Lahore Coffee House

Raza Rumi (published in The Friday Times)

Before his death in July 2009, KK Aziz had accomplished one mission
that he had set for himself, i.e. to write about the Lahore Coffee
House, the glorious nursery of ideas. Luckily, despite his failing
health, Aziz finished a draft that was meant to be a shining part of
his autobiographical kaleidoscope. “The Coffee House of Lahore: A
Memoir, 1942-57” was published in 2008 and Aziz, in the opening
chapters, tells us about the genesis of his passion to document this
memorable phase of our contemporary history.

 

“Whenever an intellectual, cultural and literary history of Lahore (or
the Punjab and Pakistan) is written, the diverse circles which met and
discoursed in the Coffee House will have to be described in detail and
the ever-widening waves of their influence recorded. As nothing has
been written so far on the subject and I don’t see anything in the
offing, I give below a list of the important persons who I can
recall.”

Quite diligently, Aziz sets forth to list two hundred and six names
that would include a wide array of thinkers, scholars, artists,
writers and even some CSPs who obviously changed their life course
despite the influence of their Coffee House days. For those who want
to know about Lahore and its not-so-old diversity, KK Aziz’s memoir is
a must-read. It is perhaps the only serious work on this important
institution. Aziz has rightly mentioned in his book that the names he
lists and the personae he describes in his biographical sketches aim
to achieve four objectives.

First, that such a remembrance proves the ‘age of talent’ as it
existed in Lahore. Second, a faithful picture of Lahore in the 1940s
and 1950s emerges from the text. Third, that it provides the cultural
historians of the future with a primary testament; and finally at a
personal level, it shows how Aziz the historian and thinker was
influenced by this exciting and vibrant milieu. During the early part
of the 20th century, Lahore emerged as perhaps “the most highly
cultured city of North India”, to quote Aziz. With a wide range of
educational and cultural institutions and a composite society
comprising all faiths and religions and political ideologies, the
Lahore of today is no longer what it once was.

This eclectic mood of Lahore was best captured and represented by the
Coffee House. As Aziz tells us, the Coffee House was “for over 30
years, the single most important and influential mental powerhouse
which moulded the lives and minds of a whole generation, and its
legacy affected the careers of the succeeding generation”. It is odd
that the tea-drinking British were to introduce coffee houses in
India. Aziz takes us through the history of coffee-drinking as to how
it inspired the world to switch to coffee as a beverage of
intellectual invigoration. One aspect that he omits is that coffee
drinking was popularised by the Sufis who found the drink conducive to
their meditation and mystical elation. It is said that in the 1930s,
the Government of India created a Coffee Board to promote the sale and
consumption of coffee beans which were grown in South India, and hence
a coffeehouse was established in every large city of the Indian
subcontinent. Aziz comments that this was also the period of a
resurgence of communism and the rise of the Progressive Writers’
Movement.

“The British were tea-drinkers, so were the Russians and the Chinese.
But the leftists chose to issue their exhortations over a cup of
coffee. Even the otherwise cataclysmic partition of India in 1947
could not break this radicalism-coffee bond.”

Thus in Lahore, the India Coffee House and India Tea House, situated
150 yards apart, became the two most popular meeting places of the
literati and the radical intellectuals. Little wonder that Aziz states
that the Coffee House of Lahore, “entertained more leftists than I
found on the Communist Party office on McLeod Road”. We find out from
the book that before 1947, the leftist visitors of the Coffee House
included luminaries such as Sajjad Zaheer, Syed Sibt-e-Hassan,
Abdullah Malik, Safdar Mir, Zaheer Kashmiri and many others. The
Coffee House changed many sites but remained at the Alfred building
till the end. Its old site, off Mall Road, was later the location for
Pak Tea House , which survived until the turn of the last century,
before commercial imperatives became paramount and intellectualism had
to be abandoned in favor of greed.

The best part of this book, of course, is plain writing that sketches
the lives and personae of its regular habitués. For instance, my
favorite, Safdar Mir, the towering intellectual of our times, finds a
prominent place in the narrative. Aziz paints a rather intimate
portrait: unafraid of authority and uneducated public opinion, he
spoke his mind freely and persuasively. While a lecturer at the
Government College, he had his head shaved and smiling down the frowns
and boos of his 2nd-year students, continued to lecture calmly and
suavely. He was the best-read journalist of his age, and I know no
other man whose reach and understanding encompassed so many fields:
English, Urdu and Punjabi literature, Marxism, politics, the way a
society works and modern history. His hall-mark was a resounding laugh
which could be heard three rooms away. His eyes glittered with
merriment behind his thick lenses while narrating a funny story or
narrating a point in his argument, as if throwing a challenge to his
audience to produce a better one .

While browsing through the book, other eminent habitués of the Coffee
House also came to life. Men of letters, such as Chiragh Hassan
Hasrat, Zaheer Kashmiri, Aashiq Hussain Batalvi, Syed Abid Ali Abid
(whose biographical sketch is candid and a wee bit un-sparing) are
found walking on the streets of Lahore, sipping coffee at their
favourite joint and indulging in the world of ideas and discourses.

The death of the Coffee House and the burial of Pak Tea House have
coincided with the demise of discourse in Pakistan. We have done well
to acquire nuclear weapons and thousands of madrassas that preach
violence and hatred. But we have lost a culture that was based on
tolerance, peace and amity.

KK Aziz has done a great service to Lahore, Pakistan and the Indian
subcontinent by documenting an era that will never return.

 

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2 responses to “Lahore Coffee House

  1. I first came to SA in the fall of 1955 with my parents. My father held a position in Delhi with the US govt. I enrolled in St. Stephen’s College but was soon seduced by the energy and intellectual climate of the Delhi University coffee house. I learned more about SA, about the concerns of my fellow students, and about SA politics than in any other place. When I came to Lahore while doing the research for my PhD I asked friends where a similar place might exist. I was told there had been such a place — the India Coffee House — but that it was no more. I spent two years in Lahore where I had many good friends and much discussions about Pakistan, India, and the US but nothing like the wild arguments and free association of the University coffee house. I suspect this had as more to do with age than anything else. I was 18 in Delhi and in my 30′s in Lahore. Still I wish I could have found a similar venue in Lahore. I hope to obtain KK Aziz’s book. Like you I worry about the lose of tolerance, peace and amity that was dominant in my Lahore days.

  2. Hey, Raza, truly a compelling book, one of the many I read whilst I was in Lahore. Aziz himself was quite a complicated fellow, who began his historian’s life as a quite strong supporter of the Muslim League and his early writing reflected this. Later on in life he became quite embittered in terms of the national ideology of Pakistan and then began writing books such as the ‘Coffee House of Lahore’. Indeed, this change in his viewpoints is pretty much present in this book , as he constantly questions the ideology of the present in terms of the lives that he knew in the past. I found the pre-partition and just after partition sections most compelling. They convey the image of a Lahore as one of the intellectual and cosmopolitan nodes of the British colonial world.
    I am perhaps not so pessimistic to hope that Lahore would once again be able to take up that role, but only history will tell.

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