Across the border

Over cups of tea and conversation at Pak Tea House, Lahore emerged as a cultural capital

The iconic tea house drew the brightest minds of a newly formed Pakistan.

In pre-Partition Lahore and in the early years of Pakistan, the location of the Pak Tea House could not have been more central. Located on Mall Road, next to Anarkali Bazaar, it was steps away from the National College of Arts, the country’s premier arts institute. Next to the college is Lahore Museum, facing which is Punjab University. Behind Punjab University, one can see the tall minaret of the prestigious Government College, alma mater to some of the greats this land has produced – poet-politician Allama Iqbal, revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, physicist and Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, and jurist and diplomat Chaudhry Zafarullah.

Behind the Pak Tea House, deep inside Anarkali Bazaar, is King Edward Medical College, which is regarded as one of the best in the country. These colleges and universities, one next to the other and each better than the one before, made Lahore the educational hub of Punjab before Partition. Lahore retained its prestigious title as several private institutions also set up shop in the provincial capital during the privatisation spree of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

For decades, the Pak Tea House served as a rallying point for professors and students from these institutions. Sipping cups of tea and sitting for hours, intellectuals, writers and poets would engage in discussion as the students gathered around them. Much before literary festivals bridged the gap between writers and readers, the Pak Tea House brought the two together, unbound by the restraints that confine discussions at much of these festivals in India and Pakistan.

Intellectuals, writers, poets, professors and students gathered for long discussions at the Pak Tea House on Mall Road in Lahore. (Credit: @ShirazHassan / via Twitter)
Intellectuals, writers, poets, professors and students gathered for long discussions at the Pak Tea House on Mall Road in Lahore. (Credit: @ShirazHassan / via Twitter)

Left leaning

Perhaps lurking among the students and visitors, hidden behind the cloud of smoke that perennially occupied the tea house, were intelligence officials keeping an eye and ear out for rebel intellectuals, most of whom happened to be Leftists and Marxist sympathisers, and some even members of the Communist Party of Pakistan.

Almost immediately after the inception of the party in 1948, the Pakistani state determined it was an anti-state party and its members and sympathisers were anti-nationals. Soon after its creation, Pakistan aligned with the American state and thus automatically began viewing the communists as a threat. However, in many ways, the party too was responsible for this perception.

For one, the Communist Party of Pakistan was carved out of the Communist Party of India, which had initially sympathised with the Muslim minority’s call for self-determination but eventually opposed the Pakistan movement. However, it accepted the creation of Pakistan in 1948 and decided to set up an independent party to look after the affairs of the country. This was the Communist Party of Pakistan. In the early years, the new party could not shed its anti-Pakistan past and the perception that it was operated by the Communist Party of India.

It also did not help that most of its leaders had migrated from northern India and had no roots in Punjab or other parts of Pakistan. While the Communist Party of India had established deep roots in the cities and villages of British India, the Communist Party of Pakistan had to start from scratch. Even with help from people such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the party struggled to find support except among a section of railway workers in Lahore.

The Communist Party of Pakistan’s perceived anti-religious stance also worked against it in a country that had been formed on the basis of religion. The party and its leaders were termed anti-religion and anti-Islam. It has been argued that had the party taken into consideration the cultural milieu and perhaps used religious and cultural references for its egalitarian politics, it would have been able to harness much more support.

But the biggest blow to the party came with the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951, in which prominent members such as Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz were accused of conspiring with senior officers of the Pakistan Army to overthrow the government of Liaquat Ali Khan and instal a communist regime. The leaders of the alleged conspiracy were arrested and the party was banned. The further solidified the anti-state image of the party and the communists.

The regime of Ayub Khan – Pakistan’s first military ruler who came to power in 1958 through a coup – was even more closely aligned with the Americans than his predecessors and led a witch hunt against members of the Communist Party of Pakistan.

In later years, the party had its moments of success – when its members formed the National Awami Party that played a pivotal role in Pakistan’s politics in the 1960s and 1970s, or when the communists came together under the banner of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in the 1980s and struggled against Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime. However, the Communist Party of Pakistan could never quite recover from the initial shocks.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz (second from left) and other progressive writers.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz (second from left) and other progressive writers.

Enduring legacy

However, while the party may have failed to leave an indelible mark on the politics of Pakistan, it played a seminal role in fomenting a unique literary culture. Soon after the founding of the Communist Party of Pakistan, its general secretary Sajjad Zaheer, who was also a renowned writer, set up the Pakistan Progressive Writers’ Association. This was a forum that brought together Leftist writers and had many prominent members such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Manto.

Soon after its inception, the association emerged at the forefront of the literary movement in the country. Its weekly sessions, organised at the Pak Tea House, became a prominent event in the cultural life of Lahore. It was events like these that earned Lahore the title of “cultural capital of Pakistan”.

As the world today gears up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution – when the Bolsheviks led by Leftist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin brought an end to csarist rule in Russia – there may be small groups of writers who gather at the Pak Tea House and other such institutions in the country, lamenting over what went wrong in Pakistan and yet celebrating what the Leftist writers achieved in a newly created Islamic country.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail

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