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Reliving Pak Tea House

By Dr. Khalil Ahmad

April 24, 2011

The demise of the Pak Tea House is symptomatic of the crisis of intellectual independence and private initiative in Pakistan. The premises is still there, existing with its symbolic glory, waiting for someone with entrepreneurial spirit to make use of its huge potential, who would turn it once again into Pak Tea House? Let’s see who reinvents and relives the Pak Tea House!



Sharing the lament on the death of Pak Tea House in Lahore, this responds to Ayesha Siddiqa’s Pak Tea House (The Express Tribune of January 2, 2011) and Ahmad Rafay Alam’s Tea, anyone? (The Express Tribune May 8, 2010).

They heap together those circumstances which they think hastened Tea House’s demise. Ms. Siddiqa writes: ‘According to him (Ahmad Rafay Alam), the death of the place was inevitable due to problematic urban development. I would just like to add that the famous chai khana could not escape extinction because it had become intellectually stale and unviable before it tuned financially burdensome.’

It’s debatable that the circumstances singled out by both writers added to the Tea House’s downfall. Do such places which acquire symbolic significance die “soulless,” as Ms. Siddiqa argues? This loses weight as both writers agree that those who used to flock to and populate Tea House after its closure dispersed and found new places, though not matching to Tea House’s symbolic status. Ms. Siddiqa laments more than Tea House the corruption of intellectuals and men of letters by Gen Zia’s dictatorship. To me, that seems to have nothing to do with Tea House’s closure.

As a matter of fact, when the business of Tea House’s proprietor suffered or he thought of bettering his lot, he took to doing something else instead of entertaining the literati. The known literary figures visiting Tea House at the time intervened and the decision was sort of put on hold. Again as the enterprise was not sustainable, a cut-off date was announced.

This spurred a flurry of hectic efforts on the part of certain Tea House ‘fans’ to save it from the hands of its business-minded proprietor. Significant is the fact that litigation was also resorted to involving the proprietor. Whatever the details of the Save the Tea House Campaign are, finally the Tea House, a private business, and at the same time a historic place of literary significance closed down.

Ms. Siddiqa probes: ‘One wonders if the provincial government could think of buying it from the owner and dedicating it to the intellectuals of the country.’ This is where the present writer differs most. As some bureaucrat-writers were also on board the Save the Tea House Campaign and they used their clout, but whether such an attempt was made or not is not known to the present writer. However, what came out of this Campaign is a place called ‘Chaupal’ erected in Nasir Bagh to accommodate the displaced writers. No doubt, all this was done at tax-payers’ expense. Also, there is a hall in Al-Hamra meant for them.

For sure, such and other such ideas seeking government to act were floated and tested during the Save the Tea House Campaign. Also, for sure, no such thing as private initiative was witnessed then. Instead, the fans of the Tea House trampling its proprietor’s right to use his property as he wished tried to force him morally, socially, and legally not to put his property to any other use but of their choice. They wanted the government to stop the Tea House’s proprietor from putting it to no other use, as Ms. Siddiqa too wonders.

Couldn’t the intellectuals and literati pool and offer the Tea House owner a price lucrative enough to refuse? They could purchase it, run it as a trust or partnership, and turn it into a tourist attraction by reinventing it as home to intellectual and literary icons of the sub-continent! There should have been more than hundred ideas which could save the Tea House and run it as a financially viable business, if the intellectuals and men of letters had cherished and inculcated an independent mind in their heads and a spark of private initiative in their endeavors! Ah, the same had already been corrupted by their dependence on government (and tax-payers’ easy money), as Ms. Siddiqa explains.

The demise of the Pak Tea House is symptomatic of the crisis of intellectual independence and private initiative in Pakistan. The premises is still there, existing with its symbolic glory, waiting for someone with entrepreneurial spirit to make use of its huge potential, who would turn it once again into Pak Tea House? Let’s see who reinvents and relives the Pak Tea House!

[The writer is founder/head of the Alternate Solutions Institute.
 





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