Second helpings at a model tea house

The Pak Tea House was once a hotbed for Pakistanis seeking to challenge established ideas – so can an official restoration recapture that free spirit?
  • @AndrewBuncombe

Ashfaq Ahmed and his fellow workmen were busying themselves with the final touches, the last few licks of ochre-coloured paint that would mean the building was ready to reopen. “This place was deserted when we started, there was not anything here,” he said. “This was once a very famous place.”

Lahore's celebrated Pak Tea House, renowned in literary and political circles over many decades as the home of fiercely contested debate and discussion, is set to reopen any day as part of a government scheme to save some of the city's most historic buildings. Yet while most are happy the establishment is being revived, 10 years after it was shut and turned into a tyre shop, there are those who doubt whether a government-funded project can create something truly radical or independent.

"Initially when it evolved there was no planning. The owner had got the situation so good that it just continued," recalled Intizar Husain, 86, one of Pakistan's most famed Urdu writers and a regular at the original Pak Tea House. "Now the Pakistan government is doing it. It is yet to be seen what happens in the future."

The establishment was opened in 1940 as the India Tea House by a Sikh family on Lahore's Mall Road, a thoroughfare that was then at the heart of the cultural and political life of a city that has always prided itself as Pakistan's most sophisticated. After Partition, the café changed its name.

Professor Aziz Uddin Ahmed, 76, a senior editor with the Pakistan Today newspaper, first visited the café in 1953. He said the scene developed from a literary group, the Circle of the People of Taste, which met in a nearby YMCA building and then went to the café for tea. Before long, the group and its attendant hangers-on simply started meeting in the café.

The scene – as remembered by those who visited in its heyday – was one of fierce and sometimes arrogant debate on all manner of subjects. It was also a place that attracted writers from elsewhere in South Asia and beyond. Among those who regularly assembled was short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who sometimes arrived on a horse-drawn carriage, the poet Nasir Kazmi and the poet and literary magazine editor Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi.

"Everything was discussed – Sartre, Jung, Socrates, Communism and Mao," recalled Mr Ahmed. "You could pay six annas [a now defunct unit of currency] for your tea and sit there all day. No one would come up to you with the bill."

The café became especially important during the rule of Pakistan's military rulers, particularly General Muhammad Ayub Khan and later General Zia ul-Haq. Mr Husain claimed that while the dictators were often ruthless towards dissidents and opponents, the Pak Tea House was left alone.

"[In the 60s the discussion] shifted to politics and you were asked what your politics were – whether for martial law and dictatorships," said Mr Husain, who despite his advancing years remains sharp and charming. "There were those who thought that martial law was good and they were made to explain their support of it."

The restoration of the café has been carried out under the direction of the provincial government after a court ruled the previous lease had expired. Noor-ul-Amin Mengal, the city's mayor, said civil society groups had pressed the authorities to ensure buildings such as the Pak Tea House were saved.

He said that as part of a "Beautiful Lahore" project, a committee had been formed to identify which buildings were under threat and could be preserved. He said the list could become very long. "Lahore has so much history," he said. He said a bakery chain – Gourmet Bakers – had agreed to run the café and that it would operate on a non-profit basis.

With a small but growing middle-class, Pakistan has experienced a boom in coffee shops and cafés in its largest cities, selling Western-style products with Western-style prices. Some have worked to project themselves as literary venues and hosted events such as "poetry slams".

Sabeen Mahmud is a founder of T2F (formerly known as The Second Floor), a café and bookshop in Karachi that hosts live music, film screenings and discussions. She said when they were setting up the place, there was a conscious desire to recreate the buzz that was historically associated with the Pak Tea House. She wanted a place where you could "just walk up to someone and say hello".

Yet Ms Mahmud said she believed times had changed. "I am not sure you can go back to anything like that," she said. Developing a community of regular customers and participants required huge dedication and focus. "It's easy to set something up and throw money at it but that does not mean people will come," she said.

Salman Rashid, a Lahore-based historian, recently told the Dawn newspaper he thought the government should not be involved in such a project. "Government funding goes against the Pak Tea House traditions. One wonders what sort of control the government will exercise," he said.

To some extent, the internet and social media has provided an alternative platform for those wishing to engage in debate. In 2007, when Raza Rumi and Faisal Kapadia set up the Pak Tea House blog and invited people to contribute, they too were inspired by the ethos of the original café and wanted to "revive the culture of debate, pluralism and tolerance".

Mr Ahmed, the journalist, who remembers a day at the Pak Tea House when the Pakistani poet Qayyum Nazar recalled how he travelled to Paris to meet Sartre only to be dismissed because he had no opinion on the Algerian war, said he now used the internet to obtain information he had once acquired at the café, or else at libraries operated by the British Council or the Goethe Institute. "Now I read all the papers online," he said.

But despite their doubts, the old-timers concede they will certainly give the new Pak Tea House a visit, if only for the sake of nostalgia. "I have already spent an entire life there," said Mr Husain, the writer. "Now it's for the younger generation, but we will go once in a while."