Imagining lahore, p.1

Imagining Lahore, page 1


Imagining Lahore

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Imagining Lahore


  Imagining Lahore

  The City That Is, The City That Was




  1. A Contested City

  2. A City of Dissent

  3. To the Left, No Right

  4. A City Forgotten

  5. The Imperial Symbol

  6. The City of Nostalgia

  7. The Mughal Capital

  8. Humble Origins

  9. A Mythological City





  Follow Penguin


  To Soha, Zarrar, Abeeha, Kabir, Raem, Reyah and Arya for making this world a much more beautiful place


  There is a Lahore that appears to the eye—the second-largest city in Pakistan, teeming with bank-leased cars, an army of motorcyclists on its neatly laid roads, occasional heaps of garbage on the side, large multistorey buildings in the midst of hundreds of little abadis, some official, others not. There is, however, another Lahore, a city as real as the one described above, yet hidden—a city that can only be imagined. Somewhere in the middle of these two worlds is my home.

  Sometimes there are tangible traces of that other city: an abandoned Hindu temple standing like an anomaly in the midst of a crowded market, an old colonial structure surrounded by glass-fronted plazas. Mostly, however, that city exists in folk tales, stories and legends. These stories are scattered all over Lahore, at its junctions, around its monuments, underneath its roads and gardens, in the lives of people, in the courtyards of Sufi shrines or within abandoned Hindu temples.

  Even today, as the world moves around these spaces oblivious to them, their stories continue to unfold, dancing and singing for anyone willing to listen. In these performances, Valmiki discourses with Jesus Christ, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto meets Qutb al-Din Aibak, nationalists participate in historic Mughal wars, Mughal princesses witness the heralding of a neo-liberal model of development, Bulleh Shah dances with Bhagat Singh.

  Imagining Lahore is a journey through this city, in the process attempting to disentangle the story of Lahore’s evolution, from its mythological origin to its contemporary status of a hegemonic capital. In the book, I have used my own travels around the city, gleaning tales in order to present a chronology of events. My travels do not necessarily follow a chronological order. They are spread over a decade, as I moved from one story to another. It was only when I began planning and writing this book in November 2014 that I started the process of bringing these diverse narratives together to map the story of Lahore. In a few instances, where some time had passed between my visit and the time of recording it in the book, I have attempted to provide the timeline of my visit. Given the rapid pace of change in the city, it is possible that the places I talk about here might have changed form since the time I visited them.

  While the structure of the book takes on a reverse chronological order, there are several tangents within each chapter, exploring other stories that are associated with this historic city. In a few of these cases, the stories are apocryphal and part of folklore; they are nonetheless important to the contemporary city for they highlight how the people of Lahore imagine their home and its past. Uninterrupted, they flow through streets and alleys, making Lahore the city that it is.



  With one hand on the pressure horn, the taxi driver rolled down his window and showed me his other arm, the Punjabi version of the middle finger. Still glaring at me, he forced himself through a tiny gap in front of my car, the shiny yellow body of his car brushing against my bumper. Another wound. Another story of struggle from this arena where only the toughest survive. I honked back. Twice. ‘Fuck!’ ‘You!’

  A garbage collector on his donkey cart calmly filled the gap left by the taxi driver. A little child sat next to him, holding a cheap mobile phone on which the song ‘Kitna Haseen Chehra’ played loudly. It was from Dilwale, a popular Ajay Devgn movie from 1994. Cursed at by dozens of people who felt their space unlawfully invaded by the donkey cart, the older boy, who held the reins in his hand, sang on, oblivious to the curses and the traffic jam around him.

  On the other side of the car, a motorcycle rider stood on the tips of his toes to gauge the extent of traffic ahead of him. Sweating profusely, he took off his helmet and held it in his hand, undoubtedly planning to wear it closer to the junction where there would be an army of traffic wardens, almost as helpless as the sea of humanity converging upon them from all directions.

  ‘How long?’ I asked him, as he sat back on his bike.

  ‘A long time,’ he said with the frustration that grows on you as you learn to live with the messy traffic of a developing country. Almost instinctively, both of us looked up at Shehbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, who smiled down upon us from a gigantic billboard over the bridge. I wondered if this was the most appropriate picture for this spot, where thousands of commuters got stuck every day. The accompanying message suggested regret for the temporary inconvenience to the commuters for the larger good.

  With no control over my situation, I honked again. Twice.

  The message on the chief minister’s billboard had become a part of my daily routine. Every evening, at the peak of rush hour, I would get stuck at this junction for roughly an hour. Soon after coming to power in 2008, after a decade of military rule, the chief minister of Punjab had resorted to what he knew best—construction of new flyovers and underpasses. This was one of the iconic junctions of Lahore—Kalma Chowk. A tall minaret once stood at its centre with the first Kalma, testifying to the divinity of Allah and the finality of the Prophet of Islam, engraved upon it. When the government decided to construct a new flyover at the same spot, the structure was demolished but for the part with the Kalma, which was carved out of it reverentially and preserved.

  For months, day and night, seven days a week, work on the flyover continued. This is what the chief minister is known for—efficiency, his supporters claimed. It was completed in ‘record time’. For a few months, life seemed to return to normal. The flyover, as expected, managed to ease the traffic flow at this congested junction. However, before one could fully recover from the trauma of its construction and appreciate its utility in a city where only a fraction of the population owns and travels by car, the chief minister was at it again.

  The newly carpeted roads that had taken months to be constructed and cost billions of rupees were torn apart once again, this time for another pet project—the Metrobus. On a recent trip to Istanbul, reflective of the burgeoning relationship between the Sharifs (Nawaz and Shehbaz) and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the chief minister had become enamoured of the city. Lahore under Shehbaz Sharif was to become the new Istanbul. Automatic parking machines and garbage trucks were imported. But the most ambitious import was the Metrobus, eventually to become a bone of contention between the Opposition and the government.

  Once again, for months, the junction at Kalma Chowk, along with the entire Ferozepur Road stretch, where this new facility was to be run, became a living hell. Budgets were drafted and then revised, as the cost of construction kept rising. Some accused the chief minister of distributing tenders for iron and other equipment for construction to his friends and family, while others asserted that the millions of rupees being spent on the project could be better utilized on something more useful, like the province’s failing education system, or its broken health infrastructure.

  Timed to perfection, the project finished just before the general elections of 2013. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), of which Shehbaz Sharif was the Punjab president at the t
ime (he heads it now, following the disqualification of his elder brother), had a new shiny toy to show off. The Metrobus was projected as the successful completion of Shehbaz Sharif’s development agenda. It could well serve as a blueprint for development in other regions of Pakistan, if the PML-N were to be elected. Lahore, the new Istanbul, could be the future of other cities of the country. The image was readily consumed and the party swept the provincial and national elections. Soon after his win, Nawaz Sharif inaugurated Metrobus projects in Karachi and Rawalpindi as well.

  The PML-N, in its previous incarnations, has dominated the political landscape of Punjab since 1985, when it was propped up by the Islamist military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to counter the influence of the leftist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Nawaz Sharif, trusted aide and protégé of Zia, became chief minister of the province in 1985 and returned to power in 1988, even when the PPP dominated the national Assemblies and gave Pakistan its first woman prime minister, also its youngest, Benazir Bhutto.

  In subsequent years, Nawaz Sharif emerged as a prominent opponent to Benazir, and often resorted to undemocratic means to weaken her government. It was a favour Benazir returned in kind when she was in the Opposition. For example, in 1988, Nawaz Sharif emerged as the head of a right-wing coalition called Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, an alliance propped by the military establishment to oppose Benazir. This tussle resulted in one of the worst decades for Pakistan in terms of political stability. There were four general elections in nine years, with power oscillating between the PML-N and the PPP.

  The politics of agitation throughout the 1990s dampened the optimism of 1988, a year that marked a democratic revival in the country after more than a decade of authoritarian military rule. With politicians bickering and backstabbing each other, the military’s political influence only strengthened, resulting in the coup of 1999 that saw the return of military rule for another decade. Democracy was restored in 2008 as both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif joined hands against military rule. After the political nightmare of the 1990s, this promised to be the dawn of a new era.

  While Nawaz Sharif fought bigger battles—against Benazir Bhutto and later the military establishment—in the 1990s, Shehbaz Sharif took up the post of chief minister of Punjab. After PML-N dominated the 1997 general elections, Shehbaz began his first term in a post that he would return to for a third term in 2013.

  As head of the richest and most populous province of the country, Shehbaz has earned quite a reputation for himself. He is known for his hands-on approach, personally monitoring the progress of several projects, including the construction of roads. Many a time he has suspended government officials for their ‘inefficiency’. Often, he is seen in the media in the midst of a flooded locality during the monsoons, earning him laurels from his supporters and even neutral observers. When compared with the bureaucratic and stuck-in-red-tape approach of other chief ministers of the country, he is lauded for his effectiveness, hard work, determination and ‘no bullshit’ approach. For many, he is a model chief minister.

  While he is appreciated for his ‘efficiency’ on the one hand, his detractors censure him for his despotic approach—mistrustful of his own party members to the point that at one time, he held portfolios for eighteen provincial ministries.1 His ad hoc dealing with state bureaucracy, suspending them on the spot without listening to their point of view, makes for flattering headlines in the media but weakens an administration already rendered inefficient by a postcolonial bureaucratic attitude. In his third stint as chief minister of Punjab, he had a dismal attendance rate at Parliament sessions. While his personal involvement in projects hastens their progress, it harms the administrative system, with only those ventures under the gaze of the chief minister being given importance and others neglected.

  Shehbaz Sharif is particularly criticized for equating development with the construction of roads, and now the Metrobus, at the expense of pressing concerns like healthcare and education. Punjab today boasts a wide web of roads and connectivity between smaller cities and villages, even as its government hospitals lack enough beds. While the elite of the country can in a mere five hours travel from Lahore to Peshawar, a journey of about 500 kilometres, many of its schools don’t even have classrooms for its students. Yet, for some reason, Shehbaz’s focus on bridges and roads has earned him the title of being ‘development-friendly’. Many members of Provincial Assembly and members of National Assembly following suit expend a majority of their development funds on roads, completely ignoring other significant sectors. Perhaps the reason behind this skewed focus is the high visibility of road projects, which makes it easier for political parties to present themselves as ‘progressive’ and ‘efficient’. On the other hand, development in healthcare and education would require a longer process to yield results, which cannot be marketed to the electorate. Since 2008, numerous overhead bridges and underpasses have been added to the already crowded city of Lahore.

  This brings us to an apt criticism of the chief minister—that his sole focus tends to be on Lahore. Political opponents claim, and rightly so, that for the PML-N, Punjab begins and ends at Lahore. The ‘development’ of Punjab is equated with the ‘development’ of Lahore. While Lahore gets its shiny new roads, overhead bridges, underpasses, and now the Metrobus, the other, smaller cities of the province continue to function on outdated infrastructure. Lahore, it is alleged, ends up consuming a disproportionate share of the development budget. Many members of the Opposition call the government of Punjab Takht-e-Lahore, or the throne of Lahore, equating it to the nineteenth-century reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.2 As if actively seeking to prove their detractors correct, soon after the beginning of Shehbaz Sharif’s third term in 2013, the Punjab government announced perhaps its most controversial ‘development project’ till date—the Orange Line.

  The needle of the empty syringe is still stuck to his arm. His eyes are forced shut. I can sense him struggling beneath his eyelids but the heroin proves to be stronger. He has fought this battle many times. He knows how futile it is. His head hangs to one side. Saliva dripping from his mouth sticks to his matted beard. I can almost feel the lice swimming in his hair upon my own. His brown kameez has patches of liquid—sweat, urine. A bag of rice is tied to one of his fingers. It is a small serving that he won’t be able to share with his heroin-addict friends who sleep next to him in the last remaining relic of a serene Mughal garden.

  There is chaos all around them—bikes, wagons, cars, donkey carts, rickshaws and buses vie for space, the one-way rule having long been abandoned. A traffic warden stands to one side, in his full-sleeved shirt, under the shade of a young tree that will soon be uprooted. He removes the straw from his glass of sugarcane juice and gulps the liquid down thirstily. He will only step in when there is a jam. Otherwise he knows there is nothing much he can do to regulate the traffic as long as work continues on the Orange Line.

  The structure of Chauburji is almost like a blot of paint dropped accidentally on an intricate postmodernist painting. There is a sadistic charm to the pandemonium of Lahore. There is symmetry in its disorder. Every house is as abruptly constructed as the one next to it, all of them audaciously flouting building laws. Packed together, each new building is taller than the previous one. This is one of most densely populated areas of the city, with more than 31,000 people per square kilometre.3

  The government too competes in its own way. Renovation of roads over the past several decades has meant the application of successive layers of tar, so that the ground floor of each house is at a different level. Even the electricity poles find themselves haphazardly aligned, bent at their own particular angle. A jungle originating from these poles heads off in different directions.

  In the middle of all this is Chauburji, a structure laid according to a perfect plan, with four minarets in each corner of the square building. Perfectly shaped floral and geometrical-patterned mosaics decorate its walls. Its neatly aligned windows, arches and niches are almost an assault to the
eyes of a visitor accustomed to the mayhem of Lahore. The structure belongs in a different city, in a city of gardens that no longer exists, a city that was the playground of Mughal royalty, a city of thousands, yet a city that only belonged to a handful. This, then, is our revenge, imposing on these ancient relics of oppression our authority. We introduced anarchy where once there was order. We ripped apart the symmetry of these structures and enforced upon them our own version of reality.

  All that survives now is this lone gateway with its four minarets that earn it its name—chau (four) burj (minarets). The vast orderly garden, streams extracted from the nearby River Ravi, the pavilions where Mughal royalty would rendezvous, the glass palaces where the only reflection was that of royalty and the fountains that danced with the music—all these have long disappeared.

  There are several contending claims to the construction of this garden and Chauburji. According to one of them, the garden was created by Zeb-un-Nissa,4 the ‘Sufi’-inclined poetess and daughter of the ‘puritanical’ Aurangzeb. Perhaps what gives credence to this claim is the presence of Zeb-un-Nissa’s alleged mausoleum a little distance away.

  The locality of Nawa Kot, or ‘new fort’, is only a few kilometres from here. Its name belies its condition. Thousands of houses and buildings are crowded together in this small locality, competing for space. Giant banners advertising dubious visa consulting businesses hang from every other building. Like Chauburji, there was a spacious garden here at the end of the eighteenth century, when Punjab, and particularly Lahore, was experiencing a new dawn. For almost a century after the decline of Mughal influence, Punjab and Lahore had been in a state of chaos. Squatters were gradually taking over symbols of Mughal royalty, their gardens transformed into jungles. Warlords held sway over Punjab, and the city of Lahore had been divided between three Sikh warlords. This anarchy was quelled by Ranjit Singh’s conquest of Lahore in 1799.

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