Just a few minutes walk from where I stay in Chennai, there's a small but lovely park - Nageswara Rao park in Mylapore. Every morning, large numbers come there to walk, do exercises, practise yoga, play badminton, chat with their friends ... all the things that a really good urban park facilitates.
Do please come with me on a circuit round Chennai's Nageswara Rao park:
And in case you are tempted to see the park for yourself, and indeed to do a few circuits, here's where it is -
I am back in Chennai for a fourth successive year spending a semester teaching at the Asian College of Journalism. Over the next couple of months, I'll be spending twenty contact hours a week with the same TV journalism class - so it's sort of important we get on. I met the class for the first time just now, and I think things will work out fine. They even laughed at a couple of my jokes - that's unprecedented!
Hanging out at all my old haunts in Alwarpet, I noticed that my excellent local supermarket has had a name change. Last time I was here it was called 'Wait Rose London Supermarket' - which struck me as a pretty clear-cut case of "passing off". The name seems to nudge at a connection with the up-market Waitrose chain of supermarkets in the UK, established back in 1904 by Mr Waite and Mr Rose (and, confusingly, Mr Taylor too).
Now my local mart in Chennai has been rebranded - it's the 'White Rose London Supermarket'. Though as you can see signs of its old avatar are not exactly hard to spot -
White Rose has five medium-sized supermarkets across Chennai, and as far as I can tell from its website all have been rechristened. Why? That's not at all clear - and an email to the company has so far gone unanswered. But I spotted a news report suggesting that Waitrose, the British chain, is expanding its operations in India which might have made it a touch more protective of its brand name. That's simply my speculation, you, understand - nothing more.
So that's all fine then.
But hang on. Look again at the White Rose signboard - and at the rose between the two words. That's not a white rose at all. It's red!
Don't they know that wars have been fought between rival champions of the white rose and the red -
It wasn't THE English Civil War - that came a couple of centuries later - but it was a civil war, The white rose was the symbol of the House of York while red represented Lancaster.
To this day, Yorkshire's symbol is the white rose while Lancashire is the red rose county.
These are not trifling issues. How can a signboard carry the White Rose name and the red rose symbol? In case any should wonder, yes I have a stake in this contest. Born and bred Yorkshire.
So the White Rose will continue to enjoy my custom. But please, get rid of that blob of red!
No, this hotel isn't called the Ava Gardner - but given the manner her brief sojourn here is celebrated, you could be excused for making that mistake.
This is Faletti's - by some measure, Lahore's most historic hotel. It was established in 1880 by Andrei Faletti, a Piedmontese chef who traveled to Punjab by way of Hammersmith. And it was opened by the provincial governor, Sir Robert Egerton, who gave his name to the road on which the hotel is located. And as Lahore has not gone in for the wholesale renaming of roads redolent of Empire, Faletti's continues to stand on Egerton Road.
Faletti's initially had competition. Michael Nedou from what is now Croatia opened the distinctly opulent Nedou's Hotel nearby in the same year. But that's now gone - Nedou's in Srinagar is derelict - though the family continues to run the Nedou's Hotel in the Kashmiri skiing resort of Gulmarg.
In Delhi, the nearest comparison to Faletti's is the Maidens Hotel which opened a few years later.
Signor Faletti died in 1905, and in 1942 the hotel was bought by the Oberoi group, a Sikh-run hotel dynasty which at one time also ran the Maidens in Delhi and Clarke's (earlier known as the Carlton) in Simla.
After the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Faletti's Hotel was taken over as enemy property.
Happily, Faletti's remains well run, with wonderful rooms - I stayed there recently. It is still largely single storey - though now much of the revenue comes from weddings held in huge marriage halls at the back of the main building.
Some of the back story that Faletti's has created for itself is a little dubious. The photo above is on display in the lobby. Whenever it was taken, it was certainly not 1900 - the cars in the picture look as if they date from a few decades later. Alas, the spot where the cane chairs were laid out is now a car park - but there is a lovely hidden-away garden at the back.
And Ava Gardner? Well, yes it seems she did indeed stay here when starring in the film version of John Masters' Bhowani Junction released in 1956.
She was described in the movie's publicity as 'the most alluring woman', starring as the beautiful but ill-fated Anglo-Indian woman Victoria Jones alongside Stewart Granger as a British colonel.
Her room - number 55 - is now the Ava Gardner suite.
The movie's trailer describes 'Bhowani Junction' as the first American film to be shot in Pakistan.
Marlon Brando is also reputed to have stayed at Faletti's in 1967 - though alas he wasn't filming in Lahore but (unlikely as it seems) supporting a United Nations initiative. The hotel's only coffee shop-cum-restaurant is named after him - the De Brando (the sort of name that suggests a sidestepping of copyright issues).
Among political leaders, Nehru and Jinnah both stayed here, as did the 'Frontier Gandhi', Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and the leader Pakistan hanged, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And yes, Sir Garfield Sobers - the legendary West Indian cricketer - also passed this way.
And although it's something that no Lahori would give a second thought to, it is wonderful to see the cheel, the kites (birds not the other sort of kites, ... kite-flying is banned in Lahore because the habit of strengthening kite strings with powdered glass has led to pedestrians and cyclists being garotted) wheeling over the hotel grounds.
So nice to have stayed at Faletti's!
Suleman Sardar is the volunteer caretaker of the Gora Kabristan - it translates very crudely as the white guys' graveyard - in the Dharampura district of Lahore. It's hidden away just off Infantry Road and as you can see is haphazardly maintained.
But this place, the British Infantry Graveyard as it is formally known, offers an elegiac take on the colonial era.
The cemetery was established more than 200 years ago as a burial place for British soldiers - there's an article about its history here. There are similar cemeteries across South Asia.
Some decades after independence the graveyard was brought back into use for Lahore's Christian community - in Pakistan, often a marginalised and non-privileged group. When I visited a few days ago, there had clearly been some recent interments.
Suleman Sardar - a Christian - describes himself as fighting an uphill battle, without funds or much in the way of support, to preserve the graves and stop encroachment. That may not be the full story - but at least this burial ground is not a complete wilderness as some others in the region are.
Some of the memorial stones reflect the huge loss of life - more often from illness and diseases than in conflict - sustained by British troops and their families while policing and defending the Empire.
The imperial project was wrong and cruel ... but that doesn't mean that we need show no compassion for those agents of Empire who lie buried in places such as Lahore's Gora Kabristan, close to what was once the Mian Mir cantonment.
The matter-of-fact inscriptions on the memorial stones disclose the human cost of imperialism - to the 'goras' as well as those under their yoke.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY
THE 42 OFFICERS N.C.O.s,
PRIVATES, WOMEN & CHILDREN
OF THE FIFTH FUSILIERS
WHO DIED IN THIS STATION
BETWEEN 1871 & 1893
WHO LIE BURIED IN THIS CEMETERY
ERECTED BY THEIR COMRADES OF
THE 2nd BN FIFTH FUSILIERS 1930
Lahore was once Rudyard Kipling's city, and in Something of Myself he wrote:
I got to know the soldiery of those days in my visits to Fort Lahore and, in a less degree, at Mian Mir Cantonments. My first and best loved Battalion was the 2nd Fifth Fusiliers, with whom I dined in awed silence a few weeks after I came out ...
So this graveyard is where the 'Tommies' who people Kipling's stories are laid to rest.
I made a personal act of pilgrimage in Lahore this week - to the Bradlaugh Hall. This magnificent but sadly dilapidated building is where Freda Bedi - the English woman turned Indian nationalist whose biography I have written - first addressed a political meeting in her adopted home of Punjab.
It was the mid-1930s, and Freda was convinced by her Punjabi communist husband, Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, to address a student rally at Bradlaugh Hall.
'B.P.L. said oh, you know, they want you to talk - it's nothing, you just talk as you talk at a debating society at Oxford. And when I got there I was petrified to find that there were 24,000 people waiting, and this crowd of 24,000 had a very definite opinion about what it should listen to and what it shouldn't. And if it didn't like the speaker it would start beating the ground with sticks and the soles of the feet and making a noise so the speaker would have to go down.
'Anyway, I decided that the reason they didn't like a number of speakers was that they couldn't hear them and the best thing would be to speak pretty loudly. ... So I stood on the platform like a martyr awaiting execution and I suddenly began speaking ... in a very loud voice, and I can still feel the shock that went through the whole 24,000 heads when this slight western-looking person suddenly bellowed into the microphone, must have been out of sheer fright. And that established me as a speaker. I found I could go on speaking and not be drummed out of existence by the sticks and the feet.'
The 24,000 number is not to be taken too literally - but creeping inside the rotting hulk of the building, a rather perilous venture, you get a sense of the scale of the nationalist rallies so often held here. When Freda and other wartime political prisoners were released from jail in Lahore in 1941, Bradlaugh Hall was the venue for the Congress rally to mark their liberation.
It was a stormy and overcast day when I visited the hall - you can get an idea of how it looks when the sun shines from this photo, one of a series, which accompanied an excellent article in the Dawn newspaper a few years ago:
The hall has a fascinating, if somewhat opaque, history. It is very central - just off Rattigan Road and a few minutes' stroll from Government College where B.P.L. Bedi was once a student. And it's named after an English politician, Charles Bradlaugh (I once made a radio documentary about him - you can hear it here). He was a republican and atheist MP on the ultra-radical wing of Victorian liberalism who was famously detained overnight in the Houses of Parliament as part of a tumultuous struggle he staged to be allowed to affirm - rather than take a religious oath - when taking his seat in the Commons.
Bradlaugh took on the informal title when a Parliamentarian in the 1880s of the 'Member for India'. And he was one of the very few British MPs of his day to make the trip out to the biggest and most valued part of the Empire.
In December 1889, Bradlaugh sailed to Bombay to give the opening address at the annual gathering of the Indian National Congress. Yes, that's the same Congress - in institutional terms at least - as the political party which dominated politics once India gained independence, until the recent rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP that is.
Bradlaugh was by then very unwell, in part because of his ceaseless campaigning. Part of the purpose of the trip to India was the supposedly restorative sea passage. He spent not more than two weeks in India and health concerns meant that he wasn't able to fulfil his ambition to travel around the country. And it's clear - in spite of what some local historical sources say - that Bradlaugh never made it to Lahore.
Four years later, in 1893, the annual session of Congress was held in Lahore - and was presided over by Dadabhai Naoroji, who was also a member of the House of Commons (the Liberal MP for Finsbury Central). That seems to be when fundraising started to construct a hall in Lahore not under the direct control of the colonial authorities and so able to be used for nationalist gatherings.
The inaugural stone was laid in 1900 - nine years after Bradlaugh's death - by a prominent nationalist Surendranath Banerjee. Once completed, it became associated with Lala Lajpat Rai, who established the National College in the hall buildings. Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary regarded as perhaps India's foremost martyr of the struggle for independence, attended this college and almost certainly spoke here.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah are among many prominent political figures said to have addressed their followers at the Bradlaugh Hall. It was perhaps the foremost venue in Lahore for nationalist meetings during the first half of the twentieth century.
The hall is slightly hidden away and not fully visible from the main road. That perhaps explains its survival more-or-less in tact - though some extensions were added when the building was, apparently, used as a steel mill after independence.
Although it's supposed to be sealed off, with the help of local historian Faizan Naqvi, I was able to get inside the cavernous hall, which was both awe-inspiring and, given the poor upkeep, deeply depressing.
A detailed study of Bradlaugh Hall - posted below - describes it as 'a gem among all the colonial period building of Lahore' and points to the window design in particular as a remarkable amalgamation of western and local styles. The architecture is certainly, well, non-standard - but its importance lies in the use to which it was put rather than the integrity of its design.
The building is certainly imposing, and given its centrality to the nationalist movement in what was then the capital of undivided Punjab, I do hope it has a secure future.
At the moment, the structure seems broadly sound, but many of the remarkable wooden window fittings are crumbling and the roof is peppered with holes. It was a rainy day when I visited, and floor of the hall - happily constructed of brick - was an array of puddles.
The building is under the control of a curious hangover from the Partition era, the Evacuee Trust Properties Board. After the steel mill closed, the building was apparently used as a school - and although it is said to have been empty for the past fifteen years, my ramble round the interior revealed educational posters of a fairly recent vintage and even a blackboard with some maths sums still clearly legible.
There is now a Save Bradlaugh Hall campaign which deserves support - though there's work to be done to develop clear plans for any future use of the hall and the source of funds to repair and adapt the structure.
But such a magnificent and historic meeting place - a location so redolent of the nationalist movement in Lahore - surely deserves a generous measure of tender loving care ... and cash.
LATER: a piece based on this blog was broadcast on the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent on 27 February 2020. Here's the audio:
An A in a circle - and it's all in red and black. The symbol of anarchism ... the colours of anarchism ... so is this the flag of anarchism?
Well, it's the most unlikely of settings. These flags on such ceremonial display flank the entrance of a glorious old haveli - a traditional mansion - in the walled city of Lahore, the heart of what's often described as Pakistan's cultural capital.
And you can see the distinct echo of anarchist iconography - take these examples of anarchist emblems and flags:
Surely the similarity between the traditional anarchist emblem and the flag on display in old Lahore can't be a coincidence.
The haveli in question is often used for swish dinners and events promoting luxury brands. The flag is actually the emblem of a hugely expensive - really, really, expensive - brand of Swiss engineered and assembled watches which are being marketed to Pakistan's ultra-rich. And by a curious twist of fate, I ended up at this very dinner - but no, I didn't fork out the small fortune necessary to make a purchase.
So, it seems that this standard which bears all the trademarks of an anarchist emblem is simply a corporate brand identifier. How disappointing!
But hang on a moment. In the 1860s and 70s, one of the strongholds of anarchism in the First International was among the watchmakers of the Swiss Jura. I cling to the belief that somehow or other there is a lineage between Bakunin's artisan supporters in the Swiss mountains and this striking red-and-black flag in old Lahore.
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