The Lady in the Lodge
By Dr Asif Javed
Way back in the 1940’s, Urmila Sondhi was a student of English literature at the Government College (GC), Lahore. Her mother was European and father an Indian by the name of Prof. Sondhi who happened to be the Principal of the College. One of her teachers was Oxford-educated Prof. Sirajuddin, who was destined to be the Principal of the Government College later on.
Now, Prof. Sirajuudin was no ordinary teacher: he was not the first, nor the last, Oxford-educated Professor of English at GC; he was preceded and succeeded by many men with that qualification; what he possessed was, however, a rare gift for teaching, based upon a deep understanding and passion for his subject.
Dr Aftab Ahmad, an old Ravian, has written a beautiful sketch of Prof. Siraj in his book ‘Bayade Sohbate Nazuk Khayalan’. Dr Aftab recalls that Prof. Dickinson, who was the head of the English Department and also educated at Oxford, would often refer students to Prof. Siraj when asked a difficult question; such was Siraj’s aura and standing.
Urmila was beautiful and intelligent. Naturally, she had many admirers. Among them was a young lad from a middle-class family by the name of Abdus Salam. Salam had come to GC from the provincial town of Jhang, the land of Heer and Ranjha. Fate had great things in store for Salam but that was to be in the future. At the time of his affection for Urmila, however, Salam had a lot of rivals; one of his rivals was Prof. Siraj, who was already married.
It so happened that one day, as Prof. Siraj was in the middle of his lecture, he received a note from his wife; he had been asked to return home, for there had developed a crisis of a rather strange nature. As Prof. Siraj hurried home, he encountered an irate Prof Sondhi—Urmila’s father and the College Principal. An unpleasant verbal exchange between the two led to a physical altercation that resulted in a minor injury to the face of Siraj. Having vented his anger, Prof. Sondhi left. Inside the house, were two women; one was Prof. Siraj’s wife Razia, and the other, Urmila Sondhi. It turned out that Urmila had been thrown out of the house by her father, who had belatedly become aware of her flirtation with one of her teachers - and his subordinate. Since she had nowhere else to go, she ended up in Prof. Siraj’s house. And that is where her father had followed her.
Before marriage to Siraj, his wife Razia, had been a painter of some merit. Theirs had been a love marriage, but that was some time earlier. Now, some years had passed, and Siraj, father of a son, was in love again, with one of his students. It may sound strange but Razia apparently appeared willing to give her consent to her husband’s second marriage. After she accompanied their son Imdad to Oxford, her husband tied the nuptial knot with Urmila. We are told that Urmila had converted to Islam; her new name was Umrao Begum. Prof. Siraj went on to become the Principal of GC in the 50’s. Later on, he became the VC of Punjab University and after retirement, because of his extraordinary talent as a teacher of English, was re-hired as Prof of English at Punjab University.
Abdus Salam, in the meantime, had proceeded to UK. Having completed his Master's at Cambridge, and now married too, he returned to Pakistan in 1951 and was appointed Prof. of Mathematics at his alma mater. Ironically, the Principal of GC at that time was no other than Prof Siraj. By a strange twist of fate, the paths of those two extraordinary men, and former adversaries, had crossed again.
Salam did not find the going easy at GC. The man who was to win the first Nobel Prize for his nation, had a miserable time at Lahore. For one, anti-Ahmadya riots had engulfed Punjab. And Siraj's attitude did not help either. Here is Salam’s biographer, Gordon Frazier’s account: “Sirajuddin told him (Salam) sternly to forget about the research work he had done in Cambridge and Princeton…In addition to teaching, he was expected to be a good ‘college person’, taking on extracurricular responsibilities…Salam chose to manage the college soccer team…The aimless gesture matched his own disappointment…Salam was to have more run-ins with Sirajuddin…His 1951 confidential report alleged: ‘Salam is not fit for GC, Lahore. He may be excellent for research, but not a good college man.’…As Salam’s research work stalled in Lahore, he became increasingly frustrated…For Salam, Physics was sheer delight. But in Lahore, his light of delight temporarily went out.”
And so it came to pass that a disillusioned Abdus Salam finally left Pakistan and went back to Cambridge. One is tempted to wonder whether Siraj’s harsh treatment of Salam was linked to their shared passion for Urmila Sondhi from earlier times. Ironically, years later, Salam already married with children, was also to fall under the spell of another young woman, a British physicist by the name of Louise Johnson. “It was an emotional lightning strike,” writes Frazier, “such as Salam had not experienced since seeing the inaccessible Urmila at GC, Lahore, some twenty years before….Salam and Louise Johnson were married in a Muslim wedding in London in 1968.”
As I came across the story of Urmila Sondhi and her talented admirers, I became curious and developed a strange fascination for her. I began to wonder what was she like. I then started to reminisce about my own time in GC from 1972-74. I can still remember the Principal’s residence - ‘Lodge’ - not far from the main teaching block of GC. It then dawned upon me that Urmila Sondhi had resided in the famous house twice, first as a student when her father was the Principal, and later, as the wife of Prof. Siraj. I may add that Lodge has a long and distinguished history of its own but that is a story for another time; suffice it to say that ‘Niazmandan-e-Lahore,’ a group that included literary heavyweights like Pitras Bokhari, Sufi Tabassam, Hafiz Jalandhri, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Dr Taseer among others, used to gather under its roof.
But, let me return to Urmila. I did not expect to find the answer to my quest until I came across a 1943 group photo of GC Debating Society. And there she was, sitting with poise in the front row, not far from Prof. Sondhi, her soon-to-be estranged father and the College Principal, and a young Prof. Siraj, her teacher of English literature at the time and her future husband. There are other important people in this photograph too, some of whom have played important roles in the history of our country. Amongst them one could recognize Altaf Gauhar (Ayub’s Information Minister and the ghost writer of Friends not Masters), Ijaz Batalvi (one of the prosecution lawyers in Bhutto case), Masood Mahmood (the infamous onetime head of FSF who eventually testified against Bhutto), and Raja Tajammal (Altaf Gauhar’s brother, bureaucrat and one time Pakistani ambassador to Malaysia).
Decades have passed since Urmila Sondhi created sensation in Lahore with her flirtation and subsequent marriage to an already married Prof. Siraj. It was a huge scandal at the time. But the cruel sponge of oblivion has since removed its characters from the slate of history and now hardly anyone remembers it.
(The writer is an old Ravian and a physician in Williamsport, PA and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)