Visiting hometown after a hiatus can conjure bitter-sweet feelings
A little unsure and uneasy in Karachi
By Aliya Salahuddin
After a decade away from Karachi, I am now accustomed to the dilemmas of my mind with conversations, real and imagined, and memories, historical and fictional. For a home visitor like myself, each homecoming lies somewhere on this spectrum. I follow the news of events and incidents in Karachi and yet the distance does not seem to have diminished. Without being in Pakistan for months on end, I know the designer of the season, the latest gossip, the most talked about television play and even the little row two journalists indulge in on Twitter. But I can’t sense the mood. I can’t feel the euphoria of the return of international cricket to the city or the utter sense of despondency and depression in the aftermath of Ali Raza Abidi’s murder.
And so Karachi, with each visit, takes on the shape of what happened in the time in between. Five years ago, Karachi was fear. This time Karachi is about uncertainty. Many ex-colleagues in the newspaper and television industry have lost their jobs, and friends formerly working in the development sector are in a professional dilemma. Prices are rising at alarming rates and a political power vacuum in the aftermath of MQM have turned this chaotic urban mess into an overcrowded city that is a little more unsure, uneasy and hanging by the edge.
At this very important time in Pakistan’s political life, my conversations with friends and friends of friends also reveal a very polarised city. From those who support Imran Khan to my activist friends who hope for the rise of Manzoor Pashteen, the defining values seem to boil down to a very clear division between the pro- and anti-establishment views.
The longer I stay away from Karachi, the less my opinion seems to matter. Karachiites have little patience with the pessimism of those who don’t have a "stake" in the city. I understand that. Neither do they have space for rose-eyed expatriates carrying flag printed purses, extolling imagined streams of nihari, making bountiful trips to Dolmen Mall. And I understand that.
I have become a keen listener and a lot of conversations, with the few friends who still remain in the city, are about the dead and the grieving. They are about the little Amal Umer, about Sabeen Mahmud, about Amjad Sabri and Parveen Rahman. Years ago, these conversations were also about the dead and grieving. About Wali Babar and my other young colleague from Geo, Salik Ali Jaffery.
For love of Lahore
By Fozia Tanveer
Coming back to Lahore after a long time was like meeting an old lover after many years. You spend the first few days observing how they have changed; lost their lustre, grown older or become bald. As you reacquaint, you realise the charm that initially made you fall in love is still as overpowering as ever and you fall in love all over again.
Lahore has changed, and for the worse in many ways; it is dustier with poorer air quality and visible signs of climate change. The trees along the canal have layers of dust, thick smog is suspended in the air and the weather is much warmer for December. Roads and bazaars are busier, filled with people, cars and motorbikes. The number of motorbikes on the roads of Lahore is unbelievable, probably it has always been but I never noticed it before.
Lahore has a public transit now. There are Metro and Speedo buses moving Lahore’s working class labour force from one part of the city to the other in their struggle to survive in this hugely expensive city where food prices are as high as in a high-income city of the world, milk at Rs120 a litre is mind-blowing and heart-wrenching. Speak with middle and upper-middle classes of Lahore, with two or more cars parked in their driveways, and they think Metro is an inefficient project. What would you say to that?
Old Lahore with its Mughal and colonial-era structures stands as majestic and grand as ever. Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, Masjid Wazir Khan and the recently restored Shahi Hamam, all make you fall in love with the city again. Is it a lover that you can spend the rest of your life with? Unfortunately not.
Despite all the love you feel for the city, Lahore isn’t a very liveable city anymore; high levels of income inequality, food inflation, poor transit and lack of proper waste disposal, all make you go back to cities you don’t belong to. With a lump in your throat, you leave this lover behind, knowing this love is going to remain unfulfilled.
Manic nature of the country
By Faiza Hasan
Pakistan is a land of contradictions, and nothing brings home the confusing dichotomy between its progressive and regressive nature than the drive from Lahore airport to Defence, as you speed over wide roads and arching flyovers, only to get stuck on a potholed, dust ridden Bhatta chowk, where street hawkers tap on your windows to sell you knock off designer sunglasses.
On one hand, I am amazed by the commendable resilience and innovation of private citizens, determinedly pushing boundaries and succeeding within the limitations imposed by a lack of infrastructure and government support. My own family and friends have installed solar panels to tackle the electricity shortage, and use companies like Careem in place of a viable public transport. In the creative arts, Pakistan is on the cutting edge, with companies like Patari and MangoBaaz. And yet, if you scratch the progressive, educated, successful surface (and I know I am generalising here), you will find casual, ingrained racism and classism that existed 50 years ago. Case in point the removal of a prominent economist by the PM because he belonged to a minority religion, or the contempt Nobel Laureate Malala is treated with by some sections of the society who accuse her of being a western agent.
It is also hard not to notice the increasing disparity between the affluent and the people who serve them. People will spend thousands on meals and clothes (never have I seen such a prevalence of designer wares than on the arms of well-heeled ladies in Lahore), and yet find themselves unwilling to pay their servants minimum wage. Shocked by the cost of living in Pakistan, I am unable to understand how these people expect their servants to survive.
Maybe these issues had always been there and I had been too much a part of it to notice, but with the space afforded by distance and time, I can see the manic, dare I say, schizophrenic nature of the country.
It is difficult to reconcile the technological advances when it feels as if the mentality remains stuck in bigotry and intolerance. Like traffic bought to a halt by the confusion that is Bhatta chowk, I do feel that the country needs to clear its path of the debris of religion, petty biases, xenophobia and chauvinism that are still quite prevalent.
Not alone in this struggle
By A.H. Cemendtaur
I had been out of the country only for three years but going back to Pakistan, my birthplace, looked very different to me. The year was 1988. Through the haze formed by a storm of flies and mosquitoes that I imagined had attacked me, all I could see was squalor, wretched lives -- and shattered dreams. The place looked so alien I wanted to quickly get out of there… go back to an environment that I had recently grown accustomed to, that made sense to anyone wanting to retain sanity.
For the next two decades I studied post-colonial independent states of Asia, Africa and Latin America up close and personal, travelling overland in those countries.
I have been to Pakistan almost every year since then. I can’t say I love the state the country is in, but at least I understand why it is where it is.
Struggling post-colonial states have a lot in common, the first and most identifiable being an amalgam of uneven development, mismanagement, and inaction. You see patches of functional systems here and there: at airports, at five-star hotels and at offices and factories of multi-national companies. The general condition of the country outside these islands of order is reflective of the overall education of people and the wisdom of leaders running the show.
Every rudderless post-colonial state can trace back the reasons for its current condition to its inception. For, when the country gained independence two very difficult questions should have been asked. First, about the political entity being left behind by the colonial masters. Was the entity really desired by a majority? And this question should have been asked knowing well that the country as run by the colonisers was designed for their own interests -- it was not the natural state of being. That entity was formed when different regions and states were brought together in the shape of new colonies, all for the benefit of the foreign rulers.
And the second imperative question that needed to be asked was about how the economy should be run. For others designed the economy of the new state to serve their own interests. Before the arrival of the foreign powers, the local economies were based on self-reliance, albeit at a very fundamental level. The colonising European powers opted for specialisation, moving commodities from one corner of the world to another. The economy they left behind for the country gaining freedom was tied to the global economy -- a difficult proposition for a nascent state lacking the power and reach of a global power.
And every post-colonial state that has not resolved these two preeminent issues finds itself tramping on the world stage, its progress constantly checked by political friction or a dysfunctional economy, or both. Pakistan is no exception to the rule.
Continuous roads, bridges and underpasses
By Atia Mujib
I moved out of Pakistan in October 2010 after marrying my husband who had been living in the US since 1995. It was not an easy transition having lived all my life in Lahore amidst family and friends. I will not say I am 100 percent settled in the US but it is better than the initial phase. Of course, I left a piece of my heart back in Pakistan; I return at the first chance I get; and every time I can’t help but compare my new hometown with the old one.
For the most part, I am excited to spend time with family and enjoy the delicious food but other things catch my attention as well. Lahore is now a city of continuous roads, underpasses, and overhead bridges. I miss the old landmarks -- Kalma Chowk, Liberty roundabout, fountains at the end of Main Boulevard - that gave the city a unique character and signified my childhood. I can remember the many times Kalma Chowk was revamped till it finally shrunk to a small roundabout, and the many stories associated with the monument built in the centre of the roundabout died a natural death.
Also, there are just too many restaurants now to choose from. M.M. Alam Road is so packed that there is not an inch of space between the buildings. And then the many malls… Back in 2010, we had the Mall of Lahore that had recently opened and was still empty for the most part but now there is a mall in every nook and corner of the city. And the influx of designers - there is so much pret available which has driven the darzi culture into a hole. The dynamics of going to Liberty or Auriga for cloth shopping and then onwards to the darzi has changed to walking into a boutique and picking up an outfit of choice.
Lahore has become far more commercial and cosmopolitan; it is good progress but for me it will always be my home city -- of street vendors, lush parks and the slogan "he who has not seen Lahore has not been born!"