Lahore, What Can I Say? 

Lahore, What Can I Say? 
There was a time when I used to say that if I came back to Pakistan, the only place I’d ever live in would be Lahore. But that was the first time I had ever been away. Since then I have returned to it three more times, wishing I could go back to that old feeling.

Lahore is my birthplace, and I reserve the right to dream of a better version of it. I reserve the right to love and hate it at the same time, and be angry with its people just like one gets angry with family members because one expected something better from them—more warmth, more solidarity, more consideration, more love. I lived a different life here as a child, partly because I was a child, but also partly because Lahore was different then. I miss that Lahore.

Lahore is consistently the second most polluted city on earth now, especially in the fall and winter. It must also be the city with the most chaotic traffic. Everyone who drives a car here knows how motorcycle riders swerve dangerously in and out of traffic, burst in from side roads without caring for right of way, drive without looking, often without headlights at night, and come at you the wrong way at full speed. It’s the same with rickshaws and “ching-chis,” whose drivers take sudden U-turns in the middle of the road without looking right or left. Assorted animal carts clog the roads. Truck, bus, and tractor drivers are kings of the road who don’t feel the need to stop for anyone. A few years ago a tractor with no headlights rammed into my brother’s car from the side and dragged it several yards. People were surprised to see my brother alive. Too many are not so lucky.

It comes as something of a surprise to me to think that people born in the year 2000 are now twenty. What do they know of Lahore before it was plagued by choking pollution, mind-numbing traffic jams and the ever-present threat of terrorism? They have no conception of a school or college without barbed wire and armed guards at the gates. They have not seen the days when visiting a place of learning did not mean surrendering your CNIC at the gates. A CNIC did not exist—NADRA didn’t exist—when I was growing up.

I have seen Model Town, where I was born, change from a sleepy suburb to a neighborhood where people drive too fast, and where evil little red-and-white gates hamper easy movement and halt movement altogether at night. I remember going with a group of kids to the D-Block Mandir market (so called because of the Hindu temple around which it was built) to get supari from Mushtaq General Store (which I believe is still there) or to get paan from Nazar Paan Shop at the D Block bus stop (which I’m not sure has survived). I remember splashing around on the roads after monsoon downpours with the neighborhood kids, screaming with joy when a car went by and splashed us some more. We had a long driveway, typical of houses in Model Town, with a gate at the end of it. I remember sitting on it with a friend and swinging in and out, impertinently saying “salamalaikum” to anyone who passed by. You don’t see kids doing that sort of thing any more—at least not middle-class kids. For one thing it is much more dangerous for them to roam around on their own, and for another, they are all inside, glued to their various electronic devices. We had a good childhood, and we actually did climb the mango trees in our lawn. Young adults today know nothing of hedges serving as boundary walls in old Model Town houses, and peculiarities like street vendors who would go around doing anything from polishing your utensils and sharpening your knives and scissors to selling chana chor garam with sweet tamarind sauce (which could and did give you a really nasty stomach).

I remember when Kalma Chowk was a big roundabout adorned with what was commonly referred to as a famous singer’s hand. I remember how easy it was to get to Liberty Market from Model Town—all it took was 15 minutes or so. Liberty was a very manageable market at that time. There was also the French Center—the Alliance Française de Lahore—at the back of Gaddafi Stadium. Many people learning French at Kinnaird, Government College, and Punjab University, and many others who did not, came to it in droves. It was a lively place then, very different from the staid and official place it has now become. (As far as I know, that is; I visited it a long time ago). But I’m biased towards the French Center of Jacques Moisan—it was there less than thirty years ago. Aerobics classes in the morning, French lessons and movies in the evening, funfairs and stage plays—Moisan made it a hugely attractive place for young people. There were no political storms then, at least none that my friends and I knew of—we were blissfully ignorant. But this ignorance was not to be granted to those who came after us. Young people don’t know that the world was fundamentally different before 9/11. The word “terrorism” had not yet entered our lexicon, though Zia had been making Pakistan the “frontline state against terrorism” since the 1980s.

In the Lahore I remember, we saw the first-ever public performance by Vital Signs at Kinnaird, before they became famous. They called themselves Going Astray at that time. Now how many of those shopping at J know that? Or have any idea of the sadness with which we saw Junaid Jamshed’s transformation from a singer of gentle songs to someone who later repudiated them as sinful? That’s how we’ve changed in the last thirty years.

Lahore, what can I say? You’ve come a long way, and not all the changes have been good. I think that the greatest achievement of Mian Shehbaz Sharif, the dynamic Chief Minister of Punjab for eleven years, was that through his many reforms he saved Lahore from being a totally and absolutely unlivable place. To take a single example, imagine if there were no underpasses on the canal now! Thirty years ago, we used to go to canal road for a drive! Only a masochist would do that now. It’s no use going on a Sunday or early in the morning--all hours are rush hours. The old majestic trees, the green belt, and the serene canal waters put up a losing fight against the roar of traffic every day. The dust and the noise always win. Even with the complete overhauling of the infrastructure and the completion of two big mass transit projects, Lahore is a monster that continues to helplessly grow and grow and grow. If not for the closure of schools and colleges this week, we would still be inhaling hazardous air with the Air Quality Index going up to and over 600 in many areas. The safe limit is 50. “Health warnings of emergency conditions!” But who cares?

Not all my memories of you are good ones, Lahore. I know I’m not alone. You have done too many wrongs to too many people—some grave and some not so grave. But like all cities with millions of people, you have always had an ugly side. I was lucky enough not to discover it in my childhood and early adulthood, and even after that it has not been so bad. Many people—many women--have had it much worse. My trials were more or less the same as almost all Pakistani women go through in this country. But then I was lucky enough to leave it all behind for Montana. For the first time I was able to compare you with another place, Lahore, and you came out lacking. I have my grievances (who told you this was going to be a eulogy?) Now the memories are crowding in. I’m going to take you with me. You know you’re curious, if a little put out. Are you ready, Lahore? Come on, let’s go.

Dr. Naveed Rehan is an English professor at Forman Christian College (A Chartered University), Lahore.