Guest post by CHRIS MOFFAT
During a recent trip to Lahore, I visited the Sang-e-Meel bookshop on Lower Mall Road in search of K.K. Aziz’s The Coffee House of Lahore. Happily, the store was well stocked with the late historian’s final work, and I spent the afternoon reading the text at a table outside the nearby Tollinton Market. It was a betrayal, perhaps, to read the book in this way, sipping cold drinks from the Hafiz Fruit and Juice Corner rather than something appropriately caffeinated, purchased amidst a flurry of conversations in a busy café. I took some solace in the fact that I was sitting not a stone’s throw away from the former Pak Tea House, once a hub of cultural life in the city and among the many spaces of discourse and dissent mapped by Aziz in his narrative of mid-twentieth century Lahore.
Today, the Pak Tea House appears hollowed and shuttered, no longer decorated with a sign to declare its name or to suggest life inside. In spite of recent rumours of a revival, its vacant façade appears a testament to Aziz’s loud lament in The Coffee House of Lahore: that the city’s culture has “disappeared from view”, that its original landmarks “have been obliterated”. The book emerged out of the historian’s desire to capture, before it is lost, the memory of a period of free thought, argument and cultural effervescence, encapsulated in the life of institutions like the Tea House, the Indian Coffee House, the Arab Hotel, the Nagina Bakery, and other important places of assembly, all of which have now vanished from the urban fabric. Aziz chooses to focus on the particularly tumultuous period between 1942 and 1957, when he was an active participant in this culture as a student of politics and later as a lecturer in Lahore’s Government College.
The time frame set by the author is slightly misleading, and indeed we are taken beyond these years and beyond Lahore, from Khartoum to London, Bombay to Heidelberg, from Aziz’s childhood in Batala to his long awaited return to the capital of the Punjab in the later years of his life. It is important, I think, to take the volume of Aziz’s lament for a lost Lahore similarly with a grain of salt. The historian’s frank assertion that “progress is a terrible thing” seems, initially, to place him within a tradition of writing about Lahore that bleeds nostalgia, a loud cry for this lost ‘Paris of the East’. There is, however, a pedagogical aspect to be drawn out from the text, which can be read to circumvent the fatalism of many nostalgic narratives and the manner in which these might obscure continuity as well as insurgent novelty. Lahore, with its tortured history of extraction and erasure, certainly seems to command lament; I am interested in how Aziz’s book can be read to commend the possibilities of the present.
This way of reading/re-reading is enabled by the format of Aziz’s book, which is fragmentary, scattered and non-chronological in a rather magnificent way. It originated as a long list of Coffee House habitués – 206 in fact – which Aziz compiled as an appendix to his autobiography, an attempt to capture the intellectual, cultural and literary vibrancy of the establishment in which he used to spend 4-5 hours every day. The book is formed around Aziz’s attempt to flesh out this list, to attach narratives and histories to the names, to detail his encounters with these individuals over the years. As such, the story swells and fades in parts according to the raveling and unraveling of Aziz’s memory.
The cast of characters is enormous, ranging from Nobel Prize-winning physicists to bureaucrats to rebel Punjabi poets. Individual eccentricities are detailed and long networks of families and friends drawn out. Some stories in the book’s chapters (described as ‘Rolls of Honour’) are much longer than others: intimacy provides an excuse for digression in accounts of close friends, and, when it is thought the individual lacks a proper biography elsewhere, Aziz takes it upon himself to advance a life sketch. For brief conversations and single encounters, some entries take up less than one page. This ebb and flow of words continues across recollections of journalists, lawyers, writers, economists, communists, religious scholars and more, so much so that the text itself begins to resemble the ever-changing, inconsistent Coffee House conversations Aziz has taken inspiration from. The reader jumps from cigarette packets on Coffee House tables to the turbulent histories of radical publishing houses, from the oppressive atmosphere of Pakistan’s university campuses to the emergence of new cultural institutions and the shifting fortunes of Punjabi and Urdu. From Anwar Shemza, who sold his signature to a restaurant chain, to Rauf Malik, bundled away to the torture cells in the basement of Lahore’s Mughal fort, Aziz introduces a broad spectrum of thinkers, litterateurs and activists; Faiz, Manto, Habib Jalal, and Chiragh Hasan Hasrat among them. Such a portrait of Lahore is no doubt constrained in terms of class, generation and gender, but its uncommon structure and the author’s passionate recollection position it as unique and provocative among histories of this sort.
Through this Borgesian assemblage of characters and tales, a portrait of the city also emerges. The text carries Lahore without requiring prior knowledge of the city, but it was a privilege to read the book from my vantage on the Mall Road, to see the city through and alongside it. Aziz decorates a much changed urban landscape with memories and personalities: cycling to meet friends at the Ganga Ram Mansions, spotting members of the Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq outside the YMCA building, chasing Jinnah for an autograph as he leaves Lorang’s restaurant. His recollections of walking the Mall with Waheeduzzaman, one of his closest friends, appear psychogeographic in spirit, an immersive depiction of space and place, capturing the weakness of the street lights in the evenings, the feeling of the trees as sentinels near Queen Victoria’s statue, the sequence of buildings and the crowds outside theatres, collars turned up against the winter air.
The Coffee House of Lahore is a memoir by name, though Aziz states explicitly his hope that it will be read as a resource of cultural history and an asset for intellectual biographers. It is, more than this, a reminder of the possibilities attached to space and place, as well as the productive potential of encounter. Far from being submerged in lament for the 1940s and 50s, Aziz’s book reads as an inducement to interact in the present; it is an argument for sociality, for always welcoming extra chairs to one’s table. “Learning,” he writes, “is easy and painless when the teachers are friends and the taught are volunteers”. The realm of possibility Aziz outlines is by no means limited to extinct coffee houses. Spaces for debate, dialogue and encounter continue to exist in Lahore, concretely in new chai khanas and more ephemerally in the spaces produced by street theatre groups and poetry circles. This, in spite of laments for a city lost, and in the face of accelerating attempts to militarise the urban environment. Reading Aziz reminds us to not only seek out and inhabit these spaces but to take stake in them, to protect them; in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Aziz’s spiraling record is instructive in another way: it provides a stern caution against indifference. It is, by way of example, an encouragement to write, to record, to capture fragments, to document the mundane (cashew nuts and creases on trousers), as records which constitute a life, a community, a period in time. Cities change, as do political horizons, as do friends and enemies: this cannot be helped. Words, songs, paintings and poetry (produced or consumed) allow us to navigate interruptions and transformations, enable us to pay testament to the vibrant singularity of a moment. Aziz may declare his distaste for progress but his book inspires anything but quietude and resignation. It is a record of the past which encourages an awareness and interrogation of the present; it is left to the reader to find and assess the possibilities (or limitations) therein.
Aziz’s Coffee House is tied intimately to Lahore, to the city’s powerful cultural heritage, to its unique history and especially to the event of Partition. Still, just as Aziz and his characters engage in and with global conversations, so does the historian’s inadvertent manifesto carry meaning beyond Lahore. Aziz speaks to the possibilities – intellectual, cultural, political – in every encounter, to the importance of discussion, dissent and alternative pedagogies, celebrating the spaces which facilitate such meetings, solidarities and open discourse. This is not simply a text about endings and disappearances; it can and should generate new conversations, a fitting tribute to K.K. Aziz and the critical thought of his times.
Chris Moffat is a research scholar in History at the University of Cambridge and is working on Bhagat Singh and modern political thought