Lahore outside my car window, a hazy blur. I focus on the marigolds that line the canal that runs through the city. They are un-apologetically bright and cheerful, in sharp contrast to a gloomy city and it’s gloomy residents.
Lahore. My home city. It has never felt more foreign than it does now. I’m sure I feel foreign to her. A judgmental outsider with nothing but harsh criticism to offer. Her judgment of me is no kinder: a head-strong rebellious woman who pisses on her values and never wants to come back. Once friends, now indifferent acquaintances at best and vicious enemies at worst.
Look at the marigolds, I tell myself. But my eye wanders to the scores of children, amputees and transgender individuals begging at every traffic signal, the banged up cars and motorbikes with fake Ferrari and Apple logos plastered all over them, the decaying buildings with peeling paint and broken dusty windows, the constant bovine stares and aimless scrutiny of men I share the road with, the aggression and fuck-the-world attitude of the drivers.
For years, I’ve virtual-realitied the fuck out of Lahore every December when I visit. But reality has diverged so much from the picture in my mind that self-deception just doesn’t bridge the gap anymore.
Before, when I went through Gulberg (my home from 20 years ago and one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city), I would only see quiet shady streets with mid century bungalows midst Banyan and Tobacco trees.
A safe place. A place where old and new friends would get together on Thursday nights and speak of poetry and music over a home made meal. A nod to the hundreds of years of tradition and history of the city that was the cultural epicenter of the Moghul Empire, a city of gardens and fountains.
Now, all I see is the obnoxious Dubai-esque aluminium buildings for some private school or another (i.e. How-to-get-the-fuck-out-of-Pakistan schools) and huge billboards selling telecom, junk food and clothing (the three national obsessions). They are loud, garishly bright in their color palette, mocking the depressed population below with their fake cheer, screaming for attention and therefore all entirely invisible. Not at all like my marigolds, that are uplifting in their brightness but respectful of their surroundings and the spirit of people they seek to lift up.
The fountains have either been permanently shut down because the country has no electricity (as evidenced by the 12 hour power outages that are now an accepted fact of life), or been replaced with more roads (to feed the appetite of an every increasing population) or worst, replaced with crass, low-taste sculptures of dolphins and other random animals (wtf! we’re land locked, this is not a maritime city, what’s up with the dolphins? I’m sure the wife of some useless minister of some useless ministry thought it was a GREAT idea after her visit to Sea World)
The car stops, signalling that we have arrived – tea with a family friend. Relief, hopefully far from the maddening crowd.
We are greeted with darkness. No electricity. Of course.
It’s cold. But no heating because there’s no gas. And no electricity. Right.
We’d like to have tea. No hot water though. No way to heat it. Because there’s no gas. And no electricity.
Get my drift?
One thing we can do in this highly resource-constrained set up is conversation. That’s what we’re here for anyway! So we begin, and start with the topic most discussed in Pakistani living rooms right now – the Peshawar massacre of innocent children during the school day. There’s anger. A lot of it. That makes me hopeful. Anger is powerful. It can be an agent of change. There’s focus. Focus that something must be done. There’s unity in the national slogan: “We will not forgive and we will not forget”. Now I’m engaged! Yes. Let’s fucking take ownership of this situation and be agents of change. Let’s be the change we want to see! Let’s Let’s!
Yep. That fucking But.
The conversation quickly devolves into conspiracies about foreign powers at play – the US, India, “Agencies”, the usual suspects. They debate the finer points of different types of Taliban (good Taliban and bad Taliban). I remain quiet but…
Inner voice: I’m sorry, there’s just no such thing as “Good” Taliban and if you think there is, you need to recognize the radical thought process that you’ve subscribed to. And wtf. How about taking some responsibility for a change instead of pointing fingers are outside interference!
Then we move on to the topic of Afghan immigrants – everyone unanimously agrees there needs to be a “clean-up” (read this as “mass deportation of millions of Afghans who moved to Pakistan after the US/Russia war and Pakistan helping to create a cluster-fuck in their country”). Fucking Afghans with their shawl markets, that suspiciously never get bombed. Now if that isn’t evidence that they’re all terrorists, what is!
Inner voice: WOW! After 9/11 Pakistanis were so critical of the US policy on immigration, the tightening of security measures, the disrespectful treatment of Pakistanis (and all of that was well-placed). Yet now, Afghans are alluded to as garbage – to be cleaned up and thrown in the dump they deserve. Where is the empathy, where is the religious piety, where is measured response? Conveniently MIA. But please leave the shawls behind, because we like those.
Someone mentions that girls are being kidnapped by the Taliban to be treated as sex slaves. I am surprised to hear this since there’s been no news coverage of the issue. I’m told the news doesn’t cover the real stories and our friends know people in high places.
Inner voice: Lovely. Let’s boast of our contacts and let’s also start another conspiracy about how the news doesn’t cover anything real.
Someone else alludes to the fact that these girls partly deserve this fate because they step out of their colleges to go out on dates (yep, dating still equates to whoring around in this part of town and of course both deserve a life-time of servitude and slavery).
Inner voice: Right! This line of reasoning just exemplifies the level of radicalization and intolerance, and lack of awareness about it among joe-schmo civilians. No one will come out and say what happened in Peshawar was deserved but the intolerance sits right below the surface. Try asking about Veena Malik’s recent sentencing for charges of blasphemy and most people will agree with the sentence and also go as far as saying she deserved worse and she will burn in hell.
Finally, the conversation concludes with the head of the household (a well-respected religious man) declaring that men are the protectors and guardians of women, that’s how it’s always been and will always be. Our religion says so. Yes indeed it does.
Inner voice turns into a raging beast at this point. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME! Deep breaths, deep breaths. Think of the marigolds. Lovely yellow marigolds. Be the change you want to see. Try to understand his point of view without judging it or feeling the need to agree with it.
During the course of this conversation and many others during my stay here, I have been given unsolicited advice on how to lead a ‘successful’ life (code for marriage and kids) and about about morality (code for victim-mentality aka God’s will – well what about the fucking will of humans!). I listen, I observe, I retreat deeper within myself.
It’s dark out and time to go. Dense fog conceals everything, turning the city into a blank canvas, a possibility. I try to paint a different picture but it’s difficult to shake off the conversation over tea.
In the days since, I’ve found myself limiting my scope to the little private community my mother lives in. I have a quiet little routine here that starts with watching public-call-driven talk shows and having tea with my mother. My friend tells me these talk shows are the puke of Pakistani TV. Here’s the thing though – they’re primarily catering to the masses. So this “puke” represents an important and majority perspective. I love me some puke early in the morning. What I’ve gleamed from these shows (and have also seen mirrored in my own experience): the entire nation is obsessed with weddings, clothes, children, food and conspiracies. Sexism is rampant – women are only portrayed as wives and mothers, cooking for their husbands and in-laws, running after their kids, heads covered, trusting, gullible, in need of protection (just as my uncle said). The few “modern” women in dramas are a caricature of modernity – they’re all incredibly social, incredibly rich and incredibly irresponsible. Did I mention, they’re also whoring around? Oh and they only speak English and wear western clothes. Modern women! Hate em.
The country celebrates weddings yet love is forbidden in real life, “love marriage” is still taboo and any displays of affection are met with strong discouragement. The country is coming apart at the seams with over population, yet any talk of birth control or family planning is heresy. Everyone blames the government for poor planning. Yet the microcosm of the family unit represents the same “God Willing” carefree attitude. Talk shows are the best mouth piece of the nation and the people that lead it – God Provides, who needs planning. Guess what, that’s not working out all that well anymore.
Anyway, I digress. After my morning puke, I spend hours texting and emailing with friends and my sister back in the US because they offer a counter and keep me balanced. We speak of plans in 2015. I rant and rave about women’s rights and nightmares and whine about power outages. They put up with grace and generosity. They tell me it’s time to come home. Home. 15 years ago Lahore was the only home I’d known. I say goodbye to my glimmers of light in the US for the day and go down this rabbit hole of Homelessness as I work out. Then it’s time for my daily walk.
There are very few women in the park. Just boys playing cricket and the occasional older gentleman flexing his arthritic legs. I think of how sedentary life is for people with cars in this city. Physical fitness is an afterthought and even then, a pure vanity play. Some people have come up to me, wondering why I walk for so long. One boy reminded me that I didn’t look like I needed to walk since I wasn’t healthy, in fact I was quite smart. This might be confusing. I’ll explain. In Pakistan, Healthy means Fat. And Smart means Skinny. So generally when someone wants to say “her child is fat”, she’ll say “her child is quite Healthy, praise be to Allah”. Praise be to Allah and to McDonalds.
Another comment I’ve received is that I am so child like. Let me decode this as well. The timeline people hold is squished and a little distorted. Teens are for friends, adventures and smartness (read: skinny). 20s are for marriage, kids and healthiness (read: slow decline into obesity), 40s are for showing off wealth, kids’ achievements and more healthiness. 50s on is for religion, piety (and insisting others follow as well), harassing 20s regarding marriage and kids and waiting to die. Assume death at 60 (and if not dead, then wait until it finally arrives). Everyone complains of high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and arthritis but with a complacence that’s beyond me. So when I’m told I’m child like it’s because I defy the timeline (unintentionally, of course) along many dimensions.
Anyway, back to walking…
My attention is diverted to the eagles and vultures that dot the sky. They are a permanent fixture of Lahore and a reminder of the superstition that shrouds people’s lives (there’s a general belief that feeding vultures meat will dispel bad energy and bring good luck and years of implementing this has led to a serious over-population of these birds – my condolences to the rats of Lahore).
Then it’s back home for some divine lunch prepared by my mother. This is one of the few things about my ex-home (ugh, weird to say it!) that has only gotten better with time and never ceases to delight me. Fried fish, spinach with goat, hoof stew, and daal, daal and more daal. So fucking good!
Once that’s done and my mother’s busy with her afternoon prayers (that have only gotten longer with time), I mop around the house and look for clues about my former self. Perhaps she was different. Perhaps if I saw the world through her eyes, I’d see the beauty once again. I come across some of my books in a book shelf in my childhood room.
History books – to find meaning in the past to make sense of the present.
Books on individualism – vindication to a younger mind, desperately seeking kinship in ideals and values that were so opposed to the environment it was in. I find an underlined passage that sums up the me of 15 years ago:
Do not let your fire go out,
Spark by irreplaceable spark,
in the hopeless swamps of the approximate,
the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all.
Do not let the hero in your soul perish,
in lonely frustration for the life you
deserved but have never been able to reach.
Check your road and the nature of your battle
the world you desired can be won. it exists.
it is real, it is possible, it is yours.
Lahore gave me that. I lied when I said at the beginning of this post that Lahore and I are indifferent acquaintances. We’ve known each other too intimately to ever achieve indifference. I realize I am, in large part, a reaction to Lahore. Our differences, now stark (because of the extreme contrast circumstance has created in our respective evolution) have always been there, always infringing on my sense of independent thought and action.
I’m grateful that I was told that the world I’ve desired was beyond my reach. It has made me want to reach higher, push farther. In some strange way, Lahore feels like a worthy opponent, an ideal worth beating. An ideal I beat every day with the life I live and the choices I make. All the chaos and confusion I’ve been feeling the last two weeks has distilled into sharp focus. Drive. Passion. Reach. I feel like I did 15 years ago, eager to get out there and win.