The end of Pak Tea House

Published: March 6, 2013
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

During a recent revisit to Lahore, my nephew shared with me the lament of the owner of the famous Pak Tea House, a place that was a hub of Lahore’s intellectual life for many years. He had cribbed about how the government did not let him sell the property. Surely, this is unfair because for him it is no longer ‘business as usual’. Times had changed. My nephew thought this was because the Tea House was now in a congested place and parking could be an issue. His remark reminded me of the good old days of the Pak Tea House that I used to visit with my mother during the 1970s and the 1980s. I realised that we were talking about the end of the Pak Tea House just like ‘the end of history’.

It is not possible to recreate the magic because the people, their attitudes and the circumstances in which literature used to happen then, as compared with how it takes place now, have changed. To begin with, the breed of writers is different now. Those that livened up the place once did not have a lot of material entrapments and so it was possible to take a lift with someone to the Mall or even take a rickshaw or taxi. Like a lot of other things in this country, the shift of attitude of the writers and intellectuals is also linked with General Ziaul Haq. As plots, cars and positions were distributed, it brought a gradual end to the darweshi of the fiction writer and the poet. The intellectual competition no longer remained that but had material dimensions as well.

When we talk of the Pak Tea House, it is about the intellectual depth of the city. This was a place where the intellectual left met the right and had decent but meaningful conversations. There were always three to four intellectual groups, which then slowly changed into mafias. But then, not everything can be blamed on Zia. There were other critical developments, such as the growing chasm between the native Urdu writer and the non-native, who over the years, produced better literature but was ignored for political reasons. This problem was more acute in Lahore as compared with Sindh because Punjab did reach out to accepting Urdu with greater excitement. However, if the judgment was made on the basis of ethnicity and not the quality of literature, then it surely got frustrating and confusing. Therefore, it is a combination of reasons that people in Lahore seem to be forgetting great names like Jamila Hashmi, Muneer Niazi, Majeed Amjad, Umme Ammara, Mukhtar Masood, Imtiaz Ali Taj, Hijab Imtiaz Ali and many others.

This is really the end of intellectual history for Lahore that no one amongst the present generation even knows of what a vibrant place the Urdu Bazaar used to be or the characters who oiled the intellectual machine. People like Mohammad Tufail of Naqoosh Press, who was not just a publisher but very deeply a part of the intellectual scene, often engaged writers in conversations and ideas. Also, the conversations that were left unfinished would happen elsewhere. There were smaller groups that competed but produced. The same time that the Pak Tea House was closed around the mid-1990s was also when intellectual life began to change and the groups that were earlier based on ideas turned into mafias. However, this was also a watershed moment for literature in Punjab, and especially Lahore, in that the language began to change. English slowly started to dominate and the literature festivals are a reminder of how this is actually the end of the Pak Tea House.

It was great to have a literature festival in Lahore. But it also made one wonder about its capacity to connect with plural traditions in terms of language, culture and historical legacy. For one, there was no discussion of Punjabi or Seraiki literatures — two languages that dominate Punjab. Furthermore, there is very rich fiction and poetry being produced in these languages that would enrich the crowds at any festival. But perhaps, the corporate world that seems to have now taken over literature and literary festivals is all about numbers and glitter.

The majority of attendees of the festival were people who had little idea of the richness of the city and its literary scene. Sadly, there was no effort made to connect with a lot of those who are part of the city’s intellectual legacy. A lot of writers, who have produced exciting fiction on exciting and deeply political issues, like the 1971 debacle, were not even invited to attend. Perhaps, this was because a lot of these names are not visible to the English-speaking world or have not been taken over by the corporate universe. Unfortunately, literature, art and culture have to now conform to the Coke Studio standard to remain relevant or attract attention. This is certainly a different age.

Once upon a time and not too long ago, Lahore’s literary life lived its ideas and literature. Habib Jalib was not just supposed to be sung at all odd hours by the strangest of people but imagined in real life. There was a deeper politics behind the words, which made Faiz or Manto much more real than the present-day presentation by the corporate world. Now, we tend to recite their poetry and read their fiction without understanding the spiritual and intellectual journey behind the words. Surely, all of this is partly natural and part of some change. However, it is a sad fact when intellectuals are brought down to the level of popular brands with little interest in the real spirit behind the ideas. No wonder, we are so fond of singing and reciting Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Hum dekhein gey” but fail to ever bring those words to life. More important, every society needs a handshake between ages. This is not about comparative wisdom but about learning and keeping the secret of ones’ culture intact. I wonder if we realise that the end of the Pak Tea House is not about closing down of a shop. It is symbolic of closing down of a window to a rich legacy of art and literature.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (28)

  • Pro Bono Publico
    Mar 6, 2013 - 10:12PM

    Thank you.
    Indeed, the literary festivals — if one notes — were arranged by commercial houses, especially UOP Pakistan. It was thus natural too miss out writers like Altaf Fatima who is very much in Lahore and still writing.
    Pak Tea House did not impose itself. It grew with times — the post-Partition era where lavish living was still hard to find; the pre-big money era where writers wrote for the art. It grew in an area where writers could share tonga fare and get dropped at the Tea House.
    Older Lahorites — wherever they may be now — can never forget how Dr Syed Abdullah of Punjab University used to arrange marches on the Mall softly reminding people to speak, read, and write Urdu.
    It was thus laughable too see public funds spent on “resurrecting” PTH. Was it the structure that made PTH what it was? It was an entire that disappeared with the rise of materialism. This attempt to “recreate” PTH would like recreating pushcarts and asking artists to sell their paintings in the streets of Paris.


  • Jehangir Mari
    Mar 6, 2013 - 11:56PM

    Does anybody in Pakistan knows that Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India and a Punjabi, writes and delivers his parliament speeches in Urdu language and script.


  • Falcon
    Mar 7, 2013 - 12:07AM

    I would like to add few additional factors at work:
    1. Firstly, part of the reason Punjabi and Saraiki literature are not that common to see is also because of language insecurities of people from the region. It is unfortunate that Punjabi speakers and Saraiki speakers are considered as backward in certain sections of Pakistan and worst yet, these ethnicities bought into the idea. Now, we have the situation where many of the Punjabi / Saraiki parents don’t even teach their children their mother language because of this insecurity.
    2. The second layer of insecurity stems from English becoming a status symbol and new generation growing up in O-level / A-level type education where exposure to Urdu literature is minimal. I would be surprised if many youngsters in their tweens know about Mumtaz Mufti or Bano Qudsia today. Sufi ethos that were embedded into the literature of the soil are have been reduced to Coke studio fads.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Mar 7, 2013 - 12:39AM

    Punjab accept and feel proud in speaking urdu lang and urdu peoples but on other hand karachi the hub of urdu speaker blame every thing for every mess to punjab what a irony…
    i never understand


  • Shameema
    Mar 7, 2013 - 2:15AM

    Ali Tanoli: it is not just Karachi but Sindh, Baluchistan, Khyber-Pakhtunwa also blame Punjab.
    This has nothing to do with the Urdu Language but a natural feeling against the Punjabi dominated Establishment and Bureaucracy who have been responsible for decision- making for a number of years. In fact the only positive thing this nexus has to its credit is the promotion of one national language in Pakistan. Urdu’s pre-dominance in the Punjab dates from 1848 when the British took over Punjab Ranjit Singh and promoted Urdu over Punjabi as the medium of


  • gp65
    Mar 7, 2013 - 4:03AM

    @Jehangir Mari: “Does anybody in Pakistan knows that Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India and a Punjabi, writes and delivers his parliament speeches in Urdu language and script”.

    His speeches are in Hindustani which is a mix of Hindi and Urdu but you are correct that they are written in the Urdu script because he is more comfortable wioth that script.

    In any case, Urdu is one of the 22 official Indian languages – so that’s not an issue. Our former President Abdul Kalaam though a Muslim could neither read or speak Urdu since his mother tongue was Tamil.

    No one in India feels uptight about these things. Even today in Mumbai it is possible to study in an English medium school, Hindi medium school, Gujarati medium schol or Marathi medium school. IT is really the parents that choose medium of instruction and the trend has been towards English medium instruction – not because of status but because of economic opportunity that this gives. The state simply prescribes the syllabus not medium of instruction.


  • Tariq
    Mar 7, 2013 - 9:00AM

    Good indictment of the literary scene when we are equating journalese streaks as literature rather than bring content to creative plank,surely it is more arduous and doesn’t sit in we’ll with racy corporatism,literature is while cooking in matti ki handi on slow flames rather than ona grill machine, these days it is the showcasing that leaves the impression,hope this piece will generate discussion about which way our literary movements head for


  • GhostRider
    Mar 7, 2013 - 9:13AM

    Indian folks…why do you come and extoll the virtues of India here…seriously your efforts give indication that nobody gives a damn about you guys in the world and you come here to tell us how great you are, because world thinks of you as slumdog millionaire. Take a pause for the cause, nobody here is interested


  • scotchpak
    Mar 7, 2013 - 9:24AM


    What good is weeping and crying- make 10 more tea houses. Its cheaper than raising ten unemployed intellectuals.


  • Gp65
    Mar 7, 2013 - 9:38AM

    I responded to a statement someone’s made about Manmohan Singh’s speech and another one I about status of various languages. I do not think I was bragging. Simply providing information in light of the fact that these issues are currently being discussed in Pakistan.

    My post was directly related to the content and not some general bragging/gloating that you seem to accuse me of.


  • Sheheryar Khan
    Mar 7, 2013 - 9:47AM

    I don’t know whether the author knows but the irony is unmistakeable here. This op-ed was written the very day when City District Government Lahore renovated and reopened Pak Tea House.


  • Indian Wisdom
    Mar 7, 2013 - 10:14AM

    Indian folks…why do you come and extoll the virtues of India here…seriously your efforts give indication that nobody gives a damn about you guys in the world and you come here to tell us how great you are, because world thinks of you as slumdog millionaire. Take a pause for the cause, nobody here is interested”

    Probably this sort of attitude is the very reason behind the end of the Pak Tea House. When you are not able to tolerate the difference in opinions and diversity of thoughts you are doomed.
    Believe me you won’t enjoy ET if we left the scene. Life on these pages would be god damn boring. We are the salt of ET.
    Further if a flower (ET) has fragrance (quality articles ) butterflies will come. You can’t ask why, just admire it and appreciate it!!!!
    And you know better in your heart how the world views India and how does it view Pakistan, we don’t have to add anything to it. You yourself know it best if you are honest to yourself…….


  • Umer
    Mar 7, 2013 - 10:34AM

    Shehryar Khan: this article is not about opening or closin of a tea house but how ideas are celebrated. The article decries forgotten heroes and what ha fallen victim to corporate culture


  • Hazrat Wali Kakar
    Mar 7, 2013 - 12:22PM

    thanks Madam!!
    it is a very important issue which you have try to address in this short article.
    please i wish you could write about the current statement by Army Chief ” Free and Fair election on the time is my dream’. Is it fact or just a statement? If yes then how ? if No then why?


  • Mar 7, 2013 - 1:22PM

    to this writer and those in her generation, all I want to tell you is – when you were growing up you were constantly being told how great the past was just as you are telling the younger generation now that the closing of tea shop is the end of an era of culture and whatever.

    Seriously…stop taking yourself so seriously. There is no end of this or that as pakistanis love to lament – what is with you guys and the past.

    You are now living in the most vibrant era of Pakistan – rejoice and celebrate the present – despite the bombs etc ordinary people are empowered like never before and governments have to listen whether they like it or not – what is there so rosy about pakistan’s past – you undermine the confidence of the present generation everytime you start on this mantra.


  • amoghavarsha.ii
    Mar 7, 2013 - 2:07PM

    There are over 200 languagues in India.
    No langauage is imposed on the people by any Govt. State or Center.
    Hindi is official language along with English, which is basically to facilitate large sections of society. But not used as unifying entity.
    One of the greatest awards for literary works is the Gnana Peetha Awards, which shows that there is no bias towards any language in India.
    Art / Lanugage/ culture blooms only in conducive peaceful environments.
    Also Art / culture depicts the status of the society at that particular time.


  • M. Ahmed
    Mar 7, 2013 - 3:56PM

    “There were other critical developments, such as the growing chasm between the native Urdu writer and the non-native, who over the years, produced better literature but was ignored for political reasons”.

    Will someone explain and elucidate the above statement extracted taken from the above story?


  • vexed
    Mar 7, 2013 - 4:41PM

    You betray your petty inferiority complex when you jump on gp65 and pour your derision on her. The legacy of a culture inherited through 2000 years of common history can NOT be detached in a 60 year time-frame.
    If only youngsters like you who’ve grown up in a schizophrenic socio-cultural environment knew what it really meant to share a language, customs, beliefs outside the purview of religion…..If only.


  • Mime
    Mar 7, 2013 - 6:20PM

    A brilliant read indeed.
    We are pushing it towards and end ….and era, a legacy ! It saddens me ! Helpless !


  • Swani
    Mar 7, 2013 - 8:06PM

    Lifeless body but without a soul


  • Zalmai
    Mar 7, 2013 - 8:09PM

    @M. Ahmed

    “There were other critical developments, such as the growing chasm between the native Urdu writer and the non-native, who over the years, produced better literature but was ignored for political reasons”.

    Will someone explain and elucidate the above statement extracted taken from the above story?”

    I read somewhere that Pashtun writers/poets who wrote in Urdu, such as Ahmad Faraz aka Syed Ahmad Shah were shunned or discriminated against by some Urdu literati. Maybe this is one such example of the chasm between the native Urdu writer and the non-native.


  • naeem khan Manhattan,Ks
    Mar 7, 2013 - 8:33PM

    It is the age of Internet, where the modern day dictators can’t do the things they used to do,it is the age of the face- book and you-tube, one can even publish their own books and don’t need the publisher. Yes, we oldies longing for past but the past has already gone by us, I would not say all writers and intellectuals in Paksitan has become mega materialistic but I suppose they have to keep up with the Joneses. I come from Mardan-Peshawar area and recall the same intellectual discussions taking place at Peshawar cafe in Saddar in the 60s, The likes of Ahmed Faraz were common sight, I remember the students from Islamia College and Peshawar University come by this watering hole and even the medical college students took the time to enrich themselves, one of them was Syed Amjad Hussain. Thank you for writing such a heart warming article.


  • Saad I Hasan
    Mar 8, 2013 - 12:05AM

    Indeed the effort done by Ayesha Siddiqa in exposing one of the diminishing aspect of our culture is commendable. She is always very candid in her writings. After reading the article and analysing the aspect, I come to the conclusion that the basis of emerging deficiency of intellectualism is due to various medium and standard of education in our society. Neither English is the same of all education systems in our country nor our national language, Urdu. Even Islamiat is different of Cambridge system to that of Matric system. How can intellectuals grow? Madam, our elders were great literary scholars having great intellect because they studied in one system of education that is during pre-partition era. Now we have gone far ahead. The only solution which I in my humble capacity foresee is to bring the curriculum of our matric system closer to cambrige because we donot have guts to terminate cambridge system or bring its syllabus closer to our own matric system. It is a long term measure but may give dividends in times to come. Ameen.


  • Salim
    Mar 8, 2013 - 1:00AM

    @GhostRider: I don’t think Gp65’s words meant to glorify India. I think you are not responding to the content of his comments. Instead, you are writing from a position of national chauvinism. I personally disagree with his view that “no one in India feels uptight about these views”. There have been disputes in India in regards to language in various regions.


  • A U Ahmed
    Mar 8, 2013 - 2:12AM

    Dear Dr. Sidiqa, thank you for a wonderful article that’s provoking so many thoughts. I would also like to say that it would have been wonderful to see you at the LLF and thus your comment about Lahori audiences being blithely unaware of their city’s heritage both literary or otherwise seems as somewhat of a sweeping generalisation and generally off the pulse in our city. That said the LLF is one festival and while the criticism you raise is 100% valid, the one question one could raise is perhaps – what’s holding anyone back from putting together a platform/ fest celebrating Urdu, punjabi, maths, art etc. lets stop criticising and get some more platforms going perhaps. Commercial or otherwise. We need them all. Talking has gotten us thus far but it’s time for action and reclamation. The City District Government Lahore has done a great thing by rehabilitating PTH. Formerly an empty space its been invested in and “pimped up”. The times it personifies are over and only ghosts remain but What’s stopping us from claiming the space and using it? Is it too garish for our taste? Time for new literature, new memories new achievements. Or just more laments? Every Sunday there’s an incredible book bazaar that takes over the pavements outside PTH, and some of the books the vendors carry are incredible. I intend to go pottering through this bazaar looking for literary treasures then pop into PTH for a tea and sugar fix. Wonder how many other Lahoris I’ll see out there making the most of the assets we have. Have a great weekend all. Viva la Lahore.


  • Jeddy
    Mar 8, 2013 - 12:19PM

    It should be relocated to a less congested area have a park around it, Be supported and sponsored by different companies and organisations so as to ensure its traditions which made it famous, should be preserved. A place where poets, writers and thinkers should feel comfortable in.


  • gp65
    Mar 8, 2013 - 12:41PM

    @Salim: Thank you for taking my words at face value and not as an attempt to gloat. You are correct that there have been disputes in India in the early decades after independence on the basis of language when the southern states particularly the Madras State as it was known then fiercely resisted the attempt to impose Hindi. The government backed off and India does not have a single national language though it has 22 official languages. Also, since then there has been a linguistic reorganization of states in the country. Punjab/Haryana were split on language basis, Gujarat/Maharashtra the same way. The Southern States of Madras, Mysore Hyderabad were also altered largely along linguistic lines.

    At this time there is no noticeable language related tension. OF course with SOuthern states including Maharashtra having half the fertility of Northern states like Bihar/UP, there is occasionally resentment of migrants – not due to any language issue but more because they create competition for jobs.

    By the way – I am a woman.


  • Saad I Hasan
    Mar 8, 2013 - 6:26PM

    Congratulation, your article has reawaken the need of Pak Tea House. It is open now.


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