I met Pran Nevile for the first and the last time almost a year ago in Lahore, his ancestral city, where he had been invited to talk about his much-celebrated book, Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, at the Faiz International Festival. First published in 1993, the book remains one of the most popular books written on the city.

I had been asked to moderate the session that focused on the nonagenarian. At that time, I was still in the process of writing and researching my book on Lahore, thus I welcomed the opportunity to have a conversation with one of the city’s most famous sons.

My first impression of Nevile was of a man defying his age. Elegantly dressed, he sat in the front row, and when the time came for his session, he easily climbed up the three stairs to the stage with the help of his stick. Even at the age of 95 he was a man completely cognisant of things around him. Not only did he talk about the history of the city, but in our private conversation later he talked knowledgeably about the contemporary city as well.

While the history of Lahore is a fascinating enough subject, I was more fascinated by the contemporary city and wanted to know what Nevile, who was born there, and had visited several times after Partition, felt about it.

Where and how does the contemporary and the historical merge? Where lies the boundary between romantic notions of the city and its reality – of class inequality, religious violence and corruption. How does the Lahore of imagination – the historical city, a city founded by the son of Ram, a city that saw the sacrifice of Guru Arjan, and the fall of Dara Shikoh, a multicultural city, where there were more festivals than days in a month – interact with the city that it is today?

Unfortunately, time did not permit us to have such an elaborate conversation, and never again will I have the opportunity to converse with the man who took Lahore wherever he went, even to Delhi, which became his home after Partition. Lahore remained a part of his identity till the end. In fact, in the very first page of his book on Lahore, this identity is laid out as it creates a bond between an Indian and Pakistani in Geneva. It is an identity that persists despite the animosity between the two countries, three wars, an unresolved Kashmir issue, nuclear armament and several scuffles.

I had experienced that bond when I first visited Delhi in 2011. This was just a few years after the Mumbai attacks of 2008, and tension was high between the two countries. Any mention of Pakistan to rickshaw drivers or shopkeepers did not elicit the warm response one hears about so frequently from people visiting the other country. After a few days, I began saying I am from “Lahore” instead of “Pakistan”. Suddenly the response changed. It felt as if Lahore represented a continuity of a shared bond between the two nations that even the Mumbai attacks could not break. Lahore’s identity overshadowed every other.

Pran Nevile. (Photo credit: HT).

The Lahore of Pran Nevile

But then what is this identity of Lahore? What did Lahore represent to Pran Nevile? Every page of his book is an ode to the city, a celebration of its culture. It is a paean to its multi-religious syncretic identity, where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs celebrated Diwali and burnt the effigy of Ravana at Minto Park, which was later rechristened Iqbal Park. It is where Sunnis, Brahmins and Bedis placed pots of water and other drinks on the roadside as thousands of Shias marched through the city’s narrow alleys thumping their chests in unison, mourning the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. It is a city where Muslim women used to take their children to Sitla mandir to ward off a spell of chickenpox, while Hindu mothers would tie pieces of cloth and threads at the shrine of Data Sahib, seeking the blessings of the patron saint of Lahore. It was a Lahore where Basant, the festival of kites, was the grandest festival, and the festivals of Lohri and Mela Chiraghan were part of its identity.

Lahore in the late 1930s and 1940s had become a major film hub. In its cinema halls, a film culture thrived that remained a part of the city’s fabric right up to the 1990s. Even today, at Laxmi Chowk remnants of this lost culture can be seen in the hand-painted film posters atop pre-Partition buildings.

And while it was a city of collective celebration, its public spaces were also deeply masculine. The book talks about the world of women, but a world that was confined to houses, or in the courtyards of courtesans. The city celebrated together moving past narrow religious identities, yet it could not move past these gender identities. It is this perspective that seems to be missing in the glowing image of Lahore that Pran Nevile conjures.

These romanticised notions of the city also seem oblivious to the growing communalisation of the politics of the city that was very much part of the Lahore of the 1930s and 1940s. Lahore saw the rise of the Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha, Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam and the Singh Sabha Movement. Thus while on the one hand different communities celebrated their festivals together, on the other – in the educated, urban middle classes that were emerging from the educational centers of the city – there was a growing sense of exclusive religious identity and ideas of historical injustices that had been committed by one community against the other. Lahore, the multi-religious syncretic city that Nevile celebrates in his book also saw some of the worst acts of violence at the time of Partition, a topic that the author consciously avoided.

The contemporary city

What is therefore the relationship between this historical Lahore that Pran Nevile presents and the contemporary city? There are a few bonds that remain. The culture of syncretism continues to survive, albeit at a minute scale, as Sunnis help Shia celebrate the urs of Bibi Pak Daman. Similarly, Hindus and Christians of the city continue their veneration of Data Sahib, and a handful of Muslims celebrate religious festivals with Hindus at the shrine of Valmiki in Anarkali. But there is also another reality to the city, which saw brutal attacks against Ahmadis in 2010. It is a city where most traces of its non-Muslim past have faded away over time. Its public spaces still remain as masculine as they were in the 1930s and 1940s.

So, in many ways, the Lahore that Nevile experienced continues to survive but in other ways it does not, for it was never real but the result of a love affair, where the emotions of the observer overshadowed his interpretation of the city. This remains an exasperating limitation of any form of representation. Through his book on Lahore, it is not the story of the city that is learned but the story of Pran Nevile, a story that came to an end last week when he died in Gurugram days short of his 96th birthday.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book Imagining Lahore – the city that is, the city that was, was published by Penguin Random House.