Walking through the black metallic gates of Government College, Lahore, now the Government College University (GCU), one is greeted by a winding path shaded by large trees. At the end of the trail stands the red building with its large Gothic-style clock tower. The tower is visible from almost all roads adjoining the GCU. It is the symbol of what was once amongst colonial India’s most prestigious colleges, where many literary luminaries including Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ashfaq Ahmed, and the subcontinent’s two Nobel laureates – Har Gobind Khurana (medicine) and Abdus Salam (physics) studied. And, of course, Khushwant Singh as well.
Khushwant Singh grew up in Lahore and returned there from London to practice law. Lahore has had a long tradition of journalists and writers, and Singh’s connection with the city, which he revered as his home and missed in his writings, didn’t come as a surprise. The city he spent over three decades in was brimming with literary influence in the pre-Partition days. In those days, Lahore was the seat of great poets (besides Faiz and Ahmed) like Hakim Ahmad Shuja, Saadat Hassan Manto, Muhammad Iqbal, Maulana Hasrat Mohani and NM Rashid to name just a few. Some of them were already established literary luminaries, others were still struggling.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz graduated the year Singh joined the college. NM Rashid, arguably one of the most original poets of Urdu, was his classmate and the two were associated and wrote for the college magazine, Ravi. Singh was one of the socialites who visited the Gymkhana often, and met Amrita Sher-Gil and many more there. Intizar Hussain, who was in his twenties at the time of Partition and based in Uttar Pradesh, moved to Lahore because many literary journals and magazines in Urdu were published from there.
The GCU’s red building was inspired by the missionary style architecture popular in Lahore in those days. Soldier’s Garden (Gol Bagh), near the famed Anarkali market, was selected. The majestic tower overlooks the oval ground in the college. Across the tower and the garden is the park that overlooks the Punjab Library from where the High Court is at a walking distance. It was here that Singh worked.
Down the road on the left is the hostel where Iqbal lived in his student days. A right turn on that road leads to the Urdu Bazaar, the publishing hub of Punjab where many Indian publishers and businessmen roamed around until the late 1950s. Another left turn and you are greeted by the shrine of Data Ganj Baksh, the man credited with converting this region to Islam.
The generation of writers and poets that saw Partition unfold were deeply affected by the riots and carried the thread of this trauma and violence for the rest of their lives. Inevitably, this reflected in their work. They were the children of the same pluralism, the fabric of the subcontinent, its religious, ethnic and historic diversity that was shaken violently by Partition. And these people, who migrated one this side of the border to the other, were left with a nostalgic sense of loss, the kind that is yet to fully heal. If there is any art form that has become obsessed with Partition, it is literature, especially Urdu literature, where ‘fasadat ke afsaney’ or ‘stories of riots’ can still be easily found. Writers like Abdullah Hussain, Amrita Pritum, Intizar Hussain and Faiz are also part of this genre.
The GCU building uses Lahori brick and black Chiniot stone in the first floor columns. According to Kannahiya Lal, the chief engineer, the slate for the roof was brought from the Dalhousie mountains, several miles away. The oval ground that the tower looks onto still serves as an escape ground for many students. All this must have had a lasting influence on the young Khushwant, glimpses of which are visible in his Train to Pakistan.
Khushwant Singh’s career is in line with Lahore’s literary greats, whose lives were enriched by Lahore and who in turn enriched the city. And it is this connection with its poets and writers that the city will be remembered by, not its invaders, conquerors and politicians.
Ammara Ahmad is an assistant web editor for the Pakistani newspaper The Nation. She is interested in human rights, politics and literature. She tweets at @ammarawrites.