The Ghosts of Lakshmi Mansion

Pundit K Santhanam and Sadat Hasan Manto

Some weekends ago, the eagerly awaited Baisaki at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheater was affected by the rains. Last year’s was too, for we were eagerly waiting for Kailash Kher to sing, but again bad weather cancelled the show. But the Baisakhi  raised a couple of memories, memories of a writer (a favorite of mine – I have a collection of his stories) who is considered to be the father of Urdu short story writing and another, a forgotten freedom fighter and the father of the Indian and Pakistan life insurance industry. As was destined, their fates crossed at Lahore, where one made a mansion and the other lived in it, but they never met. That mansion was the Lakshmi mansion of Lahore.
The writer, was none other than Sadat Hasan Manto, who left Bombay with a heavy heart during the sad and violent days after the partition, and the other a lawyer who lived in Lahore before partition, who fought for India’s freedom and who went on to become the chairman of Lakshmi Insurance and constructing the many buildings bearing the Lakshmi name. That was Pundit K Santhanam, the man who brought to light the terrible Jallianwala Bagh massacre on the Baisaki day in 1919, during the dark days of British censorship in Punjab. Punjabis and Pakistani’s have perhaps forgotten the latter, though not the former, but it was Santhanam who fought for their justice when they most needed it and spent his entire life in their midst. Manto on the other hand, after all the injustice meted out to him while living owing to his frank writing and censorship issues, now lives fondly in many hearts as a revered writer. They in my article are the ghosts of the Lakshmi mansion.

There is some unrest in the Punjab areas of India and Pakistan these days on account of Sarbjit singh’s callous murder in the Pakistani jail and the retaliatory attack on a Pakistani prisoner in India. It made me remember comments made by Manto, and for now I am quoting an English translation by Khalid Hassan. The scene is the bloodbath after the partition of 1947. One day Manto and actor Shyam Chadha his closest friend, go to Rawalpindi, and soon they were hearing about the horrifying acts of killing and rioting on both sides. Manto says – I could see that Shyam was deeply moved. I could well understand what was passing through his mind, when we left, I said to him, ‘I am a Muslim, don’t you want to kill me?’
‘Not now’ he replied gravely, ‘but while I was listening to them and they were telling me about the atrocities committed by the Muslims, I could have killed you’. His answer shocked me deeply. Perhaps I could have killed him too when he spoke those words. When I thought about it later, I suddenly understood the psychological background of India’s religiously motivated bloodbath. Shyam had said that he could have killed me then, but not now. Therein lay the key to the holocaust of partition.’ That is the power of the moment, the instant when heart rules over the brain. Manto’s stories help us to understand the madness that was bursting into bloodshed. But this is not about the partition, it is about two of these people I came across in these annals of history, some time ago.

As you pick up a Jeevan Bhima or some kind of LIC policy, spend a moment to remember Santhanam, the man who started it all together with Lala Lajpat Rai. When you read the poignant story of the ill-fated dog on the Indo-Pak border at Titwal, remember Manto. There are some who may want to know more about these people, and for their sake, let us weave through these two disparate lives, one a Hindu, another a Muslim, both eventually torn by the partition of 1947 and succumbing to its sadness, one in 1948 and the other in 1955.
Santanam’s life starts in 1885 in puritan Kumbakonam, and the early days as you will soon see, did not prove too pleasant. Santanam was orphaned in early childhood, and was brought up by his elder brother who incidentally went on to become a famous lawyer. As is rumored, he was a bright and naughty child. After spending his early phase of schooling at Kumbakonam, Santanam moved on to Madras, where he joined the Presidency College – situated on the beach, at one end of the Pycroft’s road. Soon he was to get affected by the Swadeshi movement and he joined the Indian National Congress, the party that had incidentally been created in 1885, the year of his own birth. His elder brother wanted him to be spared nothing when it came to studies and so in 1906, Santanam sailed over to England, where he got an admission in King’s College, Cambridge. But he had by carrying out this act done something that was taboo, he had crossed the seas, something that his Brahmin clan was not to take kindly to. Though Santanam did not clear his ICS exams and though he turned down the colonial post offered in the Audit Department, he veered into legal studies, and in 1910 was called to the Bar from the Inner Temple. It was during his stay in London that he came in touch with Lala Lajpat Rai — a meeting that was to prove momentous in years to come.

Santanam was always headstrong upon his return to Kumbakonam, refused to carry out the shuddi kalasham or purification rites to rejoin his clan. That was to get him virtually excommunicated from the Iyengar community. Neither could he get a wife or a job, such was the retaliation and even his brothers were to go (that is surprising – did his brother not send him to England?) against him. As the story goes, In fact they never forgave him during his lifetime, and after Santanam himself passed away, his brother’s family priest refused to perform the last pujas! Santanam withstood the barrage of social disapproval, but it became difficult for him to function though working with the self-respect movement kept him busy, and it was at this juncture that Lala Lajpat Rai suggested he come and work in Punjab. However his daughter gives a different story – She says - So, on arrival in Bombay (from Britain), he went straight to Lahore, well, via Lucknow and Rangoon but he certainly didn’t go south, not straightaway.
As Santanam was settling down in Lahore, in those days a prosperous city of India, Saadat Hasan Manto was born in Sambrala Ludhiana, May 1912. He belonged to a Kashmiri Muslim family (his biographer JC Wadhawa however believes his family were once Brahmin Kashmiri Pundit’s). Saadat Hasan Manto did his early schooling at the Muslim High School in Amritsar, but he had little interest in studies and failed twice to matriculate, even in the subject of Urdu, a language that he mastered eventually.

Pandit K. Santanam, by then, at the behest of Lala Lajpat Rai had made Lahore his home and was enrolled at the bar. Much loved by the public, he got the title Pundit, being from Brahmin stock. Punjab was not bound by the caste system rigors and with Arya Samajists, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians, it was an open atmosphere. He started his practice at the Lahore Bar and by 1916 found his life partner, Krishna Vedi, daughter of an Arya Samaj leader, Pt. Atmaram Vedi of Delhi, in 1916.
It was in 1919 that the Jalianwalla massacre occurred near Amritsar. REH Dyer was the villain, and on Sunday, 13 April 1919, Dyer convinced of a major insurrection about to happen, had banned public meetings. But it was the day of Baisakhi, which Punjabis celebrate and naturally they went on with their planned celebrations. On hearing that a meeting of 15,000 to 20,000 people including women, children and the elderly had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer went with fifty Baluchi and Gurkha riflemen to a raised bank and ordered them to shoot at the crowd. Many thousands were killed. Martial Law was declared in Amritsar and Lahore districts on April 15, and a heavy hand was laid on anybody who resisted. The railways were virtually closed to Indians, and all third class and intermediate tickets were withdrawn. Not more than two men were allowed to walk abreast on pavements. Amritsar’s water and electric supplies were cut off.

Santanam’s association with the freedom movement came to a head with the traumatic events of Jallianwala Bagh. Soon he became the defense counsel in the case of Lala Harkishen Lal and others, and he decided to break the police cordon which had been thrown around Punjab, to visit Shimla the summer capital in order to try and get a more impartial Bench. He smuggled himself out under the first class berth of a railway compartment occupied by an Englishman, and made his way to Shimla where his request was but naturally, refused. However, he managed to meet and apprise Sir Sankaran Nair, member of the Viceroy’s Council, of the atrocities being committed under guise of martial law, and it was thus that news of the black happenings in Punjab were leaked out to the nation and the authorities had to act.
Later when the Congress appointed a commission of inquiry into the Punjab atrocities consisting of Moti Lal Nehru, Fazlul Haq, C.R. Das, Abbas Tyabji, M.R. Jayakar and M.K. Gandhi, Santanam was designated its secretary, and charged with the responsibility of preparing and publishing their findings. He completed his task in under a year. The report is a model of meticulous documentation (After interviewing 1,700 witnesses and recording evidence, he created the voluminous report) and its historic publication chronicled what was later termed by Gandhi to be the "last nail in the coffin of the British Empire." Santanam was jailed three times for offences which included participation in the Non-Cooperation Movement and satyagraha.

Quoting Madhuri Sondhi his daughter, ‘In 1920, Santanam resigned his legal practice during Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement, and lectured at the college set up by Lajpat Rai. The next 10 years of his life were politically the most active. He was general secretary of the Punjab Provincial Congress Committee (1921-22) and president of the Batala, PCC, in April 1922. At this time he was but 37 years of age. He also served as Municipal Commissioner for Lahore from 1921 to 23, and thus his identification with Punjab became complete.
After resigning his legal practice, Santanam was faced with the personal dilemma of what to do with himself. Lalaji, the champion of Indian commerce, suggested business, and thus was born the Lakshmi Insurance Company in 1924. He remained in charge of the company’s affairs till shortly before his death, and under his direction it developed into a highly successful commercial enterprise, with branches all over India and even in East Africa. It was during this period that the Lakshmi mansion was created at the Mall in Lahore, by Lakshmi insurance.

But during these years, what was our other friend Manto upto? He was always breaking conventions like walking on hot coals, or doing all kinds of silly things youngsters do and even spreading funny rumors that the Americans were going to airlift the Taj Mahal to USA. Anyway he finally passed his matriculation exams, though faring badly in Urdu and eventually falling into bad company, gambling away his time playing cards. He lost interest in that too soon and was caught in the fervor of the independence movement, dreaming acts on how to overthrow the British, sitting under a tree at Jalianwala Bagh. It was 1933 by now and I presume he never knew about Santanam. One day he met Bari Alig a writer who styled himself around Victor Hugo and influenced by Bari, translated Hugo’s ‘The last days of the condemned’, into Urdu. Within a matter of months Manto produced an Urdu translation of Victor Hugo's The Last Day of a Condemned Man, which was published by Urdu Book Stall, Lahore as Sarguzasht-e-Aseer (A Prisoner's Story). Bari on behalf of Manto had sold this off for all of Rs 30.00. Soon he was writing film reviews for Masawaat, an Urdu newspaper. His 1934 Urdu translation of Oscar Wilde's Vera won him recognition amongst the literary circles. At the continued encouragement of Abdul Bari, he published a collection of Urdu translation of Russian stories as Russi Afsane in the Humayun magazine. Gorky was next in the translation list and soon Bari left for Lahore. Manto after this writing blitz and bereft of intellectual company, again fell into boredom, and took to liquor and gambling. But they met again, to work for Khulk and as that was also short lived, moved on to pursue literary studies at the AMU. It was at this juncture that Manto fell ill with tuberculosis and took to drinking caustic country liquor to dull his chest pains. And that was how Manto ended up in Kashmir for rest and recuperation with financial support from his sister Iqbal begum.
A couple of years of quiet life in Kashmir and a very interesting one sided love affair were to follow. But by 1936, he ended up in Bombay to work for Mussavar and later Caravan magazines. In 1941 he moved on to Delhi to work for the AIR, but he came back to Bombay a year later. It was at this point of his life that he entered the tinsel town of Bollywood and as a popular script writer, associated himself with the top circles earning a good salary from Filmistan. Shyam, Dada Moni – Ashok Kumar were among his close friends.

Indian Independence came soon, the partition followed and with it came the pain, frustration and disappointment. At Filmistan, many of the friends he had suddenly became enemies, Hindu Muslim rioting had started in Bombay and his work was no longer in demand resulting in the shattering of his somewhat strong ego and arrogant demeanor. To exacerbate the situation, his family soon moved to Lahore. In 1948, Manto finally left Bombay for good, with a heavy heart and by then, fully under the control of Ethyl alcohol.
Public space records what Manto had to say about it years later. It was a blow to have to leave Bombay, where I had lived such a busy life. Bombay had taken me in, a wandering outcast thrown out by even his family. She had told me, “You can live happily here on two paise a day or on ten thousand rupees. Or if you want, you can be the saddest person in the world at either price. Here you can do whatever you want, and no one will think you’re strange. Here no one will tell you what to do. You will have to do every difficult thing on your own, and you will have to make every important decision by yourself. I don’t care if you live on the sidewalk or in a magnificent mansion, I don’t care if you stay or go. I’ll always be here.” I was disconsolate after leaving Bombay. My good friends were there. I had gotten married there. My first child was born there, as was my second. There I had gone from earning a couple rupees a day to thousands - hundreds of thousands - and there I had spent it all. I loved it, and I still do!

Santanam on the other hand, was faced with the partition, while on the Indian side. In reality he was not even at Lahore, but was resting and recuperating at Kashmir (what a strange coincidence!) when all this happened. He was away in Kashmir at that period, to avoid the allergic dust of Lahore. And as Santhanam left Lahore, Manto of Kashmir came to Lahore. As Manto despaired of leaving Bombay, Santhanam was saddened leaving the place of his life and living in Kashmir. Events that followed prevented him from ever returning to his adopted home, Lahore.
 His daughter says - At the time of Independence, he was in Kashmir with his family to escape the heat and dust of Lahore as he was suffering from an acute bout of asthma. But he could never return to Lahore as Partition riots had broken out and my father’s house and other properties were lost forever. We reached Delhi practically empty handed.Most reluctantly, he came to Delhi, leaving friends, associates and property. The two years that he lived after Independence, surrounded by displaced and grieving Punjabi families, drove him to refugee rehabilitation work, and he became member of the Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation in 1948. Had he wanted, Santanam could have joined Nehru’s cabinet for he had all the attributes. But he was a sad man who was completely shaken by the Partition and the accompanying holocaust. The thought of office never crossed his mind. He died on August 31, 1949 in Delhi. His two-volume report on Jalianwala Bagh is not known to anybody, nor are his links to the Insurance industry. But the government finally took note and issues a stamp in his honor some six decades later. 

 Sadat Hassan Manto arrived in Lahore in early 1948. Manto had at least one consolation. His nephew Hamid Jalal had already settled his family in a flat next to his own in Lakshmi Mansions near The main Mall. The complex was centrally located. From there every place of importance was at a stone’s throw. These flats were occupied by families of some of the people who were destined to become important in the intellectual and academic fields. But then came the barrage of court cases against his writing, citing obscenity, when all he did was paint the stark realities of life and sex in his stories. As Pakistan’s film studios were nonfunctional, newspaper and creative writing was the only avenue for his talent and soon he was churning out many a great short story, while still in the grip of alcohol addiction. In a matter of years, the fire was extinguished and Manto was lost to the world in 1955. Not to be outdone, the Pakistani government also issued a stamp with his face on it. We see neither stamps of these lone warriors against orthodoxy, in circulation– that is life!!

‘Toba Tek Singh’  is a masterpiece, set in the lunatic asylum in Lahore at the time of partition, and those interested, should read about the Thanda Ghosht, Babu Gopinath, Bu (odor) or the Dog of titwal, or for that matter Manto’s letters to Uncle Sam….
The Lakshmi Building, which was constructed way before the partition, is associated with the memories of Hindus and Sikhs. It was later used by the Muslim League of Hindustan who gathered here for meetings and social events. It is located in a small residential enclave just off the Mall between Hall Road and Beadon Road. Today, Lakshmi Insurance may be part of LIC, but in Pakistan many of its buildings still bear its name and the temple motifs on their facades, though not the Lakshmi representations that once adorned them. The Lakshmi mansion at the mall howver got a new name and is called Ahmad mansion, or so it seems. Recently somebody decided to build a food street at the mall. The Lakshmi mansion, is supposedly protected by the Punjab Archeology Department which naturally did not want the building to be altered, but some bright guys had it repainted camel white and blue. Apart from this, ‘Allahu Akbar’ has also been written on the top of the building. When the town engineer was contacted, he stated that no permission was needed to alter the building. He said - “Who cares, it is just a building.”

Pandit K Santhanam is not Kummattithidal Kasturiranga Santhanam who was also prominent in Lahore and a freedom fighter, living between 1895-1980. Nor was he the TVS Santhanam.

Manto’s stories are available in English.
Diplomat Mani Shankar Iyer and his parents used to live at the same Lakshmi mansion

Tribune article – remembering K Santanam – Madhuri Santhanam Sondhi
Hindu article – Story of the Lahore pundit = RC Rajamani
Statesman interview with Rajamani – ‘My father was too proud to ask for anything’
The life of Sadat Hasan Manto – Manto Nama – Jagdish Chander Wadhawa
Manto’s Collections – Selected short stories, Bitter fruit, Black margins
Sadat Hasan Manto – Mahnaz Ispahani
Pics - Google images - thanks to the owners, uploaders...


Aditi mahajan said…
I wazz surfing thru the sites to get the history of dayal singh mansion n lakshmi mansion n here i m..really very
intresting...manto one of my fvrt writer,n yeah itssad even i was not aware about the later personality pundit k santnam
thanz :)
Maddy said…
Thanks aditi..
not many people out there who like Manto it seems, glad that you liked this
and welcome to my blog..
Unknown said…
I was also surfing about Manto and landed here. I am a great fan of Manto's work. I have read many of his stories and saw Bombay during that era through his writings. Thanks for introducing me to Mr. Santanam

Popular Posts