The native returns

Unaffected by the prophets of doom, a Lahori decides the city is the place to be

Twenty years ago, I left Lahore. Excited by prospects of quality higher education and the adolescent yearning for freedom, this was a moment that only with age I have understood. A flash that alters the life-path even when one is not aware of it. As I grew up and visited Lahore from a multitude of cities and continents, Lahore’s provincialism and inward-looking ethos irked me. However, the splendour of its lived history and multi-layered present fascinated me endlessly. A false sense of fatalism whispered that my exile was going to cover a life-span.

The last few years were spent abroad: so dejected I was that not living in Lahore would mean living just anywhere. When I decided this summer to return to Pakistan, I was astounded by the reactions from all and sundry. I was told that I am ‘mad’ to have chosen to return to a burning, imploding and crashing Pakistan. Such is the power of global corporate media that even the discerning and schooled Pakistanis have started to believe in the failed state mantra scripted outside Pakistan.

My own parents, temporary residents of Islamabad, scared by the blasts advised me against it. Others from the more indulgent school of thought were aghast with my decision to return to a country where power outages, crumbling urban infrastructure and pollution define urban living. Of all the nightmares cited was that who knows if the country would survive? Such cynicism and unmasked pessimism about Pakistan is always disturbing, yet familiar. My question is when was the country not about to unravel since 1947?

Such has been the level of insecurity propagated by the state and of late its international partners or the ubiquitously infamous band of its ‘friends’? After all, if this was such a grave situation then I might as well be with the loved and the familiar instead of living a life of an unrequited exile?

Load shedding — well yes, inconvenient as it may be, is not all that unfamiliar. Prior to the high cost and high-kick IPPs, we lived in the dark times and used candles and hideous flashlights. Were we less happy? “Not really,” I told a friend who narrated the frequent power breakdowns as a proof that we had entered the august league of Sudans and Somalias of this world. Perhaps the colonial discourse has seeped so deep that we continue to berate ourselves; forever undermining, lowering and running ourselves down. None of that nonsense for me — neither the self-immolation nor the naive hollow bravado.

Unaffected by the prophets of doom, especially of the non-resident and domestic-elitist variety, I landed at the Lahore Airport on a pleasant October night. It was admittedly not that easy to deal with the twelve hours of power breakdown preventing any normal activity remotely related to the twenty-first century dependence on technology.

But what was more difficult, and remains so, is to deal with the endless prophecies on the end of the game. If anything that history has taught us, is, that upheavals of time are but the larger current of our collective unconscious. There were times when epidemics would haunt the population. What could be worse than our own holocaust at the time of Partition; the three wars with India and above all the dismemberment of the country in 1971? True, the destructive and suicidal trends are still embedded — all the more reason to raise voice against it.

Lahore has changed as I discover: the older landmarks are gone and replaced by concrete not to mention the ill-planned high-rise structures, ugly billboards and the recently added hazardous LCD screens. Courtesy my blog-zine, Lahore Nama I have also met many a Lahore enthusiast. Most notably Ahmad Rafay Alam who has been my companion on quiet Sunday mornings as we continue to explore the hidden streets and history-trotting roads. Rediscovering the neglected Railways quarters, the workshops and the Raj nostalgia streets that have survived Pakistanisation and later day Islamisation is delightful to say the least. These images and glimpses that flashback in the empty corners of my day-job.

The Mughal monuments are even more ignored and less frequented: the commercial attractions and thanks to the state-led effort to reduce culture to cuisine mean that fewer people visit gems such as the Jahangir’s tomb and Shalimar Gardens.

A month in Lahore has been furious and fulsome: from the youth festivals to the Ajoka street theatre performances; and from the spectacular All Pakistan Music conference to long, tiring walks within the walled city. I have been a little disconnected with the hip and the mainstream — the meaningless socialite evenings and the soulless eateries in the upper-middle class neighbourhoods. The latter best represented by the glitzy, crowded markets in the Defence Housing Authority.

And, being driven away from the TVs and computers, I am back to a bit of reading with emergency lights. Lest I forget the few visits to Ganj Baksh shrine and Mall Road shops has been intensely charming. All the sympathetic messages, often masking friendly condescension, have been replied with some high-spirited lines that have amazed me as well.

It is just so funny that electronic media’s copycat formats and reinforcement of stereotypes — home-grown and global — are so out of tune with the nuanced and undulating reality of Pakistan. What has been the best part so far, is, the indomitable will of people to survive and resist — galloping inflation, scare-crows, sacred cows and roaring puppets on the idiot box. Life flows, as before, with much more energy, civic action and the marching youth. The bulging youth population reminds me of how the exile from beloved Lahore has bracketed me in another generation. The new globalised youth is far more prepared to take risks and charter newer territories despite the skewed opportunities and rampant tribalism.

If only the pollution in Lahore were to be checked, traffic to be managed well and life-options for the labour, migrants and the underclass were a little more equitable and inclusive, the city would be unparalleled in this part of the continent.

There is so much to be done. The imagined failure of the Pakistan project is nothing but a fantasy. Nothing proves it better than Lahore that has finally started to look outside its confines and post-1947 provincialism.

First published in the NEWS on Sunday

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