Civil society speaks

Zinda dilaan-e-Lahore say no to Talibanisation, reports Raza Rumi

Never before have we citizens been traumatised with an uncertain future and the knocks of destruction at our door as is the case in the year 2009. The celebrated twenty first century has, if nothing else, blown the contradictions of Pakistani society and state right into our faces. One hundred and eighty million people cannot be spectators to the imperial great games and a callous state that gropes in the dark trying to locate the ‘enemy’ outside, instead of looking into its own crevices and cracks.

Not that Lahore has been a haven of peace in recent years – the inequities, the crime levels have been on the rise. However, March 2009 witnessed two full-scale terror attacks in the city of gardens, shrines and a centuries-old tolerant culture. Media gurus were quick to involve India, RAW, the Americans, everyone under the sun except the enemy within. First the friends of Pakistan – the Sri Lankans and then the ill-equipped and vulnerable Police Academy at Manawan, were attacked by trained assassins who espouse a version of Islam that no sane Muslim can ever live with.The panic and fear generated by these two incidents had not ended when the brutal video of Chand Bibi getting lashed on the streets of Swat was released. Continue reading “Civil society speaks”

The pampered Islamabadites

My piece published by Himal Southasian

Mahboob Ali

Islamabad is a very peculiar urban space. Though no longer a town, it is still struggling to become a city. Arguably, it is the most ‘inhabitable’ place in Pakistan, and ranks far ahead of several other capitals in Asia and Southasia, nearly all of which are plagued by pollution, traffic jams, crime cartels and civil strife. Islamabad, despite the disturbances and security threats that became endemic during 2007, remains largely aloof from this pattern – at least for now.

Located in the foothills of the Margallas, and boasting green spaces and forests intertwined among the folds of the city, Islamabad appears almost surreal against the densely populated rest of Pakistan. Built during the early 1960s by Pakistan’s developmentalist dictator, General Ayub Khan, Islamabad was seen as an antidote to politicised Karachi – which, in any case, was a bit too far from the Punjab and the NWFP, the popular bases for Pakistan’s powerful military. Laid out as a model city with the help of Greek architects, this city of the exclusive was formally born in 1965. Nearby Rawalpindi was already the seat of the army’s headquarters, and its proximity to the new capital was certainly intentional.

The new city’s layout was divided into sectors, numbered streets and broad avenues that are called ramna, using the Bengali term. The civil bureaucracy of federal united Pakistan moved here, and thus the sleepy town suddenly emerged as a new urban settlement in line with the earlier planned emergence of Chandigarh. In Islamabad, roads would empty out after sunset, and the national capital would be oddly deserted on all public holidays. After all, for decades none of the residents actually belonged to this city. Continue reading “The pampered Islamabadites”

Living Lohawarana – a Lahori rambling

My piece for Himal Magazine’s October issue

LahoreThere was a Lahore that I grew up in, and then there is the Lahore that I live in now. Recovering from an exile status for two decades, I find myself today turning into something of a clichéd grump, hanging desperately on to the past. Yet I resist that. Writing about Lahore is a sensation that lies beyond the folklore – Jine Lahore nai wakhaya o janmia nai (The one who has not seen Lahore has never lived). It has to do with an inexplicable bonding and oneness with the past, and yet a contradictory and not-so-glorious interface with the present.

Lahore is now the second largest city in Pakistan, with a population that has crossed the 10 million mark. It is turning into a monstropolis. Had it not been for Lahore’s intimacy with Pakistan’s power base – the Punjab-dominated national establishment – this would be just another massive, unmanageable city, regurgitating all the urban clichés of the Global South. But Lahore retains a definite soul; it is comfortable with modernity and globalisation, and continues to provide inspiration for visitors and residents alike.

Over the last millennium, Lahore has been the traditional capital of Punjab in its various permutations. A cultural centre of North India extending from Peshawar to New Delhi, it has historically been open to visitors, invaders and Sufi saints alike. Several accounts tell how Lahore emerged as a town between the 6th and 16th centuries BC. According to commonly accepted myth, Lahore’s ancient provenance, Lohawarana, was founded by the two sons of Lord Ram some 4000 years ago. One of these sons, Loh (or Luv), gave his name to this timeless city. A deserted temple in Lahore Fort is ostensibly a tribute to Loh, located near the Alamgiri gate, next to the fort’s old jails. Under the regime of Zia ul-Haq, Loh’s divine space was closed and used as a dungeon in which to punish political activists. Continue reading “Living Lohawarana – a Lahori rambling”

Opium City:The Making of Early Victorian Bombay

Courtesy Three Essays Collective, I found this book review on an important yet less known facet of South Asian History:

Opium City
The Making of Early Victorian Bombay

By Amar Farooqui

REVIEW in ‘Mid-Day’

MUMBAI’S OPIUM PAST
by Mahmood Farooqui
December 23, 2005

It sometimes appears, from the nature of current historical debates, as if the British empire in India was purely an orientalising mission whose discourses generated a politics of identity but that it was little more than an ideological apparatus that hegemonised us. It is difficult therefore to connect back to the earliest nationalists who decried the drain of wealth from India, who lamented India’s deindustrialisation and the economic exploitation of our people by foreign occupiers.

It is easy, in the miasma of post-colonialisms emanating from American universities, to forget that the Empire came into being and remained in force as an economic entity, that it was instituted by traders, that there was also something called economic imperialism.

Amar Farooqui’s Opium City — The Making of Colonial Bombay is welcome because it reorients us to the fundamentals of how and why we were colonised by the East India Company. It is a new title by the Three Essays Press, a Delhi-based outfit, which has been publishing tracts in the form, as its name implies, of three essays in slim volumes by renowned and radical academics in a style and on subjects that are of general interest. Continue reading “Opium City:The Making of Early Victorian Bombay”

Capital shock

My op-ed published in the NEWS. This was also posted at ATP and a robust discussion took place there.

A week long sojourn in Islamabad just came to an end. It was not the Islamabad that I had lived in or the one that my memory was intimate with. It has changed and perhaps forever.

I have been an accidental resident of Islamabad as I was thrown into the sleepy folds of the capital by imperatives of securing a livelihood. Lahoris can never be content with any other city. But Islamabad’s serenity as a stark contrast to the urban mess of Pakistan was most endearing to say the least. Even its cultural wastelands were forgivable for the communion with Nature was a splendid alternative to civilisation. Thus the sprawling greenbelts of Islamabad and its wild foliage became a source of inspiration and muse. I left the city three years ago with fond memories. Continue reading “Capital shock”

Delhi and Lahore – globalised fads and trends

This piece of mine appeared in the Hindustan Times yesterday. An accidental piece it was, written on the request of a friend during my recent stopover in Delhi.

Delhi-Lahore hip factor

Be it Khan Market or MM Alam Road,  life for young guns in both Delhi and Lahore is a blend of cafe culture, cool music and retail nirvana

A Pakistani like me who is visiting Delhi cannot help but identify the commonalities between the Indian capital and Lahore. The climate, the predominant Punjabi influence, the urban chaos and indeed the quest for a good life are as shared as the centuries of mixed history.

In Delhi, these ingredients are packaged into a single space, loved and mourned in equal measure, the Khan Market. Its swanky cafes, retail outlets spell out a comfortable sense of the plentiful. A trip to Bahri Booksellers is essential to check on the new, profound and banal book titles. Step out of the book-zone, walk around and you see young men and women holding hands and out to buy a little dose of happiness from the upmarket retail stores. New frames for glasses, an array of pret-a-porter garments and of course cafes where one can lounge while sipping an exotic coffee brew with a fancy cake. Barista is a favourite of mine with its neo-modernity ambiance and an ample variety to select from. If Barista is crowded, one turns to Cafe Turtle. Wi-fi access is available in these places along with soft music and trendy customers, whose snazzy mobile telephones rest silently on clean little tables. Connectivity is another facet of the global search for fulfillment.

In Khan Market cafes, one reminisces about similar haunts in Lahore. The MM Alam Road there is now a bustling venue for stylish cafes and restaurants that are popular hangouts for the youth defying the silly stereotypes of Pakistan. Men and women converse in their designer jeans about the world, quite unaware of the residual violence of the war on terror on the Pak-Afghan border. The Coffee & Tea Company is hugely popular. Another joint, Massom, a pancake lounge, sells mouth-watering desserts with coffee brews and plays cool music as one plunges into leather sofas to chill. Places such as Cafe Zouk, Hobb-Nobbs, Jamin Java continue to lure the hip Lahorites.
Since globalisation’s onslaught on Pakistan, Lahore’s traditional love for eating out has transformed into a fusion culture bonanza. The Hot Spot Cafe, Little Italy, Cafe Aylanto and The Dish have emerged as havens of cross-continental culinary blending. Young women drive alone to meet up with friends at these places; and hordes of teens are seen flocking to the Pizza Huts, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets.

While the affluent have these arenas, the underclass youth, both in Lahore and Delhi, finds its own recreational spaces in Carom and Snooker clubs, sleazy internet cafes with loads of porn, the weekly trips to parks; and the occasional sojourns to police lock ups. Life goes on. Globalization has something to offer to everyone.

Jal gaya tha ik roshniyon ka shaher

Aggrieved by the recent sinister, senseless violence and brutal murders in Pakistan, this is my feeble attempt at poetic expression. I have also trans-created this Urdu poem below titled Adrift.


Jal gaya  tha ik roshniyon ka shaher
Bujh gaye kitnay jaltay aur adh-jalay chiragh
Magar kotwaal-i-shaher ne mur kar na dekha


Jism kis ka, khoon kahan aur maut kaisee?

Yeh qatl na tha dosto
Yeh qatl hai ik ehad ka
Yeh nohaa hai insaniyat ka

Insaniyat ka khatma karnay walay jantay nahee
Insaan marta hai – bhujta nahee

Ahle-hawas aur ahle-dil
Huay sab ke sab, aseer-i-shab-i-siyah

aur ham
roshniyon ke muntazir
bhujtey jugnoo-on ko dhoondtay
thakay haray

gharon ka rasta bhool gaye

Adrift

Once a city of lights, stands ruined
Lamps – lit and half-lit, all extinguished
And the guardians of the city, unmoved

Which body, what blood and whose death?

This was not a murder my friends
This was the murder of our times
A prolonged elegy of humanity

Those hell-bent on erasing humanity, are, unaware
Man dies but cannot be lost

The bleeding hearts and the hearts with no remorse
All trapped in the darkness of the night

And we the forlorn
Wait for the light
Attempting to seek dying fireflies
Tired, exhausted

Lost on our way home…