A different city is possible, and this is our time to imagine it
We have summoned it up again: the apparition in the skies. I saw it only once in my adult life, some two decades ago. But now, an image has circulated on social media…and it is unmistakable. It is the sight of the snows of Pir Panjal from the plains of the Punjab. To be precise, the western cordillera of the Himalaya viewed from the outskirts of Sialkot.
As the spring turns its back on us in the plains, we continue to see far into the distance through clear skies. Our lockdown has summoned up the sight that is in reality ever-present but sadly forgotten, hidden behind a veil of human fabrication. The image of the Pir Panjal seen from the Punjab is haunting to behold because the continuity and kinship of the plains and the mountains are unveiled from their concealment. It has been the subject of prose and painting alike over the centuries.
“The sun had almost vanished and the distant peaks of the Dur Khaima made a frieze of fading rose and amber against an opal sky in which a single star shimmered like one of the Rani’s diamonds.” This is a description of a similar sight from the historic novel, The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye. There are countless others, including Kipling’s novel Kim, where the opening is set in Sialkot against the backdrop of the radiant snow peaks of the Pir Panjal.
All over the world, cities are breathing again as nature is regenerating. Without painstaking science, our simple actions have shown the links of cause to effect. Nature is regenerating because of the slowing of human consumption, transportation and a halting of industry. Carbon emissions into the atmosphere are going to fall by 6 percent in a short duration, the biggest fall since the World War II. Particulate matter from vehicle fuels, and nitrogen oxide from industry have diminished in the air. All of these are the enemies of natural processes and sources of human disease including as vectors of the epidemic we now face.
In Milan, one epicentre of the pandemic, the geography and industry is similar to ours in the Punjab. Until recently, views from the rooftop of the Milan Duomo, the city’s medieval cathedral, showed grimy outlines of the distant Alps in the North. Now the blue skies and pristine snows are visible so perhaps the Alps look something akin to our beloved Pir Panjal.
As we all are asking, so too, are the residents of Milan asking, how to keep it like this? How can we form new habits that are more conducive to healthy life in all its vivacious and beautiful forms set within cleaner air and bluer skies?
With unquenched Italian aplomb, Milan’s organization, Parents Against Smog has declared: A different city is possible. With the Mayor of this city, a far-sighted plan of Strade Aperte, or open roads, is being put into place where 32 kilometres of city streets will open to bicycles and pedestrians and a 30 km per hour speed limit for vehicles will be imposed.
For just as in Milan, so in central Punjab, the geography is benign if we play our cards right - the great food baskets of the Po valley and the Indus valley will be fecund and exuberant. But geography is not on our side if we generate toxins, particulates and noxious gases that get trapped in a bowl, formed in our case, on the one side by the Pir Panjal and on the other by the lowlands of the Punjab plains.
Conceive of a different Lahore this month. An imaginary story of collective change that Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court might poetically describe in fictive exemplar to others: “The sun has almost set in the west against silver, summer clouds tinged with apricot rays and Lahore is dominated by canopies of thriving simul, mango and neem trees. Many residents walk or bicycle home at sunset for quiet nights on rooftops where families sleep, secure under cooler, starry nights. With traffic halted till the morning, dawn brings the song of a myriad of native birds together with the Fajr prayer to begin the Ramazan fast when people pray at home. Shorter working hours, slower industry, and better wages refresh Lahoris, while its colourful women can mingle on calmer streets, selling their wares, socialising and presiding over matters. Elders and children want to stay in the neighbourhoods they love, where they get most of what they need: organic produce from local gardens, local schools, dispensaries and government offices where everyone knows who is responsible for bijli, pani, and gas.”
A different city is possible, and this is our time to imagine it. Now, we know that we can summon up apparitions in the sky like the Pir Panjal – ever-present, but concealed behind our toxic fabrications. Like Milan, let us make plans for a more natural, compassionate and healthy corner of our world.