Category: Lahore

Not everyone’s cup of tea

The reopening of Lahore’s Pak Tea House is not generating the excitement the government hoped for

Pak Tea House undergoing renovation - September 2012 [Photo by Minhaj Rafi]

Pak Tea House undergoing renovation – September 2012 [Photo by Minhaj Rafi]

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.

Cartoon that appeared in an Urdu newspaper, Insaaf, in September 2000, questioning whether the demise of Pak Tea Hous signifies the loss of intellectual moorings.  [Courtesy Javed Aftab]

Cartoon that appeared in an Urdu newspaper, Insaaf, in September 2000, questioning whether the demise of Pak Tea Hous signifies the loss of intellectual moorings.
[Courtesy Javed Aftab]

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.”

You can see the PDF of the article by clicking on the link Pak Tea House Spetember 2012

This article was originally published in September 2012 Herald issue. You can also read it on line by clicking here. 


From two of my most favouritest twitter personality, I got two compliments. As someone who has enough self-doubts and a tendency to go hard on myself, this was surely quite a pleasant surprise.I could try and be profound about it but at 6.30am and this state of delirium, all i know is that these are some of the kindest, nicest words ever said about me. Right or wrong, thats besides the point.

Thank you, two of you 🙂 It truly, truly means the world to me.

Person 1) “you are a case of still water running deep”

Person 2) “… Yours isn’t to be a polymath, you’re the socio-cultural anthropologist amongst us. You have this superhuman ability to step back and SEE the big picture
and analyze it right down to the bone. There aren’t many people with that level of depth and attention to detail AND a broad vision. It is the rarest thing i have ever come across. Much more so than being a polymath. Don’t think i haven’t been paying attention. It’s ridiculous how you do it. Being able to look at things from every side possible. social, cultural, economic, psychological, political and then put it all together in one neatly wrapped box for the rest of us. Believe me when I say this, every single one of those polymaths you so desperately look up to, they either already envy you this ability, or will when they realize it.

You see people beyond just what they say, and beyond what happened in their lives. You really figure them out down to their very essence. It’s an insanely important trait. much much more than having a bizarre memory problem, let me tell you. You’re more human than the rest of us, and it’s glorious.”

 Mr. MacPhisto leaves his hometown Karachi for a job in Lahore and lives to tell the tale

After spending just a little over a quarter of a century in Karachi, my hometown, I experienced a life-changing epiphany last year when I attended a U2 concert in Istanbul. As Bono’s mighty vocals rang in my ears with lyrics from ‘Walk On’ (“You’re packin’ a suitcase for a place, none of us has been/ A place that has to be believed, to be seen/Walk On/ Leave it behind/You’ve got to leave it behind”), a strange feeling took a hold of me: I just wanted to be away from home.

Soon after I returned to Karachi I made it a point to seek job options
outside the city. And, as luck would have it, the opportunity knocked on my door when only three months after that fateful evening in Istanbul, I had an offer to move to Lahore.

Having visited that famous ‘other’ city over the years, the decision was a no-brainer: three weeks later I was ready to change my area code from 021 to 042.

However, the moment I stepped out of the airplane and felt the bitingly chilly wind on my face, I knew I wasn’t in for a ‘warm’ welcome.  My Karachi-dwelling friends had warned me. A few had suggested I check into a mental asylum, but most had simply predicted that I would be back in less than 90 days, with my sanity and accent more or less

To pass judgement on a city like Lahore after spending only a weekend in it is a crime against humanity. (Or the chunk of it that lives in Lahore anyway.) One can never get an accurate impression of the city in a three-day visit.  One needs to spend a considerable amount of time in Lahore to understand its culture, its eccentricities, and all
that is good, bad, and ugly here.

On my previous visits to Lahore I often had a car on me, which meant it was easy for me to move around. But this time I was car-less and soon found myself in a crisis. How to get to work! The Lahori public transport system is mostly an exercise in fleecing poor, unknowing customers. For example, I have yet to witness a single functioning, stopping-when-you-wave-your-hand-at-it taxi in the city. Rickhsaw walas, whether on their shiny CNG-powered Qing Chi rides or specimens of the older and more colourful variety, all cite a shortage
of gas as an excuse for exorbitant rates. The Khan Metro Bus Service buses, which I currently use to get to work, keep me waiting at the bus stop for a minimum of 25 minutes.
And then there’s the bargaining process, a tragicomic farce in which I, an Urdu-speaking Karachiite with no ear for Punjabi, try to convince a nonchalant rickshaw wala that 300 rupees is way too much for a journey of less than 10 km.

Also (and I am about to offend some Lahoris by saying this), despite the presence of the most efficient and nicely dressed, colour-coordinated traffic wardens, the traffic itself is atrocious, and no where it is more painful to navigate than on the Canal Road.
With narrow roads and multiple underpasses, the Canal Road is a mela of indecisive drivers who try to zigzag their way out of procedural lines at rush hour as they are still calculating whether to enter the underpass or not.

However, I must concede that aesthetically, this city is like no other in Pakistan. Even though Isloo loyalists might want to lynch me for this blasphemous statement, I have to say that Lahore wins this competition hands down. There’s no city in Pakistan which can compete with Lahore’s history, culture and stunning architecture,

People in Karachi often accuse Lahore of being too phony, too loud. This I feel is a misconception. The final cut in this war of words between Karachiites and Lahoris is that the former have a sea to call their own. What can Lahore boast of? Great waters aside, Lahore has much to offer. For an outsider like me, exploring my new city of residence and its people allowed me to understand what makes Lahore the city it is.

Admittedly, there are vast contradictions. You have extremists at both ends of the spectrum. While riding a bus, you may find the interior dotted with stickers and graffiti calling the faithful to wage Jihad against imperialists and blasphemers. You could see a call to eliminate Ahmadis and a salute to the killer of former Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. On the other hand, the city is also home to the Lollywood film industry, raunchy stage shows and a thriving nightlife, albeit for a private few.

What is common to everyone in Lahore is their generosity and hospitality. Lahoris don’t do things in half measures. They go out and they make sure they treat you like a king, even if you can’t understand a word of Punjabi!

My own love affair with Lahore has been going on for quite sometime, but all of it was of a personal nature. All my former lovers and my current flame happen to be from Lahore, but this time round, I fell in love with the city too! This moment of confession came when I was
covering an event in a college inside the Old City.

Not knowing much about the old city, I borrowed my uncle’s car and muttering ‘In Google (maps) we Trust’, I made my way to the Government Fatima Jinnah College, Choona Mandi. Entering The Mall, I had to stop myself from craning my neck to look at all the marvelous buildings on this great road, whilst driving. I was left awe struck by the majestic

But the best was yet to come. As I turned towards Badshahi mosque, the magic of old Lahore swamped me. Buildings made hundreds of years ago, the marvelous structure of the Lahore Fort and the famous Alamgiri Badshahi mosque, the walls of which are witness to history, were right there in front of me. I was visiting the place after almost 14 years
and I was completely taken aback by what I saw. For a history fanatic like me, Androon Shehar was like heaven on earth. The Fatima Jinnah College itself was housed in two havelis which were regal. The narrow streets, the people, the small workshops, everything just looked so quaint and attractive.

When I returned to the office, the first thing I told my colleague was how I fell in love with the city. He laughed, asking me if I was sure I went to the college and not to that “infamous” street!

So far, at the end of the first month, my overwhelming emotion is that Lahore is a city I would love to live in. Having a scrumptious Mughlai dinner atop Andaaz restaurant, overlooking the walled city, I realised that Karachi may have the sea, but Lahore has the soul.