke of genius that would make him a rich man, he constructed another six bungalows around the house and put them on rent. Being the Chief Engineer Canals and having the Lahore Canal only a few hundred meters away, water was not a problem. In fact, because of the water supplied to the Bawa Natha Singh house and to others in the vicinity, the area took the name Bawa Park. Eventually, when the land fell under the control of the Lahore Improvement Trust, the house was given the number 90 Upper Mall.
In 1928, Shakuntala was married to G.D. Khosla, a promising young Additional District & Sessions Judge, in her father’s newly built house. Although she never lived in it – AD&SJ Khosla was posted in various districts in the Punjab – Shakuntala remembers bringing her young children up in the sprawling gardens flowing from the courtyard of 90 Upper Mall.
Later, G.D. Khosla was elevated to the Lahore High Court and the couple moved their family into their official residence at 7 Club Road, GOR (this house still stands, and is now the official residence of the District Commissioner of Lahore). Life was pretty good as a High Court judge, as I was told by his son, Inder Pal Khosla. “It was a nice, leisurely breakfast at 9am, in Chambers hearing cases till 1pm, then to the Club for some lunch at about two.” But G.D. Khosla was much more than a High Court judge. An eminent and distinguished jurist, he was also a prolific author, penning several books of fiction and history, most notably the Partition classic Stern Reckoning. Given the volume of his output, one can see he wasn’t a man who idled his afternoons away. Shakuntala told me that, while they were still living at 7 Club Road, her husband hired a carpenter from “the art college” (the Oriental College of Arts, now the National College of Arts) to teach him some carpentry skills. The eight-seat dining table, chairs and two cabinets that now stand in her house in Delhi’s Maharani Bagh were all made by her husband, Mr. Justice G.D. Khosla. They are remarkably well finished, and evidence a patient and skilful hand.
In the summer of 1947, Inder Pal Khosla, told me, there was “talk” there would be violence at the Partition. But the Khosla family dismissed it as nothing more than bazaar gossip. It was only as late as July that it became clear that the threat was real and they needed to make a decision fast. I don’t think anyone had any doubts which way things were going to be. G.D. Khosla and family opted for India.
Because of the threat of violence, Shakuntala never returned to Lahore to collect her belongings. Instead, G.D. Khosla himself drove down to Lahore, rented a few trucks and, with the assistance of his friend Manzur Qadir, collected all his belongings from 7 Club Road, GOR. Ever the friend’s friend, Manzur Qadir personally stood as he collected his bags (and all the table and furniture he had made by hand). On the way back out of the city, G.D. Khosla stopped by 90 Upper Mall and collected some of his father-in-laws belongings. That was the last time a member of the Bawa Natha Singh family set eyes on the house.
After Partition, Justice G.D. Khosla and his family lived in Simla, Mussorie and, finally, Chandrigarh when the High Court shifted to the new capital of Indian Punjab. G.D. Khosla eventually retired as Chief Justice of the Punjab High Court and spent the remainder of his years in his Delhi’s Maharani Bagh. His youngest son, the architect Romi Khosla is my friend Martand’s father.
It was April 2000 when Romi was in London for work and came over to visit his son in Willie G. Over dinner, Martand told his father how he knew someone – me – in the building who was from Lahore. Romi had actually visited 90 Upper Mall some years earlier when he had visited Lahore. He had been shown around the city of his birth and his grandfather’s house by Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s daughter, the artist Salima Hashmi. He remembers coming to 90 Upper Mall and meeting some people who lived there. “One was a potter” he told Martand. “Last name Alam or something.” The penny dropped.
I bloody live in Martand’s fucking house.
Martand and I tell this story every time we meet people together. We’ve gotten quite good at it. Depending on how far into the night an evening has progressed, we can spend anywhere between five and 30 minutes talking about how we discovered I lived in Martand’s house. There are endless permutations to each facet of this story. “I want rent,” Martand will shout at me, right after its been used as an ice breaker to introduce me to new friends. I’ll throw in a flippant retort about how I’m a lawyer and will see him in court. Sometimes Martand will feign lament over how I live in a house with sprawling grounds – he’s come to visit Lahore twice, and both times enjoyed himself so much that he fell ill – when he has to face the insane property prices in Delhi.
Has the story made us better friends? Of course it has. For us, the story is interesting because of the sheer coincidence of it all. Every time we tell it, we’re also point out, at some level, the absurd and arbitrary nature of the result of Partition. If it weren’t for Partition, 90 Upper Mall would have remained a Khosla house, and I wouldn’t have the identity that I have. And retelling the tale so often, I now associate Partition with how my family came to live in Martand’s house, or with the coincidence of all the characters in the story were all linked to one another’s life.
The rhetoric of Partition has always been characterized by loss and violence. Yet, in writing this or reflecting the story of 90 Upper Mall, I can’t but think of Partition in terms I’m familiar with: The story of 90 Upper Mall. Maybe this is because I’m one of the earliest post-Partition generations that didn’t grow up with first-hand experiencing the aftermath of the event. I consider the decades that separate my birth from 1947 as buffers against the prejudices history.
A shorter version of this piece appeared in Vogue India