Daily Times: Sunday, August 06, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: The Arab Hotel and other hostelleries

By A Hamid

Two brothers, Arabs from the Trucial states, as the Persian Gulf sheikdoms used to be called, came to Lahore many years before Partition and made it their home. Across the road from Islamia College, they opened an eatery they named Arab Hotel. The restaurants of those days were not like the restaurants of today. The Arab Hotel was more like a shop, with five or six wooden chairs placed against small tables. There was a clay oven at the back of the shop, which faced a small kitchen where curries and kebabs were prepared. The place would get very hot in summer and smoke from the clay oven would waft into the eating area. Pakistan had yet to come into being.

After the Japanese invasion and occupation of Rangoon, Bari Alig and my brother who used to edit the newspapers Sher-e-Rangoon and Mujahid-e-Burma, respectively, escaped from Burma with their families, walking to the safety of British India through the treacherous Burmese jungle. They finally managed to arrive at Amritsar and Lahore. I, a young boy, was one of the escapees. We had close family relations with Bari Alig and Maualan Charagh Hasan Hasrat, who had both moved to Lahore. Since my elder sister was married and living in Lahore, I began making frequent trips to that city from Amritsar. As it was, I was in love with Lahore. Once when I was about to leave for another trip, my older sister, whom we called Chhoti Apa, asked me to meet Hasrat sahib and ask how his wife, Zeenat Apa, was doing. Since Hasrat was often to be found in Arab Hotel, that was how I came to be there for the first time in my life. He was sitting with a cup of tea, chatting to someone at the next table. The great literary gatherings that Arab Hotel was known for had already become a thing of the past when I first set foot there.

In the words of Agha Babar, “The Arab Hotel regulars included Hasrat, Noon Meem Raashed, Akhtar Shirani, Haifz Hoshiarpuri, Muzaffar Hussain Shamim, Krishen Chander, Hari Chand Chadda and Bari Alig. The occasional visitors included Hakim Muhammad Hasan Qarshi, Raja Hasan Akhtar, Maulana Salahuddin Ahmed, Prof Ilmuddin Salik, Dr Syed Abdullah and, sometimes, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan. However, it was Hasrat who was the life of the party. Arab Hotel was the hub of Lahore’s intellectual activity. News reached Arab Hotel before it hit newspaper offices. At the end of 1939, I shifted to Temple Road and Hasrat became embroiled in family matters. Bari Alig left the area to start living in Old Anarkali. Raashed went to Multan, Akhtar Shirani to Tonk and Hafiz and Krishen to Delhi. Life as one knew it at Arab Hotel came to an end.”

Gopal Mittal, recalling those days, writes that one of the most fascinating frequenters of Arab Hotel was Bari Alig, who wrote in Urdu but was a great advocate of Punjabi. He once said, “When a Punjabi speaks Urdu, it sounds as if he is telling a lie.” He wrote that most of the regulars were writers, poets or journalists - all of them poorly paid. Often salaries were not disbursed in time, and, on occasion, not at all. But their straitened circumstances never got them down. They were content with what little they had and their spirits always remained high. Arab Hotel was a “ghreeb-nawaz” establishment, treating its customers kindly and providing them with food for very little. You could breakfast on two kebabs, half a nan and a cup of tea for very little, Half a plate of curried meat and a nan made up a good lunch. The regulars looked after one another. If someone had no money, that did not mean he went without food or drink. There was always a friend to pick up the bill. Unquestionably, the leader of the Arab Hotel regulars was Maulana Charagh Hasan Hasrat, who had worked with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in Al-Hilal. He used to write a light satirical column for Zamindar in those days.

After Pakistan, the intellectual focus of Lahore moved to the Coffee House, Pak Tea House, Lord’s and Metro. Both senior and younger writers and journalists would frequent these restaurants, the older ones talking about earlier times, the younger crowd more involved with the world in which they were making their mark. In Lahore’s Charing Cross where the WAPDA House now stands, there used be Metro Hotel, which like Faletti’s and Braganza hotels was an English-type facility. Metro had residential rooms on the first floor and a restaurant on the ground level with a dancing floor where a girl named Angela used to dance under a spotlight on given evenings. I would often find Hasrat, Muzaffar Ehsani, Waqar Ambalvi and Zahoor Alam Shaheed sitting around a table at Metro, drinking tea and conversing. I say conversing because they did not chat; they conversed.

Others were to be found at Lord’s down the Mall, and outside Regal Cinema, there was Café de Orient, a restaurant that served excellent food. Among those who frequented Orient were Hamid Nizami, Meem Sheen and a couple of other seniors. The Mall was a quiet place, its silence only broken by a passing car or tonga, but only for a while. Naqi Building, which housed Lord’s, also hosted the workshop of the master piano tuner of Lahore, Lobo. When Duke Ellington came to the city on a State Department goodwill tour and played at the Open Air Theatre in the old Lawrence Gardens, it was Lobo who tuned his piano to perfection. The maestro was impressed. In the evening, one would sometimes hear the stray sound of music emanating from Lobo’s workshop.

Lobo is dead and gone and Lord’s, Café de Orient and Metro have disappeared. The chairs and tables they used to put out in the evening for their regulars, are gone - as are those regulars. Naqi Building has been subdivided into a hundred tiny stores and sales outlets. What used to be a large single store is now several stores selling every kind of junk you can think of. The calm and peace of those days has fled, as have those days and those people. No tonga goes gently trotting down the Mall with the middle-aged driver half stretched on the back seat letting his horse do the road at the pace that pleases him best. Back in those days, the sound of the horse’s hooves on the road’s metallic surface could be heard on a quiet evening as far as Tollinton Market. All that remains now is a fading memory of those days and even that has to be summoned from the recesses of the past. But that is the way the world goes.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan


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