Memories of a Punjabi - I

In the life of Ruchi Ram Sahni, eminent scientist, reformer and educationist, Mohammad A. Qadeer sees the story of pre-Partition Punjab itself

Memories of a Punjabi - I
Discussion of history in Pakistan is largely obsessed with politics and personalities. Did Jinnah say that Pakistan would be an Islamic state or a nation of Indian Muslims? Did Lord Mountbatten deprive Pakistan of Kashmir? Such questions have dominated our historical narrative, both popular and scholarly, for the last 70 years. The social history of people in various times – i.e. how they lived, what their beliefs and behaviours were, etc. – has been given scant attention. Yet these social forces are the drivers of political and economic developments.

A peep into the social life of the Punjab and how it was changing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is offered in the autobiography of Ruchi Ram Sahni, a professor of chemistry in Government College (1887 – 1914) and an eminent and public-spirited citizen of Lahore. The book, entitled A Memoir of Pre-Partition Punjab, an autobiography by Professor Sahni and edited by his great-granddaughter Neera Burra (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017), gives an account of his personal, intellectual and professional life. His personal story unfolds against the background of the wide-ranging social changes in the period 1863 – 1920.

The book has three stories. One of these is about the editor Neera Burra’s assiduous pursuit of the sources of information about Professor Sahni. How she found and put together the autobiography is a testimony to her love for the ancestor. Second is the autobiography itself – lightly edited, annotated and extensively footnoted by Burra. It is the self-described but incomplete account of Professor Sahni’s life up to 1922, though he lived up to 1948. Third are the descriptions of the institutions, communities and customs of the cities where he lived and the political and social changes that formed the background of his personal life. Each of these stories requires a separate narrative.

Ruchi Ram Sahni in 1914, at Government College, Lahore

This transformation from an apprentice Sahukar-merchant to an eminent scientist is the story of modernisation that the British brought about

Searching out Professor Ruchi Ram Sahni’s autobiography

Ms. Neera Burra is the maternal great granddaughter of Prof. Sahni. Fortuitously on a visit to an uncle’s house in Bombay, she was given a photocopy of the autobiography, which stirred her interest in probing further into her legendary ancestor’s life. The recently retired Burra found a new interest in documenting the life of her great-grandfather. She confesses that, “Before l realised it, Ruchi Ram Sahni had become an obsession.”

Burra followed every lead and promise of finding Sahni’s writings, photographs and other materials. Professor Sahni was a prolific writer, including 11 volumes of his unpublished diaries that he called ‘History of My Own Times’ (HOMOT), in which he commented on contemporary political and social issues. The Punjab State Archives in Chandigarh turned out to have all the volumes of HOMOT – where they probably arrived with the division of the undivided Punjab’s archives.

Burra’s visit to Lahore was hosted by Sajida and Pervaiz Vandal, erstwhile professors of architecture, whose brainchild, the non-profit Trust for History, Art and Architecture of Pakistan (THAAP) is the forum for research and dissemination of knowledge on culture, art and architecture. She visited the compound of Sahni’s house, now all divided and built up, at 22 Rattigan Road, behind the Central Model School. The Vice Chancellor of the Government College University showed her Professor Sahni’s laboratory with his picture in the corridor outside. She met some old Lahoris who had known of Professor Sahni. The visit to Lahore seemed to have concretised for her the geography of Sahni’s autobiography, and reaffirmed her understanding of his contributions.

The second story in the book is the narrative of the autobiography. It was written in fits and starts, beginning in 1907, but the early notes were lost when Professor Sahni had to hurriedly leave Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1914 with the coming of World War I. He had gone there to do research on radioactivity. In 1933, he took up anew the writing of his life story, which has turned out to be the autobiography at hand.

Transitioning from the pre-colonial society

Professor Ruchi Ram Sahni was not only from the first generation of a few Punjabi graduates with B.A. (1884) and M.A. degrees from Government College and Punjab University, but also he stood out amongst those blazing the trail of modern education. He stood first or second and won scholarships in all examinations from middle school to university.

He came from a family of Hindu merchants originally from Bhera but settled in Dera Ismail Khan after 1857. As a child, he was sent to a Pandah (Hindu tutor of business language – Lande – and accounts) and then apprenticed with another major business house for training. By age eight, he was taking responsibility in his father’s thriving banking and merchandising business. Initiated to be a merchant, Sahni grew to be a professor of chemistry in Government College, Lahore, and a promoter of popular science and social reforms. This transformation from an apprentice Sahukar-merchant to an eminent scientist is the story of modernisation that the British brought. It is equally a testimony to Sahni’s brilliance, grit, hard work and openness to change.

Sahni’s father had one of the biggest businesses in D.I. Khan. He traded in wheat, wool and some other commodities and ran a Sahukara business – loaning money and trading in Hundis. The Nawab of D.I. Khan used to come to his shop for financial transactions. A turn of fortune – not uncommon those days – made them poor overnight. Four boats loaded with their goods sailing down the Indus sank in a storm and at the same time a regiment whose members had loans outstanding was transferred – leaving them without recoveries. They lost everything. It ended his business prospects. He was enrolled in a school at age 9.

The misfortune opened new paths for him. He excelled at school. And in 1878 (age 15), he passed the middle school examination with the top position in the district, a cash reward and a job offer from the Deputy Commissioner. He chose to pursue high school studies in Jhang.

Grit of a young man

In 1878, there were no railways, roads or bridges over the rivers between D.I. Khan and Jhang: only a sandy tract smoothed out and marked by posts. The Rivers Indus, Jhelum and Chenab were crossed in country boats. The boat that Sahni travelled in to cross the Indus River took three days and beached on sand bars for the nights. In another journey, the boat was caught in a whirlpool of the flooded Chenab. Sahni had to travel on a camel taxi crammed with three other passengers in a Kajawah for 100 miles to get to the school in Jhang. During summer vacations, he travelled to Bhera and back and then decided to transfer to the Government High School in Lahore. He elected to walk in each of these journeys to save the fare as well as for adventure – walking sometimes 37 miles in a day. He was a fearless, strong and motivated young man of 16.

He arrived in Lahore by walking up to Montgomery from Jhang and then taking a train, his first, to Lahore, on the 24th of October 1879. With that Lahore became his hometown for the rest of his life, almost 68 years. He came to enroll in the Government High School for matriculation studies. The school was in Dyan Singh’s Haveli in Hira Mandi and he boarded in a guesthouse nearby. The walled city was the centre of Lahore’s cultural and religious movements in those days. Sahni found Lahore to have given him more opportunities “for acquiring a wider outlook than anything else”.

(to be continued)

Mohammad Qadeer is Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University, Canada. His recent books are Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation (Vanguard, 2011) and Multicultural Cities: Toronto, New York and Los Angeles (University of Toronto Press, 2016). He may be reached at

Mohammad Qadeer’s recent book, Lahore In The 21st Century, has been published for Pakistan by Vanguard Books.