When it comes to truly knowing Pakistan, living in my hometown of Islamabad is akin to living in a bubble. The clean, chaos-free roads, super quick routes to any part of the city and well-manicured green belts make the capital city analogous to a tiny oasis amid a chaotic and colourful cornucopia that is my country.
My hometown of Islamabad is perfect for a peaceful living but “peaceful” can easily slip into the territory of boring over time, which is why the dervish in me constantly yearns for travel. Recently, my dervishy friends and I decided to voyage to the land of the Mughals and the Mandis for a mini-retreat.
Lahore, the heart of Pakistan, is a city of paradoxes, where you will find a little bit of everything, from Mughal-era architecture housing torpid heroinchis (junkies) to state of the art malls where high-society aunties frolic in designer wear.
On the same highway, you will witness a donkey cart hoarding a family of 8 as well as an urban couple driving in an Audi, sporting Givenchy shades. For breakfast, you have the option of having an assortment of English croissants; Eggs benedict and Orange juice or you can get your hands dirty with mouth-watering Hareesa, Nihari and naan at Lakshmi Chowk.
If Lahore were a boy, his Phupo would probably nickname him “Desi Angrez”, but you could never blame him because colonialism painted his Punjabi topi in hues of red, white and blue.
The purpose of this trip was to unwind and to have some shughal and while I did achieve those feats, I was also overcome with feelings of perplexity and confusion. This is because Lahore gives you a front row preview into all that is ironic and complex about Pakistan in all it’s Lucky Irani circus-esque glory which I would like to title, “The Good, The Bad and the Confusing of Lahore.”
Let’s start with;
1) The Walled City of Lahore.
On my first night, I visited a Qawali performance, in the walled city of Lahore. The entire scenario seemed like a scene out of the film, Mughal-E-Azam with heavy stage lights illuminating the surrounding architecture including the Wazir Khan mosque, which was designed during Emporer Shah Jehan’s reign in the 17th century. Music of the trance-inducing Qawali echoed into each corner of the district and audiences were seen transcending into a state of haal or ecstacy. Our Lahori host who took us there told us, “The stronger the divine connection the singer has with God, the more transcended the audience would feel”
The Walled City Of Lahore Authority organises these Qawali nights each Saturday and are free of cost for the public. They are part of the authorities’ plan to restore these historical emblems including the Shahi Hamam and the Wazir Khan mosque. It brought me hope to see authorities take initiatives that promise a boost in art, culture and tourism in Pakistan.
2) Daijki-lickin’ Good Food
Of all the cities and countries that I have visited, I can safely say that the deliciousness of Lahori food is unparalleled. From the Chicken Karahi at Cucoo’s den to the Sushi at Fujiyama, from the Nihari at Lakshmi chowk to the Lahori fried fish at Gawalmandi. The city offers the best of both local and foreign cuisine alike.
It is ritual for me to visit Cucoo’s den each time that I visit Lahore and this time when I went, I was happy to see the surrounding area of the restaurant also turned into a mini-food street. For those who haven’t visited, Cucoo’s den is a true vision with a multi-layered message of inter-faith harmony and love. On the rooftop terrace, you get a breathtaking view of the grandiose Badshahi mosque, a statue of Mary and on the staircase and below you see the statue of the Hindu Hanuman god and feel the message of love. Other recently opened foodie gems include Rina’s Kitchenette, the burning giraffe and the delicatessen.
3) Warmth of the people
Instead of lodging at a comfy hotel, we decided to give couch surfers a shot and looked for a local host. Thanks to my Desi upbringing, my first impulse was that this unknown host might turn out to be a kleptomaniac at best and a psychopath at worst. But the reality turned out to be at a stark contrast.
I was humbled by our host’s warmth and thoughtfulness, he lended us his entire guesthouse and with his warm gummy-bear smile, made sure that our bellies were well fed, our iPhones well-charged and our bathwater warm enough. I wanted to broadcast in the streets that it was possible to travel without paying for accommodation or getting mugged.
5) Art Scene
Lahore is home to some of the top art institutions in the country such as NCA, Punjab University, BNU and Alhamra Art centre, which is why it produces many cool painters, musicians, comics and other eccentrics. In recent years, there has been a revival in art fields with the rise of Coke Studio, Music Meet and Comedy troupes such as Auratnaak and Khawatoons as well as Pakistan’s first dance school, which was started by Nighat Chaudhry. The burgeoning art scene adds oodles of personality and colour to Lahore.
The rapidly increasing fly-overs, fountains, bus system, malls and modern structures make travel around the city super accessible and convenient. Lahore certainly seemed more organized than it did on my previous visits. The best alternative would probably be roads reserved for biking, Netherlands style, but perhaps that is dreaming for too much.
- Littered streets and pollution
Walking through androon scheher (inner city) I was perplexed by how littered the streets were with an awful stench. Why don’t these people use garbage cans I thought? But then I wondered whether I could really hold them responsible when almost all of them seemed to be illiterate. But then I also witnessed plastic bags covering entire pavements at liberty market, a place frequented by middle to high-income dwellers who seemed just as oblivious to environmental consciousness. I just hope that the government can start fining people like they do in Dubai so they can stop treating the city like their personal trashcan.
- Magical thinking
When we were stuck in the horrible traffic on our way to Badshahi mosque, a man in a beard dropped his business flyer in our car. It said “Qaari Javed Jaafri”, with the tagline “Ruqawat ab koi ruqawat nahi” (Say Goodbye to any roadblocks in life) Apparently, this Peer Baba could remedy any domestic issue and make all of your wishes come true, from marrying the love of your life to resolving an impending divorce – apparently, this baba can resolve any issue with the power of his jantar mantar. It was harrowing to see people still fall for such hogwash.
- Chaotic Traffic
Drivers would frantically shove their vehicles into your face like a swarm of anacondas approaching from all angles in a lawless jungle. Nobody seemed to care about following any traffic rules.
All vehicles seemed to be in a kind of unspoken race with one another, with no concept of giving space to the others. At every turn, I thought that our car would get hit. Add to the frantic driving, the noise pollution of the surrounding areas, and it seemed like a scene out of Indiana Jones and the temple the doom.
- Disparity between rich and the poor.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Lahore and Pakistan in general is the disparity between the rich and the poor. Behind a 4 kanal bungalow on bedian road, you would find a partially constructed brick-house that houses a family of 8 in tethered clothing.
I wondered if the residents of the mansion ever care to knock on the doors of their much less privileged neighbors and bother to ask them how they were doing? Because of this disparity, there is grave distance and disconnect between classes.
- Are we liberal or are we conservative?
We were invited by a friend of a friend to a casual get together to an upscale area of Lahore. The ambience at his place was hip and bohemian until the host announced that we should lower our voices or else an aunty in his neighborhood would complain to his parents that he had humans belonging to the opposite gender over. It was confusing for us on how to act when by appearance he seemed modern but followed these antiquated beliefs.
A friend of a friend, who was a very educated working professional, found out that I did travel blogging and seemed amused by my unusual career choice and lifestyle. In very cryptic terms, he asked me, “Your image on social media probably comes off of this girl who is very happening, with posts of your regular travels. So what I want to know is that living in “this” society, how do you think you are perceived?” while anyone’s normal impulse would be to get fumed over the prejudice in his question, I approached it more empathetically. He was after all, a product of a culture where the majority is stupidly unforgiving of a woman who lives differently.
I answered, “It depends upon the eyes beholding me. If there is goodness in his perception, he will seek inspiration and freedom from my pictures me but if his eyes are tainted with ignorance, then unlucky for him, he would always be deprived of reaping the good from me.” He seemed to understand and then began rampaging about how the closed minded in our society have hampered with his life and peace of mind, including the peeping tom neighbour-aunty.
The disparity between socio-economic statuses and the lack of an over-arching narrative between them results in a metaphorical tug of war between these stratums. Lahore, and Pakistan in general is beautiful with so much potential but I wish that we all cared more for her.
To me, the city felt like a beautiful woman with almond eyes and rosebud lips. She is adorned in a gold Mughal tikka but married to an abusive man who either ignores or insults her. In her state of despair, she forgets to even wash her face, which is muddled with dirt and in her depression, she forgets to change her dress, which is tattered with holes.
You will be able see her overpowering beauty in photographs, as her golden ratio features are eternally sublime, but in her company, you will feel the solmenness in her aura.
My question is, will the abuser people ever love her again?