By Ammara Ahmad
The Friday Times : 15 Jun 2018
One of Lahore’s most famous pre-Partition dwellers talks to Ammara Ahmad about his writing, life and, of course, Lahore
Ammara Ahmad: Did you leave Lahore at the time of the 1947 Partition?
Pran Nevile: No, two years before it. I got a job with the Government of India. I was doing my Ph.D.
I am a first-class Economics Honours from Punjab University. I went to Delhi after the competitive exam. I got a good job. I was coming to Lahore every month from Delhi in 1945 – 46.
AA: Your family must also have an escape story from the Lahore of 1947?
PN: My siblings had arrived earlier but my mother and father had a very narrow escape. They left their entire home and came empty-handed to Amritsar, with great difficulty. They arrived by train and it took them fourteen hours. There was a lot of stabbing on the station.
Nevile with his wife Savitri Pran
AA: How many siblings are you?
PN: Only myself and a sister now. Earlier we were three brothers and two sisters.
AA: Earlier you said that you don’t like to think along the lines of “our times were glorious”…
PN: No. I don’t like to talk about it [that way], you see. Because what interest has the younger generation got in it if we say “our times were such”? If they ask about it, then it is different.
AA: Would you at least like to talk about the things that have remained the same in Lahore?
PN: The landmark of Mall Road Lahore is the Dinga Singh Building, which is still very much there, as it was in my time. That dominates the whole of the Mall even today. There is no building to match the Dinga Singh building especially because I knew the family – Dinga Singh’s son was my very dear pal. We were three pals – myself, Baba Sunder Singh (son of Dinga Singh) and the third was Saeed Ahmed Khan, son of Khan Bahadur Dr. Yar Muhammad Khan, Principal at King Edward Medical College.
Saeed Ahmed Khan was very close to me. There was also Arshad Mahmood and there was Masood. He was a poet, also. He used to write as Masood Ahmed Mushtaq.
Nevile as a young man in pre-Partition Lahore
“I am charmed by the younger generation. I have nothing against them except that some of them have been influenced by fundamentalists. I feel sad about it”
AA: How has Government College changed since your days?
PN: Government College of my days didn’t have a mosque. The majority of the students in my days were Hindus because Hindus were ahead in education. Admissions were done on merit. Fifty percent on merit and the other fifty percent for title holders – Khan Bahadur, etc. The students of Chief’s College got automatic admission. The whole college didn’t have more than 500 students. Now there are over 6,000. It was a prestigious institution in the whole of the Subcontinent. The tuition fee of the Government College was more than that of the Presidency College Calcutta.
AA: Do you remember some of the girls in the Government College?
PN: There were no girls. There was no coeducation.
AA: But were they not allowed at the Masters Level?
PN: Yes in Masters they were allowed but which girls reached the Masters level anyway? Most girls used to get married in Matric!
?The Dinga Singh Building on Regal Chowk, Lahore – circa 1922 and today
AA: What about Kinnaird College?
PN: The girls of Kinnaird were more advanced and modern. They used to perform plays in the open-air theatre. Shakespearean plays. It was a big event for us to go and watch the beautiful girls there.
AA: You didn’t try to get a girlfriend from Kinnaird?
PN: I was too young and those girls were beyond reach because it was not common for girls to mix with boys. And the girls who were in MA were not good-looking. Because only those girls made it to MA who weren’t ‘picked up’ for marriage. In MA, one could talk about books, etc. There were seven girls there.
AA: Earlier you said that perhaps Lahore was more emancipated when it came to women back then…
PN: In those days, yes because we couldn’t find young girls in other parts of India cycling, going to college, etc. We had so many girls’ colleges already in the 1940s.
Nevile with his classmate Saeed Ahmad Khan
AA: Did the cinemas, theatres and other performances have women in the audience?
PN: Yes. Girls used to come and watch in groups – but not with boys. They would gaze at us and we would gaze at them.
AA: They wore skirts?
PN: No skirts. But of course, they never covered their heads.
AA: There is this idea that Lahore was predominantly a Hindu city before the Partition, whereas the Hindus were actually just one-third in population…
PN: No. Lahore the city was dominated by Hindus. You see, the Mall Road just had two buildings that belonged to Muslims – the Shah Din Building and the Ferozesons. And the shops: out of a hundred shops, there may have been two or three owned by Muslims. Anarkali Bazaar had only half a dozen Muslim shops, the rest were all Hindu. But district-wise the Muslims were in majority. And the landlords were all Muslims, you see. Who had big lands? The Tiwana family, Sikander Hayat. The families had big bungalows around Lahore. But the educated middle-class was majority Hindu.
AA: How has the ethos of the city changed?
PN: The majority was Hindu. The culture was common. The visual arts – Muslims were ahead in these, in painting as well as performing arts. The top singers were Muslims: Baby Noor Jahan, Shamshad Begum, Munawar Sultana and Tamancha Jan. Then this entire business of fruits and vegetables was dominated by Muslims. All furniture business was dominated by the Hayats. Engraving and slab-work on marble were done by Muslims. Allah Baksh was the leading artist of Lahore. He was my father’s friend. He gave us a very big painting that was in our house.
AA: Was the presence of Heera Mandi prominent?
PN: It was a cultural centre. One must distinguish between sex workers and performing artists. Only after we left college, when we were over twenty or twenty-one, we thought we should have a glimpse of this culture. So with that idea, we went to listen to music and learn something. And that is how I came across Tamancha Jan. She is on the internet because of me.
AA: Was it a popular place?
PN: Only those who could afford it. You see – if you need to go there, you need to part with money.
AA: What was your source of entertainment?
PN: Cinema. The biggest entertainment back then. Hollywood movies. We in Government College thought that we should see English movies more than Indian movies.
AA: So which films did you like?
PN: How Green Was My Valley. Lady Hamilton. Lady of the Tropics. Mrs. Miniver. Wartime films, you see. Great actors in those days.
AA: Did you have any interaction with Amrita Sher-Gil?
PN: No I never interacted with her. She was too senior. I heard about her because she was a very good artist.
And Zohra Sehgal. Have you heard of her?
AA: The actress?
PN: She was a dancer. Zohra Sehgal learned dancing from the famous Uday Shankar troupe. And then she started a dancing school in Lahore, in the 1940s. Then she became world-renowned. One of her sisters came to Pakistan and stayed here. Ajoka Theater once had a play “Eik Thee Nani” in which the two sisters acted on stage – just about ten years ago. Now both are gone.
AA: Another well-known Lahori was Khushwant Singh…
PN: He was not a Lahori. He lived here for three, four years. I knew him very well. He was also very senior to me. But he was a good friend of mine. He has reviewed all my books. He loved Lahore. He used to live on the Mall Road. And he was teaching, also, for some time, in a college. He was a practicing lawyer too.
AA: Do you think Khushwant Singh wore a mask and led people on with his public persona?
PN: You are very right. I knew him personally. Also, I knew that what he was trying to project. He was a different person. And we should not judge him from what he has written – the masala. The readers liked this easy humor and satire.
AA: Why did he sexualise everything?
PN: Because that sells. You see, he wrote about sex and all these things because there is a market for that. He used to pick up the chapter on Heera Mandi in my book. He was fascinated. You see, I started my career as a writer after retirement. I wrote very interesting articles. There was an adult magazine in India, called Debonair, just like Playboy – the Indian Playboy in the ‘90s. I wrote one piece there called “Zinda Naach wa Gaana” (live dance and song) about my Lahore days as a young student. In the next four or five months, they published all my articles and Khushwant said “What you have written – you are a writer now!” Then I wrote “Fazal – The Ace Pimp of Lahore.”
AA: Khushwant Singh’s public image centered on Lahore.
PN: Yes. He also had friends here. Manzoor Qadir was his close friend.
AA: Is there something you feel you haven’t written about yet?
PN: Yes. I never write about politics.
AA: But are you a political animal? Do you keep an eye on the politics around you?
PN: No. None whatsoever. I have no clue.
AA: Is there something in your personal life that you never wrote about?
PN: You know how old I am. Somehow I managed to live because I have a zest for living and I love myself.
AA: Is your family the secret to your happy life?
PN: Yes. My wife and I were together for 66 years. And she passed away four years ago. She was bedridden for more than ten years.
But she was a graduate in those days. And she worked as a teacher briefly. We had two sons. One is no more. I spent twenty-five years abroad, also. So, one branch of my family is in England. My son passed away a few years ago. My second son is with me in Delhi.
AA: What were pre-Partition bookshops in Lahore like?
PN: We had a lot of bookshops. Anarkali has Rama Krishna. Minerva Book Depot.
AA: Urdu Bazaar?
PN: Urdu Bazaar was Mohanlal Road. It had college books. Left and right both. You reached there from the circular road to the Kachehri and opposite that. They had a chaapa khana (printing press) there. It was called Munshi Gulab Singh & Sons. This printing press is still there.
AA: People from Amritsar used to come to Urdu Bazaar before 1965 for buying books.
PN: I used to go to Amritsar on a bicycle as a student. I would go there to watch a picture. It took four hours. We used to ride swiftly.
AA: Are these twin cities?
PN: Yes. Had it not been for the Partition, they would have merged by now. Like St. Paul and Minneapolis in America.
AA: You rarely talk about the books that have inspired you.
PN: I have read very little fiction. I have read books in general. About culture, history and art. I am an Art Historian. I was most fascinated by the dancing girls. They preserved our performing arts for centuries but what did we do to them? Just because of the Western and missionary propaganda against them, we downgraded them. And like the missionaries called them “fallen women”, we the “educated Indians” also called them that, too. So I wanted to do the research as to how it happened. I went to every museum in the world to collect illustrations of the dancing girls – how the institution started. The masterpiece of my whole writing career is the Nautch Girls of India. It came out in 1996. Khushwant Singh launched it.
AA: Tell me about three books which inspired you the most?
PN: I can’t think of any. I have always kept away from all religious reading. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History inspired me, as did his Discovery of India. The poetry of Ghalib right from my student days – I read it in Urdu earlier on, but now in Hindi. I remember it by heart. We used to talk to each other in poetry at college.
AA: Writers are creatures of routine. What is your day like?
PN: I have a fixed routine. I go for a morning walk. One hour in the park. In the winters, I go late. In the summers, I go early. Then I have my very rich breakfast. I get all the four or five papers. I have my bed tea with lemon and honey. No milk.
Then I take my breakfast at ten. I relax. I watch Netflix. I watch movies from my days. I listen to music.
Music is my passion. I have the biggest archive. I am a fan of K. L. Sehgal. I have set up for the last twenty years the K. L. Sehgal Memorial Circle. That is my personal hobby. So I organise musical concerts in the memory of all the great artists of the Subcontinent. I did half a dozen concerts on Faiz sahib’s death anniversary. Not only that, on his centenary, I did the biggest function in India. It was poetry, music and dance. Faiz sahib’s poetry – top singers sang it. Radhika Chopra sang and Rani Khanum danced.
AA: When do you write?
PN: I write in the daytime. Not at night. In the afternoon when old people sleep, I write. I am a people’s man. I have promoted at least ten or fifteen artists. One male artist and fifteen female artists.
AA: Do you write with a pen?
PN: Pencil and eraser. I do my reading, then erase and then write it. I have a very large library. I don’t sit there as often. It is all downstairs. I receive friends. Research scholars come to me for guidance. Artists come and sing for me.
AA: Do you have a message for youngsters?
PN: I am charmed by the younger generation. I have nothing against them except that some of them who have been influenced by fundamentalists. I feel sad about it.
AA: Do you fear a potential war between India and Pakistan?
PN: There is no question of any war. We have already seen three wars. Both sides suffered. Nobody gained anything. War is no solution. But we have to understand and do something for our common heritage, especially in art and culture, which I have done. You see, I have held functions and mushairas on Habib Jalib. Zehra Nigah, Faiz Sahab and Hafeez Jallandari used to come. I have preserved some of the recordings of that time also. I especially had a documentary made on the common heritage which was shown on TV in spite of all this – Sanjhi Virasat: India Pakistan ki Sangeet Yatra.
AA: Do some of the contemporary situations makes you sad?
PN: Sometimes. I have been coming here [to Pakistan] for the last twenty years. What happened here in Islamabad [Faizabad Dharna] for the past few days is no solution. Very painful, I should say. It is worse than the dharna that Imran Khan held. They are putting conditions. “Do as we say or we will become martyrs and have our revenge.”
This is the language they use. Isn’t it painful? It is frightening. I am not in politics but when I read such things I feel sad.
Ammara Ahmad is based in Lahore. She tweets as @ammarawrites and her complete works can be found on www.ammaraahmad.com