Unfullfiled Civic Longing

Written for The Friday Times, Pakistan

After Mumbai, I have stopped watching television. I will not participate in the senseless jingoism of the Indo-Pak media industries…most Pakistanis do not want war with India

Thirty-something, burnt out, and driven by the inane logistics of life, I have forgotten what is it to chill, party or even get a few hours of doing nothing. This is particularly what I miss from my past life – the ability to just laze around without an agenda or multiple alarms. IHaving moved back to Lahore recently, after a long gap, the little village of Lahore has grown beyond control, reminding one of Pitras Bokhari’s remarkable essays on the city that celebrates the innate spirit and timelessness of Lahore with elegant wit.

Since my return to Lahore, my social life has resumed its Lahori normalcy except that I have changed. Alas. I just cannot go to random places and meet the same people over and over again. Life is not just tribes, clans and cliques. This is why Rafay Alam has become a saviour of sorts. A younger muse, Rafay is an enthusiastic urban explorer. Though we have hardly kept our plans consistent let alone punctual, the tours within Lahore have been fantastic. From the Mughal to the Raj eras, I have managed to fathom a lot – the evident and not so apparent tide of change that has engulfed Lahore. The people’s architecture is simply astounding for its social and aesthetic statement. Away from the self-conscious red-brick homes of the elites, and far from the kitsch sold as comfort in the Defence Housing Authority; the Mughalpura and Ghoray Shah areas have some interesting buildings and colours that one would rarely find amid the growing menace of high-rises and hideous sign boards that are thankfully being removed fromthe scene.

It was therefore great to be at my dear friend SA’s birthday bash that was a smallish affair but had an interesting mix of Lahore’s younger intelligentsia. Except that I got into trouble while arguing with a friend over the ethnic riots in the commercial capital of Pakistan. The exchange was heated and more so following the Mumbai attacks and the theories that are floating around as to who actually perpetrated the attacks. I was a little too critical of the liberal chattering classes who are pretty much responsible for the mess to start with. Their prognoses and diagnoses are all off the mark. For instance, when someone said that post-Mumbai, quick attacks were an opportunity for Pakistan to carry out surgical strikes and weed out terror, I nearly banged my head against their woolly wall of delusion. Such distance from reality can only be found in the well heated drawing rooms of Lahore with an odd painting of a Pakistani master hanging above their spurious theorisations.

And, then it was a visit to Islamabad and Muzaffarabad that saddened me even more. The exciting part was that despite the insecurity, Islamabad-wallahs continue with life as usual except that the state is under siege. The city has lost its closeness to Nature, while Development or its Pakistani version has ruined the capital. A day’s visit to Muzaffarabad with a friend was also insightful. Whilst the friend remained a victim of motion-sickness, I meandered along the winding roads reading a new autobiographical novel – Basharat Peer’s “Curfewed Night” – and marveled at the empty mountain roads in the winter season.

In Muzaffarabad, it seemed that the earthquake had never happened. Life is back in full force and so is the pre-earthquake clutter: roads jammed with encroachments and ill-designed buildings. The place is now a little wonderland for international NGOs whose remarkable work has rebuilt the area, much faster than the government effort but has also unleashed an ethic whereby locals are now getting more and more dependent on external flows, jacked up rents and a ‘let them do it’ attitude. Hundreds of signboards tell you which organization is doing what and one wonders if all of this is development in the real sense.

But then Pakistan is the land of the surreal. No point in dwelling too much on unthinkables – this is how it works and, as many say, will continue to work for years to come. The litany of my woes continues as PIA’s new system of computerised booking is a mere extension of its mess in the information technology zone. You can never confirm a seat, as all the seats are parked somewhere for VIPs and if you get a confirmation you have to go and collect the ticket within a few hours otherwise you have no booking at all.

Thus my return journey to Lahore is usually taken care of by the Daewoo bus service that is not all that bad and reminds me of our penchant to create little corners of comfort and isolation amid the jungle of unfulfilled civic longings.

Getting back to smoggy, overcrowded and noisy Lahore is always a relief, at least for the first few hours. And, life goes on as usual after that.

After the horrific Mumbai events, I have stopped watching television. I will not participate in the senseless jingoism of the Indo-Pak media industries. This is why I may not go to Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University this month but will send my paper that will carry the message of peace shared by the vast majority of Pakistanis who do not war with India.



Raza Rumi blogs at http://razarumi.com and manages the Pak Tea House and Lahore Nama e-zines

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