On April 4, 1979, I was getting ready for school when I learned that the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had been hanged in prison in the early hours, by the order of Zia-ul-Haq, the General who had seized power in a coup in 1977.
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This brazen act shocked the world, and seemed the only thing on people’s minds where I lived in West Bengal, India. At the convent school I attended, established and run by Roman Catholic nuns, we began each day, after assembly, with a moral science class. It always started with a prayer. The teacher might offer a prayer, or call upon one of the students. That day, Sister Philo, our head mistress was the teacher. She looked at me, and with a smile asked me to say a prayer.
With the horror of Bhutto’s hanging heavy on my mind, I decided to say a short prayer for him. Dear God, I said, grant peace to the soul of Prime Minister Bhutto. Please give strength to his family. Amen. Sister Philo was no longer smiling – she looked uncomfortable at this unusual prayer that dragged modern-day politics into the classroom.
(image courtesy: India Currents, YouTube)
There is much politics in The History Teacher of Lahore (Speaking Tiger publications, January 2023), a good deal of it in the classroom. Set in the years around Bhutto’s assassination, it is the first novel by Tahira Naqvi, professor of Urdu Studies at New York University, translator of the writings of woman-centric Indian writer Ismat Chugtai from Urdu to English, and writer of two short story collections.
Arif Ali, a young man in his 20s, is a history teacher in 1980s Lahore. A fraught profession indeed, at a time, when many in power seek to rewrite history. The book begins with Arif sitting in Jinnah Park, seeking respite from his urban dwelling not far away, enjoying the peace offered by Amaltas and other beautiful trees. He has moved to Lahore from Sialkot to fulfil his dream of becoming a history teacher. After some initial difficulties, he finds a job. He runs into Kamal, (uncle of his childhood friend Sabir) who with his wife Nadira, is part of the underground resistance, protecting the disenfranchised, such as Christian families targeted by increasing sectarian violence.
In fellow teachers Salman and Zehra, Arif finds kindred spirits, and deep friendship. Together, they navigate the changing social and political climate, working to keep themselves and their students safe from persecution.
Matters of the Heart
A sensitive poet himself, Arif’s poetry readings lead him to his acquaintance with Salman’s sister Roohi. The author has prepared us for the fact that Arif is somewhat ineffectual in matters of the heart. When he was a teenager and developed a crush on a neighbor, he engaged in a rooftop romance that turned disastrous, leading to warnings to him to keep a distance. Within a year, his paramour was married to someone else.
Arif’s romance with Roohi leaves the reader exasperated. He is not one to make a move or declare his passions. Cautious and timid, he keeps prolonging things until the opportunity appears to have passed.
Revision of history books, Blasphemy Laws
Arif, an idealistic young man, is appalled at the revision of history in textbooks by “Islamicists” -glossing over the non-secularity of Mughal rulers such as Aurangzeb, repainting them in a glorious light. It is evident that those who speak out against this trend do so at great risk to themselves. The so-called Blasphemy Laws were further enforced in General Zia’s reign, establishing anything construed to be disrespectful of the Prophet as a crime. There is a proliferation of lawyers who would prosecute such cases, often based on flimsy accusations and thin evidence, but emboldened by the law.
It is evident that those who speak out do so at great risk to themselves. Arif takes a stand in the classroom, providing additional texts that he considers to be faithful depictions of historical facts, to ensure that his students are not brainwashed. The classroom debates are lively, but can take a turn towards grave risk and danger. The shift towards Shariah Law during the reign of the General are a reminder of what reverberates across the world today, not only with the revision of history books, but the silencing of journalists in this Kali Yuga, this age of darkness.
Naqvi captures the tension of the times in her narrative: the terror of a Christian family that they would be harmed, even killed, the caution with which Shias and Ahmadis would conduct themselves as members of the non-Sunni minority.
The dangers of a non-secular society become apparent. The arbiters of these laws are inflexible, and in their eyes, any deviation from the strictness of the laws is worthy of extreme punishment. In women’s daily lives, the shift towards “modesty” in attire imposes previously absent barriers and fears. Protests abound, with women demonstrating in the streets against a woman’s testimony being worth only half that of a man.
Sectarian differences are magnified – a romance that starts out between two individuals who are drawn to each other and fall in love, takes on additional colors down the road as societal pressures increase: one is Shia and the other Sunni. How could this work? Can such differences be overcome or not?
Early in the book, there is a description of a flogging attended by hundreds, even thousands. Descriptions of some in the crowd, hungry to see punishment being meted out, are chilling. The “mob mentality” egged on by those in power is familiar to those acquainted with the American insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Arif despairingly quotes Faiz: “This is not the dawn that we had waited for.”
There is a good deal of poetry in the book. Arif reminisces about how Kamal introduced him to Urdu poetry, ghazals and nazms when he was a boy – the breadth of what he reads, his fluid associations, and the many quoted lines are quite enjoyable. Kamal gave Arif his first copy of Tagore’s Gitanjali in whose poem “Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads” he reads that God is not in a temple, he is where the tiller is tilling the hard ground. These lines remind Arif of the verse of Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah:
‘Bullah I know not who I am,
I am not of the mosque, nor the temple,
I am not among the pure, or amongst the impure
I am neither Moses nor the Pharaoh…’
It is indeed wonderful that the author included much verse in the novel - poetry, perfect vehicle for love, discontent, revolution. And Urdu poetry, so eloquent, nuanced and captivating to the ear – not only Arif’s original compositions, but much-admired verse from celebrated poets Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Iqbal.
The poetry left me both delighted and dissatisfied. The root of my dissatisfaction lay in not having immediate access to the original in Urdu - I regretted not having it handy on the page. The beauty of the original language is unmatched. In English; the meaning is (mostly) preserved, but a lot of the spirit, the elegance, the nuances are lost. While I was grateful for the translation, I wished that the author, a respected translator herself, had included transliterations of the many verses she has included. One of the aspects I appreciated about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel Independence (reviewed here) was being able to read the songs in Bengali transliteration in addition to the English translation. I felt The History Teacher of Lahore would have been richer with the original verse.
Descriptions and atmosphere
The descriptions of the flowers and plants, as well as the rooms, streets and houses are detailed and precise, transporting us to the place. There are roses, gladioli, chameli, and various other flowers and trees, dotting the descriptions and enlivening the narrative.
I could see the heavy downpours, feel the bone-chilling cold, as Arif wrapped himself in warm clothes. He is sustained by frequent cups of hot scalding tea, which he seems to brew constantly whenever he is at home. At school, he and other teachers are given to ordering tea and samosas quite frequently, making me long for some myself.
Like the vine of indeterminate provenance climbing up the walls in Arif’s small courtyard, The History Teacher of Lahore extends into many present-day concerns, and in its sobering depiction of oppressive societies and the parallels to the darkness closing in across the world today, leaves us longing for a better world, for spring, for purple flowers after the first summer rains.
This review was published in India Currents on February 1, 2024.