Whether alone, in pairs or groups, our existence amongst the foliage in the shadows was accepted
It was 2015. Winter weekends were always quiet at the hostel. Most girls were either hibernating in bed or lining their tops with thermals before heading out. It was cold but clearer than usual, when fog was not smog. Novembers were enveloped in a light haze as Lahore welcomed its best time of the year. I was feeling restless, having dropped out last minute from a plan with some of the girls. It was just 9 pm, and I was running out of paper. Walking to the khoka near the shrine of Mian Mir, I could not help but marvel for the umpteenth time at the plurality of Scotch Corner, which had been my home for the past four years. Taking a detour, I wandered in the streets that weaved in and out of Dharampura and Upper Mall. Within the span of two streets one could encounter a two-kanal mansion, a 600-marla plot teetering to four narrow storeys, and the oldest tree drinking in the moonlight on an evergreen patch of grass.
Finding myself on the edge of the canal, near Crown Plaza Hotel, it became clear where I was headed. Crossing the busy road, I found my bench on the banks of the canal. The moon was fuller and seemed lower than usual. Bending your head and squinting at just the right angle, one could see the glowing orb resting delicately on ripples that gleamed and danced in its light. The trees between the 8th and 9th underpass were thicker than other parts, creating a dark blanket that muffled and obscured the road; their branches illuminating wildly against the red and yellow lights from cars. If you closed your eyes sitting there, an overwhelming, all-encompassing sense of movement over. The trees, the water, the road – all moved not with wind or energy though but with shadows, red flashes, and steady narrow streams of moonlight. Just as I was contemplating how strange it was that light never seemed so active during the day, I noticed the usual drug addicts loitering about.
At first, they had been apprehensive about some girls taking over their benches and coveted spots at night – a few lewd perversions here and there until one of the girls pepper sprayed a man injecting his foot whilst calling out to her. That night I learnt that pepper spray was powerful enough to overcome the effects of heroin. He yelped in pain, a few drops of blooding trickling from his foot, a stream of vivid colourful swears flowing from his mouth, as he admonished us for ruining his high. Since then we had negotiated a silent pact with the junkies; we wouldn’t ever sit on Kamal’s bench even if he wasn’t there (he was prone to sobbing in stupor over the injustice and could howl for hours on end, even if you apologised and immediately moved, which made other junkies resentful of you for interrupting their peace), and they would leave the rightmost bench to us. Whether alone, in pairs or groups, they accepted our existence amongst the foliage in the shadows. The homeless know how to negotiate and share space better than anyone.
The supposed danger was from men who stopped their cars and asked, “How much?” For if a woman sits on a bench to enjoy the moonlight, it is assumed that she is there to sell her body.
The supposed danger was from men who stopped their cars and asked, “How much?” For if a woman sits on a bench to enjoy the moonlight, it is assumed that she is there to sell her body. It wasn’t just shady men in big cars or six boys stuffed in a Mehran. Nosy aunties and nice uncles, also frequently held up traffic in the fast lane to inquire about our identities. Once a carful of aunties chided me saying, “Beta, you look like you’re from a nice home. Why don’t you sit in a park? Think of your parents – you look like a prostitute here like this!”
An elderly gentleman once jumped out and began ranting at a few of us, “What do you think you’re doing here? This is Pakistan! We do not allow our girls to laugh and smoke and ‘hangout’ in the middle of roads. Go hangout at your homes or in a restaurant at a decent time. Have you noticed the time?”
Just as this exchange was getting more frequent and unbearable, “Always sit on the rightmost bench,” Kamal said after he had flashed two women and sat cackling like a madman as he scared them away. They had stopped to ask why I was sitting on a tree with my legs open. The rightmost bench was like magic for uninterrupted moon gazing – as a large tree shrouded it in obscurity.
As I reminisced over the time I had spent on this bank when Kamal appointed this bench for us, he dragged himself out of the shadows and said, “Haan bibi, mem sahiba, chor rahi hai humara shehr?” before launching into a string of unrelated unfinished thoughts. “Don’t you forget this,” he pointed around us, “where darkness stops you, only do shadows move you” he slurred. “I’m sorry waisay. I’m sorry yahan raat ko aurat nahi hoti, sirf raat ki aurat samajhtay hain sab.” “But this is yours, your moonlight, your bench, your night. Here you can do whatever – why not? I do whatever I want,” he began holding his sides and laughing as he walked away.
The writer is a staff member. She can be reached at [email protected]