This year’s Lahore Literary Festival in London was held in association with the British Library at St Pancras, so on an early autumnal Saturday there was a packed auditorium for a day’s event that included talks by Malala Yousafzai, Ved Mehta, Kamila Shamsie, Christina Lamb, and Madhur Jaffrey amongst others. In the evening Tina Sani sang Faiz.
Just over the courtyard was the vast archive of what used to be called the India Office Library, the largest collection of original manuscripts, sub-continental art, photography and government papers in the world. The British Library in recent years has made a big effort to make this available to the visiting public, not just to scholars.
The first session was “Writings on Pre-Partition Lahore” with a writer I was interested in hearing, Ved Mehta. Back in 1990s when I started working at the Independent newspaper, I have a memory of oureditor suddenly bowling out of his office and announcing: “We’ve got serial rights for Ved Mehta’s Up at Oxford”. It was the first time I heard of Mehta and it was another ten years before I began reading his books, but once I started I couldn’t stop. I read Mamaji and Daddyji, accounts of his early life in Lahore and his loss of sight from meningitis just before his fourth birthday. Vedi is an agonising account of his time at an orphanage for the blind in Bombay in 1942, when he was just five years old. I found it so disturbing – Mehta had both parents and siblings – that I had to abandon the book unfinished.
Mehta’s strengths are not in autobiography but as a historian and political writer. If I had to choose the best of his books, they would be The Ledge Between the Streams, his account of leaving Lahore in 1947, his 1959 portrait of India, Walking the Indian Streets, and his work on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Rajiv Gandhi and Rama’s Kingdom. All three bear the mark of the Partition.
Walking the Indian Streets describes a return to India after a long period of studying abroad. In Delhi Mehta visits neighbourhood after neighbourhood which are silent with trauma and poverty twelve years after the Partition. He describes the refugee areas as having an “air of hopelessness”. One area is so poor that children and men are naked. Later in his visit he goes to lunch at Teen Murti Bhavan with Nehru, Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv. Nehru, Mehta writes, spoke to his family “like an indulgent Hindu patriarch, treated his bearers (servants) like an impatient Moghul emperor and conversed with me like an eager English undergraduate – as if he embodied in his person the Hindu, the Moghul and British India.”
Nehru, Mehta writes, spoke to his family “like an indulgent Hindu patriarch, treated his bearers (servants) like an impatient Moghul emperor and conversed with me like an eager English undergraduate – as if he embodied in his person the Hindu, the Moghul and British India”
By 1994, when Rajiv Gandhi and Rama’s Kingdom was published, his prose is crisp and unforgiving. He chastises Indira Gandhi in 1984 for “going the Rowlatt Act one better” and concludes the book with this insight, after the attack on the Babari Masjid in 1993: “Cassandras, always highly vocal in India, have lately been saying that only some kind of dictatorship could preserve the unity of the country and have predicted that sooner or later it will succumb to such a system, as so many of its poor neighbours have done. One could argue, however, that Indians are resilient people and have a way of living with their problems, hence John Kenneth Galbraith’s description of independent India as a ‘functioning anarchy’.”
There is not a single mention of Pakistan in this 1994 book, so I was interested to hear what Mehta had to say at the Lahore Literary Festival. Due to failing health, he spoke to camera from New York, with his daughter asking questions about his childhood in Lahore in the Mehta gali. He talked briefly of the one-room school he attended in the old city saying that he was taught under a Peepal tree. He said he ended up in this school because he was disabled by blindness and that it had been a lamentable education, although he chose stronger language. The Dadar orphanage in Bombay also came up in conversation, clearly a traumatic memory. This was before the events of Partition. And while Mehta’s pain and exile from Lahore were still etched in his mind, there was much worse to come for millions of Punjabis, Sindhis and Bengalis in 1947.
With heart and mind in a spin, I went to the next session. And this too was extraordinary, but happily so. Madhur Jaffrey and Pakistani food writer Sumayya Usmani took us on a fabulous tour of the subcontinent’s history – Madhur said she always called it the subcontinent and wasn’t ever going to slip into the term “South Asia” – from 4000BCE when rice was first grown in the region. Tamarind added sweet-sour, chilli didn’t arrive until the Portuguese brought it from the New World in the 16th century so indigenous mustard seed and black peppercorns were the millennia-old way of adding heat. Madhur believes wheat was first grown in Mesopotamia and went via the Silk Road into China before it entered India.
Ms Jaffrey is such an astonishingly gifted communicator that her fantastic discussion of food through history and geography erased all barriers. This was because her talk illuminated how much of Partition – the leitmotif of literary festivals both sides of the border – is maintained in people’s heads and has a tendency to take the shape of their individual melancholies.
Sumayya Usmani and Madhur Jaffrey delivered a talk of such aplomb and energy and with such skill that it took me a while to work out its nuanced underpinnings. If you have reason to want to revisit the Partition, you will always see a border. The reality is that so much of the border is a carefully constructed fiction.
There was much else at the Festival, including the entrancing Malala Yousafzai, but for me the sessions on the pain of exile a la Ved Mehta and the pleasures, past and present, of desi cuisine as told by Madhur Jaffrey were food enough for the heart and soul.