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It’s complicated

moni mohsin | Updated on November 28, 2014 Published on November 28, 2014

Moni Mohsin

The hoopoes and fireflies have vanished from my parents’ garden in Lahore. With every disappearance, yet another thread that once tethered me to the city snaps

Growing up in Lahore, I lived in my parents’ kothi in the quiet suburb of Gulberg. Our kothi was surrounded by other such kothis belonging to my Lahori aunts and uncles and cousins, of which there were many. There were mango trees in our gardens and fat, yellow marigolds and Indian hoopoes. At night, swarms of fireflies blinked like indicators of invisible cars. We cousins hopped over each other’s garden walls to play endless games of hide-and-seek and badminton.

Mine was a calm, bourgeois existence. I had my regular haunts: my school — the Convent of Jesus and Mary; my grandparents’ art deco mansion; Anarkali bazaar, where we bought shawls and chappals; Kow Chi restaurant, purveyors of fine ‘Chinese curries’; my best friend’s house on a shady road in Cantonment; Punjab Club, where we met ‘our sort of people’ over Sunday lunch; Regal Cinema on Mall Road, where we always saw the three-to-six show, so we could be home for dinner. It wasn’t a late-night city. By 10pm, most streets were deserted, except for the alleys of the Walled City where a more permissive sensibility prevailed. But if I, safe and secure in my little Lahore, seldom heard anything but staid opinions expressed by bourgeois folk, I didn’t complain. I didn’t know any better.

Then I went away to university, where I met people from different classes, different countries and of different convictions. Five years later when I returned to Lahore, I found my life restrictive. I joined a newspaper, where my colleagues were neither Convent alumni nor Punjab Club members. Using my job as a pretext, I set about discovering Lahore. I visited neighbourhoods I didn’t know existed and met people I’d never come across in my polite Gulberg enclave: pehelwans (bodybuilders), prostitutes, gravediggers, street sweepers, mullahs, beggars, painters of cinema hoardings, hakeems (medicine men), truckers, poets. In chronicling their lives, I began for the first time to know and inhabit the city fully.

Ten years later, I left again. In the 20 years that I have now lived away from Lahore, I have changed. I am now a wife, a mother, a householder. Lahore too has changed. The small town has grown into a teeming city. Its infrastructure is horribly strained. There are epic traffic jams, pollution, water shortages, prolonged electricity blackouts. Old landmarks have disappeared. My grandparents’ house is now a bank. In the place of Regal Cinema stands a mall. Kow Chi is long gone. My best friend’s family sold their house and moved. The Convent of Jesus and Mary, and Anarkali still stand but the roads to them are so congested that it’s been years since I visited. The hoopoes and fireflies have vanished from my parents’ garden. Many of the inhabitants I interviewed and forged friendships with have died.

The newspaper I worked at is still there, manned by a team of fresh young faces. But newspapers are now passé. The new game in town is satellite television and 24-hour news channels. Cool new jobs have mushroomed — there are educational consultants, event managers, web designers, nutritionists, environmentalists, listening therapists. Shops heave with customers. There are traffic jams at 11pm. In its restless expansion, Lahore has gobbled up the fields and orchards that once lay on its outskirts. There is a dizzying array of new ‘developments’: Defence Phase One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Faisal Town, Bahar Town, Johar Town. Despite all its dysfunctions, Lahore pulsates with a new energy.

What has happened to Lahore is not unique. Charming old towns all over the subcontinent have morphed into brash, congested cities. A part of me welcomes this growth, for intellectually I know that change is the only evidence of life. But emotionally I resent it. Because every time someone I once knew dies or a personal landmark disappears, I feel as if yet another of the many threads that once tethered me to the city has snapped. And the truth is I feel bereft.

I visit often. My parents live there, as do my siblings. I still have many friends there. But I never stay long enough to establish new relationships, forge new bonds. In moving away I have unhitched my unfolding narrative from that of Lahore. I tell myself I am still Lahori by birth and will always be so. But as long as I don’t live there, I am not Lahori by choice. There’s a difference, I think, in identifying with a city and inhabiting it. A crucial difference.

(In this monthly series, authors chronicle the cities they call home.)

(Moni Mohsin is the author of The Return of the Butterfly)

Published on November 28, 2014
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