Memory is an inhabitant of the city

October 3, 2021

The air of Lahore is dense with pollutants, toxins, and memories

Lahore Gymkhana, now Quaid e Azam Library, circa 1960s, before its location was changed in ‘72. — Image: Courtesy of purana_pakistan on Instagram.
Lahore Gymkhana, now Quaid e Azam Library, circa 1960s, before its location was changed in ‘72. — Image: Courtesy of purana_pakistan on Instagram.

I was 15 when the Kalma Chowk underpass was inaugurated. The physical structure of the chowk is now a distant memory, but its name lingers. The landscape of Lahore has been significantly altered since my childhood; this I know.

However, it is only when family and friends, non-residents of Lahore, visit and mention the emergence of a bridge or an underpass, or the demolition of a structure, that I realise this.

But memory is an inhabitant of the city. The air of Lahore is dense with pollutants, toxins, and memories. While I adapt to the changing city, the past for many residents is ascribed emotionally to the physicality of Lahore’s landscape.

When recalling events from the past, my father will give you all the specifics. He remembers dates, some significant, some most insignificant. He remembers things as mundane as the number plates of the cars he’s owned, the colours of the walls in his childhood bedroom, and also the layout of the city he grew up in. He has lived in Lahore for most of his life. We moved away for a couple years, going from city to city, and returned a few years later to a completely transformed metropolis. I quickly forgot the ‘old’ and adapted to the ‘new.’

A significant part of my life has been spent with a smartphone at my disposal. When I am unsure of something, I Google it. When I meet a new person and we exchange numbers, there’s no intimacy of a relationship I would otherwise have developed with the chance amalgamation of their digits. They are simply transferred onto my phone as another contact(s). Forgotten. Out of sight. Only their names stand out.

When I come across an ‘important’ post, I instinctively take a screenshot of it. I don’t jot down the details in my notebook, and the words do not pass by my hands enough for them to create an association with my memory.

Before I had a smartphone, I had the landline numbers of my five best friends memorised. Every day after school, I would come home, have lunch and call them up to share little, little things about the day. Then my best friend got a phone of her own. She gave me her number, the digits carefully written on a note she passed me in class. I memorised her number in case I lost the little note. I went home, saved her number, and dropped a line. Her number remains engraved in my memory.

Then the rest of my friends also got phones. We exchanged numbers. The friendship has stood the test of time and location, yet the numbers are mere digits saved in my phone. If the names were taken apart from these numbers, I wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other. All these years I’ve never had to manually dial a number apart from my parents’, my brother’s, or my best friend’s — numbers I memorised at a young age for safety/security.

While I know the exact locations of all of my friends’ homes, I know my way around the city like the back of my hand. Yet, I don’t know the names of any roads. The underlying satisfaction that Google maps will get me out of a lost location saves me the trouble of doing just that.

With the information that is at my disposal always, a few screens’ taps away, is it causing my memory to no longer do its intended job? Is it limiting my brain’s capacity and functionality because I no longer rely on my memory to guide me to people, places and things?

My family was among the early residents of Johar Town. When my grandfather passed away in the 1990s, he was one of the first people to be buried in the Johar Town graveyard. When we visit the graveyard, my father can locate the grave through the smell of incense and roses, through the crowded mass of indistinguishable earthly mounds. It’s a left from the streetlight, four graves down, he tells me. But I always forget.

My father remembers the city that is no longer there. Our drives down the Mall are particularly interesting because he will point to shops and tell me when they opened. He remembers what was there before it all; he remembers the shops that are long gone. He points to an abandoned building; tells me it was once active with people lining up to get tickets from the then-cinema. I have toured areas of Samanabad with him, houses of people he remembers were his neighbours, people that are nameless and untraceable now.

He tells me to slow down in the streets because he remembers a bump in the road, a bump that was evened a while ago. He remembers streetlights that were removed to expand roads. He remembers the hues of the city as he and his brother would walk back from school, him carrying both of their bags. Every day out with my father is like touring the city I think I know.

Lahore doesn’t stop for anyone. It grows and it changes. The past is alive in my father’s memories. Keep it alive in yours.

The writer is a liberal arts    raduate from BNU

Memory is an inhabitant of the city