From K.K. Aziz’s Coffee House: Lahore as it Used To Be

Posted on November 12, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Architecture, Books, Culture & Heritage, History
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Selected and Introduced by Adil Najam

In this the first installment of excerpts from K.K. Aziz’s The Coffee House of Lahore (read book review by Raza Rumi, here) we have selected a passage that appears very early in the book and describes what Lahore used to look like around the time of partition. The vivid narrative brings the landscape alive and populates it with personalities and landmarks that give texture and context to that which is now familiar and that which has long vanished with time. It provides a necessary window into the world that the rest of the book is situated in, but it is worth reading for itself. Like so much of K.K Aziz’s writing, it is simple and simply enchanting. (For ease of reading, we will not indent the quoted text; everything beyond this opening paragraph is in K.K. Aziz’s words).

From K.K. Aziz’s The Coffee House of Lahore (pages 5-9):

From the 1920s onwards, perhaps since event earlier, Lahore was the most highly cultured city of north India. From here appeared the largest number of Urdu literary journals, newspapers and books and two of the best English language dailies. The Mayo School of Arts was flourishing. The Young Men Christian Association was active and its premises and hall were used by all communities for literary and social activities. The Government College was a distinguished intellectual centre whose teachers were respected and students considered to be the best representatives of modern Western education. The Oriental College was engaged in first class research. The annual plays staged at Government College and Dyal Singh College were awaited by the city’s elite with high expectations. Eminent journalists and columnists wrote for newspapers and graced literary gatherings. The city rang with the echoes of the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Noon Meem Rashed, Hafeez Jullunderi and Akhtar Shirani. The Niazmandan-i-Lahore, the magic circle of A.S. Bokhari, M.D. Taseer, Hafeez Jullandheri, Sufi tabassum, Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj and Hari Chand Akhtar, created enormous waves in the world of Urdu literature.

The well-to-do Westernized elite drank and danced and talked in the Gymkhana and Cosmopolitan clubs. The home grown dazzling lights set off their fireworks at the Arab Hotel, Nagina Bakery, Muhkam Din’s teashop, Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq, India Tea House and India Coffee House. The greatest in the land, like Tagore, came and spoke at the SPSK Hall. Political debates were held at Bradlaugh Hall, Amrita Sher Gill painted and B.C. Sanyal sculpted. The best British and American films were screened at Regal and Plaza. There was even a school of ballroom dancing on the upper storey of Regal. The baithaks in the walled city trained young musicians and singers and invited the connoisseurs to come and listen to classical music. The radio came a little later and the literati wallowed in a new channel which immediately enlarged the circulation of what they wrote, said or composed. With Bokhari’s genius presiding over the radio network, the first generation of literary broadcasters was in the making.

A glorious physical setting for this pulsating intellectual activity was provided by the Lahore that the British had built between 1860 and 1935. Impressive edifices adorned the landscape: Lawrence Hall, Chiefs’ College, Government House, High Court, Masonic Lodge, Legislative Assembly, General Post Office, Museum, Mayo School of Arts, the University, Government College and Central Training College. The queen of all roads, the Mall, was bordered by tall trees and wide footpaths, and boasted a glittering array of expensive shops. The race course and the Lawrence Gardens were the lungs of the city. No high-rise buildings existed. With no encroachments the roads looked wider. The bungalows of Davis, Empress, Egerton, Queens and Jail Roads were elegantly built and located in the middle of green lawns. The skyline was soothing. Nature’s green was the dominating colour of the city. Breathing was easy, and so was enjoying life.

Like all civilized cities, Lahore provided a wide range of restaurants where people gathered for pleasure, social interaction and intellectual gossip. The Nedous Hotel stood where Hilton was later built and still later the Avari; in it lived Abdullah Yusuf Ali who completed his translation and commentary of the Quran in one of its first-floor rooms. The serene Faletti’s was centrally located on Egerton Road, behind the assembly chamber and facing Rai Bahadur Saran Das’s mansion. Jinnah, Abul Kalam Azad and Ava Gardner stayed here. Later Sir Firoz Khan Noon made it his home.

At the corner of the present day WAPDA House, and facing the assembly chamber, was the Metro, where in summer tea was served alfresco and Miss Angela did her cabaret show. In the two hall-size rooms of the Shah Din Building was the Lorangs, the finest restaurant in town, patronized by the elite. Near it stood the Stiffles where the guests dined in dinner jackets, danced in the evening and lunched with their friends in as English an ambience as could be conceived. The Standard had its large premises next to the driveway leading to Regal Cinema and facing the Mall. Several steps lower than Stiffles and Lorangs in glory, status and prices, it catered for the middle class and was always crowded; in summer it used the large space between its building and the footpath as an open air tea house.

At the other end of this “West End” of Lahore was a cluster of humble eating places where the modest and poor intellectuals got together and stayed together for long hours, sipping coffee or tea, drinking glasses of water, and settling the problems of the world. The best of them was the India Coffee House, established by the Indian Coffee Board in the mid-1930s to popularize the drink. Next to it was the Cheney’s Lunch Home, and a hundred yards away the India Tea House. Almost next to it was the YMCA where the Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq met every week. The “oriental” places drew a mixed crowd of journalists, poets and men of letters: the Arab Hotel on Railway Road opposite the Islamia College gate, the Delhi Muslim Hotel in Anarkali where Bokharilived in the 1920s, and the Nagina Bakery at the corner of Anarkali and Nila Gumbad. To these was later added the Cecil, which was a small private business run by a Parsi family in its residence. Called “Pathraan wali Kothi” (bingalow built of stone and with tiled roofs) it was situated at the junction of Cooper and Dil Mohammad Roads, opposite today’s duty free shop. Among other places worth mentioning were the Indus Hotel, Volga and Orient on the the Mall, and Milk Bar in the Tollinton Market, and the Elphinstone, West End and bristol on McLeod Road.

The very names of these restaurants are enough proof of the Englishness of the city. This was confirmed further by the commercial establishments on both sides of the Mall, some of which survived British withdrawal.

Whiteway Laidlaw, the haberdashers, did business where Firzsons now sells books. Smith and Campbell is still there, though of course under changed ownership. Rankin, at the corner of the Mall and Beadon Road, was a fashinable outfitter having the custom of the elite; it lives on for a few years after 1947. Goldsmith and Bal Moodie in the Shah Din Building, Jenn and Ellerton and Gillanders Arbuthnot are some of the shops I remember. All have disappeared.

Among the Indian shops almost all were under Hindu ownership and some of them had been opened in 1945-46, soon to be engulfed by disaster. In the Bank Square were the Sunlight Insurance, the brand new departmental story of Janki Das, and Devi Chand; on the Mall, Kirpa Ram in front of Regal; in Anarkali Narain Das Bhagwan Das ran the biggest pharmacy in town. Facing the high court building was the interesting haircutting establishment carrying the name of A.N. John. Many of the well-to-do went there under the impression that it was run by the British. Actually the owner was one Amar Nath who had added John to his initials and thus made a lot of money.

Also see:
K.K. Aziz (1927-2009): History Shall Miss Him
Books: K.K. Aziz’s The Coffee House of Lahore

19 responses to “From K.K. Aziz’s Coffee House: Lahore as it Used To Be”

  1. Very interesting story. Nice post.

  2. Shahina says:

    Mr. Watan Aziz

    What a mis representer you are! It was very much a part of Pakistani history, and will remain a part of Pakistani history. If some reminiscent books of pre British are left you will find similar sentiments of Mughal era in Lahore.
    Why are you so jealous of Pakistan? Is Hindustan sharing pre Aug 47 history with Pakistan and saying that it’s not Hindustani history but a shared history of the sub-continent.
    Kindly, keep your jealousy and myopic view to your self, Lahore is a very old cultural city that has seen the rise and fall of many greats before British. We relish British just because it’s our immediate past and in reminiscent all hues are bright and beautiful, let me remind you of ‘Indians and Dogs are not allowed” on the Flattis Hotel in the same golden era.
    So Lahore has seen it all, and all of it makes Lahore a beautiful and vibrant city that it was and is very much a history of Pakistan with all its beauty and ugliness, whether you or anybody else likes it or not.
    Shahina

  3. Watan Aziz says:

    Is this Lahore in Pakistan?

    The “gitter-mitter” crowd has told us that anything that predates August 14, 1947 is not Pakistani.

    ATP, you will have to take this post out of Pakistaniat! They are going to call you Pakistaniat “manufactured”!

  4. Very interesting story. Nice post. I like it. Thanks for sharing this.

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