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A Living Archive

Alok Rai

Edited by Bapsi Sidhwa
Penguin, Delhi, 2005, pp. 371, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 12 December 2005

Like many other non-Lahoris, I have lived forever with the legend of Lahore, the fervent nostalgia, the coolly arrogant claim that he who hasn’t seen Lahore might as well not have been born. By implication, then, true-blue Lahoris must be congenitally, so to speak, twice-born. Now there’s this generous volume of writings on Lahore – City of Sin and Splendour edited by Bapsi Sidhwa – to stoke both the legend, and the rancour of those of us who are, like me, twice-excluded, both by birth and by nationality. There is poetry here, as well as prose – essays, stories, chronicles, fragments of published novels and previews of sundry work in progress. There is material that is in English, and other things that have been translated into it, sometimes with the original Urdu transcribed into Roman. ( By the way, there is an unforgivable error in the transcription of the Habib Jalib poem on p. 284.)  All of this contributes an inevitable air of miscellaneity to the anthology. The principle whereby the pieces have been grouped into separate “parts” is not immediately apparent. And there is a distinct sense that there is no necessary reason why such a collection need ever come to an end, except the declining forest cover, I suppose. It carries a sense of  being always-ever a work in progress, and some of the pieces are good enough for one to be grateful therefore. But one could also, in a sort of Foucauldian exercise, produce an infinite set of volumes simply by playing around with different ways of grouping the items!      There’s lots of nostalgia here, too, of course – often from non-residents, including pieces from some Indians, like Krishen Khanna and Ved Mehta, whose “non-residence” goes back to the trauma of Partition. But the most remarkable thing that emerges from reading this collection goes well beyond the sentimental longing of nostalgia. There is the sense that Lahore might well be the pre-eminent surviving example of precolonial urban elegance, a living archive of a past for which no postmodern celebration of hybridity can ever be an adequate compensation. Lucknow and Delhi, the fabled cities of the pre-modern world, were victims of the savage and malevolent violence of the avenging Brits after 1857. When one reads of the grace and grandeur even of late-Mughal Delhi, or of Lucknow’s brief elegance, one cannot help but feel a pang of regret, a spasm of ...

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