Lahore’s iconic Pak Tea House, witness to some of the most fiery literary debates and passionate political arguments back in its heyday, is evoking strong sentiment once again. This time, however, the catalyst is not a controversial literary subject or a call to rise against a military dictator, but instead, the potential reopening of Pak Tea House itself.
The Punjab government’s decision to funnel 8.5 million rupees into the project to revive this cultural landmark – in a bid to recreate Lahore’s lost intellectual, cultural and literary spaces – has surprisingly found many naysayers.
Originally set up as the India Tea House by a Sikh family in 1940, the café acquired its current name when, after Partition, it was leased to one Sirajuddin. Situated off The Mall (now Sharae Quaid-e-Azam) near Anarkali bazaar, it holds a special place in the memories of those who know about Lahore’s vibrant literary and cultural past. The cafe’s regular customers included such luminaries as Saadat Hasan Manto, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Nasir Kazmi and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi amongst others. It also hosted literary and political meetings by organisations as diverse as the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Progressive Writer’s Association and the Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq.
Intizar Husain, arguably Pakistan’s greatest living fiction writer and a Pak Tea House patron since 1949, reminisces about the café’s fearless culture of free speech. “There was absolutely no external influence and people would share their opinion on any subject without fear even during the marital law regimes.”
The small establishment – located on the ground floor of a building owned by the Young Men’s Christian Association could only accommodate 50 to 60 customers at a time – was once the jewel in the crown of the city’s bustling café scene, nestled amongst Lord’s Café, Nagina Bakery, Deans Restaurant, Cheney’s Restaurant and many others on The Mall, where some of the most eminent intellectuals, writers and scholars of the time would spend hours talking politics, art, culture and literature.
The late historian K K Aziz highlights this intellectual environment in his book The Coffee House of Lahore: A Memoir 1942 – 1957, writing about how the existence of a thriving coffee house culture, as well as the presence of certain distinguished academic institutes, two English dailies and numerous Urdu literary journals made the city of Lahore the cultural hub of the subcontinent at the time (some may argue that Lahore still retains this enviable position).
For a city with a rich cultural legacy, the current disregard of heritage and academic culture is appalling. Crass commercialisation of areas on and around The Mall, inter-city migration from old residential areas of Lahore such as Krishan Nagar, Temple Road, Chauburji and Anarkali to newly developed societies including Gulberg, Model Town, Garden town and more recently Defence all indicates that those who frequented these cafés no longer live in the same vicinity.
Add to this mix 11 years of General Ziaul Haq’s regime – which slowly but surely eliminated the space for secular, progressive and anti-authoritarian discourse in public – and the subsequent decline of a tea house culture was inevitable. Change is visible around the area where Pak Tea House once stood with rows of shops selling recycled and new automobile tyres and the encircling roads, some of the busiest traffic junctions in the city, contributing to high levels of noise pollution.
Unsurprisingly, Pak Tea House decided to shut shop in 2000 due to the lack of customers. Its proprietor Zahid Hassan, who took over the building after his father’s death, had little patience for literary, cultural and political debates taking place at considerable financial cost. He concluded that he needed to close down Pak Tea House and, instead, open a tyre shop, the most viable business option in the area. This triggered a strong wave of protest among Lahore’s literati who initiated a Save the Tea House campaign. Through their efforts, these campaigners were able to raise some money, allowing the café to dawdle on for a few years before it finally closed its doors in 2004. Earlier this year, a court decided that Hassan no longer held a legal lease for the cafe, allowing the government to take over the premises and make restoration plans.
With the city’s physical and intellectual landscape changed over the years, does it make sense for the Punjab government to fund the revival of a single building without any attention being paid to its environs? Pak Tea House did not acquire its fame in isolation, but was instead, part of a sub-culture. As other venues failed to sustain themselves financially in the changed milieu, closing their doors, it is perhaps wishful thinking to expect Pak Tea House to flourish again.
Senator Pervez Rashid of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the ruling party in Punjab, feels otherwise. Reviving Pak Tea House, he says, will provide people with a much-needed space for freely exchanging ideas and opinions. He also explains that it is not the only project being carried out to renew Lahore’s cultural life. “We want to revive the heritage of Lahore. There are other projects that we have carried out to this end, such as the Walled City renovation project,” he says.
Will a newly built Pak Tea House attract patrons as it once did? Critics are skeptical. Playwright Dr Enver Sajjad, once a regular visitor to the café who has since relocated to Karachi, points out that poets, and writers who once flocked to the place are scattered and would not visit as they did in the good old days. “People have spread around and the government’s objective may not be fulfilled.”
Ahmed Rafay Alam, a lawyer involved in a number of Lahore-specific civic initiatives, holds a similar opinion. Remarking that “it is not the government’s job to run a tea house”, he says the venture will fizzle out because the city’s demographics have changed a great deal over the decades. “Back then, the area [where Pak Tea House is located] was situated in the middle of the town. It was easily accessible for people from different walks of life but things are not the same anymore.”
Salman Rashid, a Lahore-based historian of culture and archaeology, is also pessimistic about the success of the project but for a different reason. He feels that “the continuum has remained broken for too long for Pak Tea House to regain whatever place it held in the city’s intellectuals’ minds.” In his opinion, a few veterans may try to make the place work but without a spontaneous overflow of emotions for its nostalgic value and iconic status among Lahori residents, the government’s efforts are not expected to bear fruit. “Such places are the outcome of sheer spontaneity,” he explains. “One cannot orchestrate them.”
Senator Rashid, however, believes Pak Tea House has such intrinsic value that it has the potential to overcome these challenges. “[This] is an iconic, historic place which still holds tremendous nostalgic value,” he says. He explains: “If people from the older generation visit the tea house, those from the younger generation may just follow them and continue revisiting.”
For some writers, the problem is not just whether anyone will ultimately come to visit the tea house. To them, it is also debatable whether the venue will hold the same uninhibited debates as in the past. Salman Rashid remarks that state patronage will kill rather than revive the free speech culture associated with places like Pak Tea House. “Government funding goes against Pak Tea House traditions. One wonders what sort of control the government will exercise once [the place] gets going under official patronage.”
While Husain hopes that “the experiment” will maintain the tea house’s spirit of free speech, Senator Rashid promises it will. “In this age and time, it has become a lot more difficult to enforce censorship. You don’t even see the government dictating Pakistan Television,” he feels. “The state has matured and realised that mere talking will not harm it.”
Others believe that reviving heritage might be a worthwhile objective but that the government has no business running cafés. “It is not for the government to spend the taxpayer’s money on such projects,” observes Dr Khalil Ahmed, who heads Alternate Solutions, a policy think tank. If reopened under state privilege, Pak Tea House “will become a consumer space,” says Manan Ahmed, a professor of South Asian history at Columbia University.
Senator Rashid’s response to these arguments is straightforward: “It is the government’s responsibility to spend money to protect heritage,” he insists. “Our job is to set up the place and ensure that it is up and running for people to visit.”
Without a citizens’ initiative supporting Pak Tea House’s revival, this experiment is expected to last as long as the government has the will and the money to fund the project.
Perhaps, as Manan Ahmed suggests, our focus must lie elsewhere. “We don’t need to have Pak Tea House come back to Lahore,” he explains, “we need to remember what role Pak Tea House played in Lahore.”