From Partition onward, Nasir Khan writes, a dusty cafe was the centre of Lahore’s literary life.
Pak Tea House sits on Mall Road in Old Anarkali, nestled between tyre suppliers and motorcycle workshops.
Before Partition it was the India Tea House, but 1947 and a quick paint job changed that. No one knows why it became – along with several similar shops on the same street – a favourite haunt of so many intellectuals. Maybe it was the cheap but good milky tea, or the extra-sweet biscuits. Perhaps it was the literary sensibility of the first post-Partition owners, two brothers from India. It might have been the radio on the counter that was constantly tuned to Lahore’s call-in request programme. And, for scores of struggling writers and poets, the availability of food on credit certainly had something to do with it.
Renowned and soon-to-be-renowned literary figures such as Mira Ji, Saadat Hasan Manto, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Kamal Rizvi and others spent countless afternoons and evenings sipping tea, smoking cigarettes, and sitting on uncomfortable, rickety plastic chairs while indulging in lengthy, convoluted discussions about the state of Pakistani literature. Many of the regulars were members of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, a left-leaning, anti-imperialist group that had formed in the 1930s. In the world of Pakistani letters, the “Golden Age of the Literary Tea House” essay has became a genre unto itself.
Here’s Muhammed Umar Memon in the Annual of Urdu Studies: “The Pak Tea House was not merely a place where writers hung out and passionately discussed literature, the arts, and politics, or where they held their literary meetings and dreamed their brave, fragile dreams, or where they stopped on their way to and from work every day for a brief chat, it was unique as a gathering place which never denied its hospitality to anyone, even those who could not afford to pay for a cup of tea. It chose to operate at a loss rather than submit to the indignity of closing its doors to the nation’s destitute and chronically disenfranchised intellectuals.”
And here’s the fiction writer Intezar Hussain in his nostalgic essay Revisiting the Past: “ It was a different world when coffeehouses and tea-houses flourished. They flourished in the background of a rich restaurant culture, which distinguished the Mall from other cultural spots of the city. Those sitting there were never seen in a hurry. They could afford to sit for long hours discussing ideas and ideologies over a cup of tea. “ For three decades after partition, Hussain visited Pak Tea House almost every other evening. Once, over a cup of tea there, he told me about how the younger writers and poets used to come and sit for hours around their elders, hoping to pick up tips. “I can’t think of another institution,” he said, “which has done so much for the arts as this tiny, cramped tea house where the crockery is cracked and the lights don’t function.”
The restaurant has also been central to Pakistani political activism. Even when the country was under the military rules of Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq, students and activists would crowd around its old tables to air their views. In 1967, the tea house hosted many informal meetings of the newly formed Pakistan Peoples Party.
Over a decade ago, when I was in university, I wasn’t much interested in literature. I’d been to Pak Tea House once or twice with friends, seen the crowds of balding men, and decided it wasn’t my kind of place. But one night a friend of mine, an aspiring writer, insisted I accompany him there, and I agreed. It was between lunch and dinner, which I later found out were the cafe’s busiest hours. Each table had at least four or five people sitting around it, most of them men; many who could not find chairs were standing along the wall. Steaming tea was being served in chipped cups. Most of the patrons had spilt tea in their saucers and were noisily slurping it up. Others were feasting on crumbling biscuits and greasy chicken patties, the crumbs littering their beards and shirts. I couldn’t understand the appeal of this greasy, smoky, loud place, and was plotting my escape when my writer friend spotted an acquaintance at another table. Before I knew what was happening, we had pulled up chairs, joining a group of seven. More tea appeared without any of us ordering it. More crumbly biscuits followed. Someone called out for a plate of lamb chops. Then someone threw out a question, as if it was the most natural thing in the world: did the national poet Allama Iqbal believe in the two-nation theory, or a unified India? Most of the people on both sides of the argument could quote Iqbal’s complicated lines verbatim. As evening dissolved into night, men – journalists, novelists, poets, philosophers – from other tables joined in, more cups of tea were emptied, and most of the cafe joined in as we jumped from Iqbal to the state of Pakistani politics to the origins of the Urdu language. Finally, I had truly visited the Pak Tea House. I would do so again many times in the second half of the 1990s.
In 2000, however, the restaurant’s ailing owner, Zahid Hassan, announced that he planned to convert the place into a more profitable venture – a tyre shop – rather than keep running a cafe where most of the regulars never paid their tabs. The thought of losing the cafe galvanised Lahore’s literati, who sought help from private donors, the media and politicians, put up banners on college campuses, and wrote op-ed pieces pressuring the Punjab government to subsidise Pak Tea House as a cultural landmark. In 2002, Hassan closed his doors – but then, to everyone’s surprise, the government agreed to cover his debts. It is hard for me to convey how heartening this was. It wasn’t just that the cafe reopened. I’ve lived in Lahore for 30 years, and this was the only time I’d seen civic action accomplish anything. From the 1980s onward, military regimes came and went, but the public stayed indoors. Citizens’ rights were abused again and again, but the public stayed indoors. But a cafe closed, and people took to the streets, the press, and their government’s offices to help it reopen.
Unfortunately, in 2004 the Pak Tea House really did shut down; it just wasn’t financially viable. I went there with a friend a few months before it closed for good. Most of the tables were dusty and empty, the waiters had a disinterested air about them, and the few visitors sipped their tea and read in silence. But the brief practical victory of the Save Pak Tea House movement inspired a young writer named Raza Rumi to launch the Pak Tea House blog, where a team of journalists, students, writers, lawyers, politician scientists, and generalists post about whatever they think is important. Recent posts include a poem on partition, an analysis of Pakistan’s security crisis, a review of the new Arundhati Roy book, and a letter to India (“Dear Indian friend”) about the first anniversary of the Mumbai attacks. The typical post sparks dozens of comments, and many prompt meandering debates with over 100 responses. This online Pak Tea House just turned two years old, and it can be a grim place to be. As I write this, the front page deals almost entirely with terrorism, political breakdown, bombings, the possibility of military takeover, the disconnect between America’s Pakistan discourse and Pakistani reality.
Last month, Raza Rumi wrote his own Tea House remembrance essay, in the form of a review of KK Aziz’s Coffee House of Lahore: A Memoir 1942-57, an eyewitness history of a cafe that sat just 150 yards away from Pak Tea House. “The death of the Coffee House and the burial of Pak Tea House have coincided with the demise of discourse in Pakistan. We have done well to acquire nuclear weapons and thousands of madrasas that preach violence and hatred. But we have lost a culture that was based on tolerance, peace and amity. KK Aziz has done a great service to Lahore, Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent by documenting an era that will never return.” Pak Tea House still sits on Mall Road in Old Anarkali; it’s just boarded up now.
Five years on, there’s no sign of the tyre shop.
Nasir Khan is an advertising executive and freelance journalist in Pakistan.