[Pictures and text by Mayank Austen Soofi. He visited Lahore in 2006.]
Life by the Canal
The Daewoo van left Wagah - the international border separating India from Pakistan - and was now speeding towards Lahore, some twenty miles away. A canal was gushing forth on the right side of the window seat. Flowing between two parallel highways, it remained a constant companion.
Grassy patches sloped down to the banks, which were occasionally being lapped over by a sudden violence of the frothing mud-colored water of the canal. Tall trees on either side formed a comforting canopy over its length.
A variety of haiku moments flashed past the air-conditioned window: buffaloes swimming in the waters; a green-turbaned Mullah lying on the grass and reading a book; bare-chested young boys splashing water on each other, their shalwars ballooned with water; fully dressed women blushing, laughing, and taking quick cold water dips in the canal; a family contentedly feasting on a picnic lunch, with men and women sitting in separate groups; a young man and woman whispering under a tree; a lone man throwing pebbles in the water; two woman holding hands and sitting quietly; a middle-aged man resting against a tree trunk; a pair of boys washing a bicycle...
Soon these enchanting scenes vanished. The fallen leaves, languidly floating on the water, gave way to polybags and tin cans. Lahore was approaching.
The Sexy Lahore - Crow Eaters Cafe
Imagining Lahore brings a medieval skyline of sand-stone minarets and fort ramparts to the mind. That Lahore is real. The haunting monuments, the divine Mughal gardens, and the old world mansions appeared to be air-dropped every few yards. But there were areas where the old was interrupted by 21st century bazaars, glittering with glass-paneled showrooms and neon-lit malls. Sky-kissing skyscrapers, decked with billboards displaying the bare bodies of white men, but no naked women, lined the smoothways and distracted the drivers.
Once the car disappeared under a newly-made underpass, apparently the pride of Lahore, for it was inaugurated by no less than General Pervez Musharraf himself, and emerged out into an empty square that had a lustrous mosque shooting up on one side.
It was pleasing to drive through the leafy districts. The car window was open and the wind ruffled through the hair. The highways were skirted by spacious bungalows with long graveled driveways. Most were partially hidden from view by a thick neighborhood of trees. These shy houses had huge entrance gates of iron guarded by thin men in grey-brown shalwar kameeze, with Kalashnikov-type guns slung around their shoulders.
Alas, the drive failed to quicken the pulse that a simple walk in one of the congested streets in the ancient quarters so easily managed to produce. The upper-class antiseptic zones of Lahore, like the Gulberg district where I stayed, undoubtedly made the city comfortable and at harmony with the rest of the privileged world, but they failed to capture the magic of the place.
Trust the Clichés
It is advised, often by well-meaning Pakistanis sensitive to their country's reputation, that Pakistan is different from its popular impression as a conservative Muslim nation swarming with bearded mullahs, burqa-clad ladies, and skull-capped, Koran-mugging young boys. This subtle convincing insists that Pakistan is a normal, modern society with beardless men freely interacting with drapeless women.
A drive on the road verified the claims. Yes, Pakistan is indeed a 'normal' nation with 'normally' dressed people, but the Muslim identity is hard to ignore - only a visually challenged person could fail to notice the abundance of bearded, mustache-missing men wearing ankle length shalwars, all in accordance with the strict Islamic codes. Only a turned-down head could skip seeing chador-clad women.
The truth is that Lahore without skull caps would look as bald as a kite-less sky would during the great spring festival of Basant when Pakistanis from different parts of the country gather here to take part in the kite flying fiesta.
Indeed, clichés are often true, though exceptions, too, are a part of the truth.
Feminism - Lahori Style
Are women second rate citizens in Pakistan? There was no time for an intensive investigation. However, if driving is the criteria to understand the extent of female emancipation, than Lahore must be one of the most liberal cities in the world.
Every second car was being driven by a lady - with or without the veil, mostly without the veil. Every second car being driven by a woman had only women passengers - no male relative as an escort! Every third car being driven by a woman offered the unsettling sight of maneuvering the steering wheel while trying to smoke and speak on mobile phones - at the same time!
Occasionally there were eye-popping visions of the twenty-first century overtaking the fourteenth - a cleavage-showing sizzler of a driver whooshing past a car driven by a black burqa. How was the lady inside that burqa able to see while driving? Was everything left to the will of Allah the Merciful? And what exactly did she think about that Paris Hilton look-alike who just drove past her? We do not know teh covered lady's thoughts but they would be interesting.
The Indefensible 'Defense'
We drove though the 'Defense' in the midnight hours. Defense, as proudly declared by Lahoris, is the hippest, most modern, and the richest district of the city. What was not mentioned was that Defense is a scam initiated, organized, and institutionalized by the Pakistan Army.
Its full name being Defense Housing Society, the concept was developed in all the major cities of the country. It was mischievously devised to integrate the country's armed forces with the wealthy establishment, though its purported aim remains to provide charity to the poor soldiers.
In this scheme, the soldiers are awarded lands at low costs to build houses. But here the hypocrisy trickles in: the concerned lands always happen to be the most valuable real estate. Since soldiers are too poor to build large houses on these 'cheap' plots, there follow a series of contracts and processes, too complicated to elaborate here, finally culminating in the rich and the influential constructing their mansions in these prized plots which, at least on paper, remain the property of those soldiers.
So, cities like Lahore and Karachi have their highly desirable development zones allotted to the army in the name of philanthropy, and the army, in turn, makes profit by setting a nexus with the moneyed.
Losers are of course the rest of the Pakistanis!
But was the Defense joy-ride fun? The road was as amooth as a chick's cheek. The traffic was heavy, considering it was past midnight, and the revelers were young and sexy, but there was nothing hip about the place, unless you count driving into McDonald's and Subway outlets as the most exciting and snobbish acts of the day.
Burger Buying in Lahore
Perhaps Defense is coveted because of its greenery and its association with the Pakistan Army - the source of all power and glory. But give me the smelly, dusty, lively, decaying old Lahore anytime than this hyped-up pretension of a military man's paradise!
Lahore as Allah's Blessing
It is said if you haven't been to Lahore, you haven't seen the world yet. (Lahore nahin dekha tou kuch nahin dekha.)
Let us assume that Allah has given you an opportunity to visit the city — but only for twelve hours, and that too during the daytime, which actually must be considered heartless on the part of Allah the Compassionate since the city comes into its own only during the night time.
Now, how to make the most out of the boon?
The celebrated food street in the Anarkali Bazaar, named after a celebrated Mughal-era courtesan, opens only after dusk. The red light district of Heera Mandi displays its wares to window shoppers only under the shadow of darkness. Further, since everything has to be wrapped up straight in twelve hours, there is no point in visiting Lahore museum, the largest in Pakistan, which demands at least three hours for a satisfactory stroll. So what to do?
Don't lose heart. Just drive by the celebrated Mall Road, a historic avenue built during the British Raj and once reserved exclusively for their use. It is the most important cultural stretch of highway slicing through Pakistan and would carry you past all the romantic ruins of colonial times — the imposing High Court complex, the Irrigation Department building, the newly restored Tollington market, the Punjab University building, and the stone-built Catholic Church.
While passing by the Islamic Summit Tower, built to commemorate the Islamic Conference held in 1974, do not fail to look at the stone model of the Koran. Queen Victoria once stood there!
The Mall Road cruise would be short but even then it is a memorable drive through the stoneyards of history — charming, spruced up and bleached of the bitter memories of the British builders, all for your pleasure.
Is Pakistan Really Poor?
Zooming on to the street-scenes of Lahore made a Delhi person like me miss my city's traffic-light beggars and their street kids. There were no slums in Lahore, no homeless people living under plastic sheet awnings, and no living skeletons scavenging rotten food from the garbage dumps! There were no drug addicts and no transvestite sex workers. It was so unlike Delhi. There were not even cows to be seen!
But of course, all the holy cows must have been eaten up by the beef-eating citizens of this holy land.
Allah is great. Drive safely.