A View from Outside: My Recent Journey to Lahore
By Nasim Hassan
People who go to Pakistan every year may not see the massive changes that have taken place in the country. However, if anyone visits after a gap of a decade then great changes will face him that occurred over the years.
I visited Pakistan during March in 2013 after a decade. Primarily my travel took me to Lahore and surrounding area and a few days in Islamabad. Lahore is the heart of Punjab and reflects the changes that have taken place all over Pakistan to a great extent. Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtun Khawa may have seen more changes in comparison to Punjab. So my main focus is on Punjab and greater Lahore.
I land in Lahore early morning around 2 AM in March 2013. At this time the traffic is light so we decide to go through the city instead of taking the highway. I observe a dusty haze enveloping the atmosphere. Perhaps there was no rain for weeks in Lahore. The Mall Road had light decorations to celebrate the coming of spring. In fact, the weather was quite pleasant.
Lahore is a not a single city any more where people from different social backgrounds interact with each other and everyone had seen various parts of the old walled city. Now Lahore is a combination of many small cities joined together where people living in various towns, stay around their own areas and very seldom visit other parts.
The people pass various areas on the Ring Road, Lahore - Islamabad Highway without knowing other neighborhoods. Even a town like Gulshan e Ravi has a population of two lac people in various blocks. Each block has its own small parking and shopping centers. Then are many new towns like Johar Town, Faisal Town, Defense Housing Society, EME-DHA, Valencia, WAPDA Town and a number of Housing Societies scattered all around the city. All of these new towns are in addition to established old towns like Model Town, Muslim Town, Gulberg, Garden Town and Shadman. Along the canal on both sides there are many developments.
People living in these places have a completely different outlook towards the city of Lahore with one exception. Almost all neighborhoods get a taste of power shutdown called load- shedding. The younger generation of the current era is far removed from the old city culture that has been limited to the walled city and its surrounding areas.
If a person visits the old city covering the Mall Road, Anarkali Bazaar, Mozang, Badshahi Masjid, Lahore Museum, Lawrence Garden and the walled city, he will not find many changes. The only thing that has changed is the traffic, pollution and number of people. Every part of the city is crowded with motor bikes and cars. Another thing that a visitor notices is the presence of security guards with guns at even small business stores.
In my opinion the city cannot be seen without walking on its streets and bazaars. Although it has become increasingly difficult to walk but still the good old Mall Road, Anarkali Bazaar offer the opportunity for walking. So I decided to walk around the old city as the new towns do not have side- walks on main roads. Lahore is becoming more like American cities where walking is only feasible in shopping areas or the Malls.
It is a bright sunny Friday morning in March. I have fear and apprehensions about crime in Lahore. I decide to walk around the city anyway. I start my walk on the Mall Road at the old Punjab University campus. The campus has not changed. It looks well maintained. The department of Pharmacy and few others still remain at the old campus while all others have move on to the new campus.
I continue walking and see the statue of Alfred Woolner still standing while religion has become stronger in Lahore. Professor Alfred Woolner taught in Punjab University in 1878-1936. This is the only statue remaining in Lahore while all others have been moved away.
I cross over to the other side and see the Mayo School of Arts. There is a police present stopping anyone going towards the Lahore Museum. The traffic is heavy but the footpath in this area is still free from vendors. I continue to walk towards the old Tollinton Market. This building still stands in good shape but locked up to make it a Heritage museum.
There is a passage towards Lahore Museum from this side. I enter the area with police checking me over and reach the Museum. There are hardly any local visitors. There are few Asian people in the Museum. I wanted to visit the Museum to find out if the impact of general decline in the Pakistani Society has impacted the national heritage. I am pleasantly surprised. The Museum is well maintained and particularly the Gandhara art gallery is worth seeing. The Museum seems like an island of tranquility in the ocean of outside traffic and pollution. I recommend the Museum on a must visit list of Lahore in addition to historical monuments of Lahore Fort and Badshahi Masjid.
I continue my walk towards Charring Cross of the good old days. The GPO, High Court building, YMCA and E-Plomer Building are still the same. No change at all except the maddening crowd of people everywhere. There is a good restaurant called Salt and Pepper in the Plomer building. In about RS.400 you can enjoy a decent lunch. The cost to the visitor from overseas is very small when they convert it to dollars and pounds.
The best time to walk on the Mall Road and enjoy the good old Lawrence Gardens is after the rain. The rain washes out the dirt from the trees. I spent about two hours walking around the Garden. I recommend a visit to this garden to remember good old Lahore. It still remains the same and retains its charm. The Lahoris should be grateful to John Lawrence who developed this area. The least they can do is keep the same name to express their gratitude.
On the Mozang Road going towards Nila Gumbad, the good old Pak Tea House has been reopened. I stop by and do not find any poet or writer discussing a literary or political issue. Most of the people are from local businesses and banks coming out for a lunch.
Pak Tea House has been a gathering place of intellectuals at a certain time in history. At that time people could walk most of the city and a simple bike was enough to go to small villages in the city suburbs. Again at that time people could safely walk during the night into the early hours of morning without facing any crimnal. Only people who were on the roads at late night hours were free spirits like poets Nasir Kazmi, Saghir Siddiqui and A. Hameed with few friends. Pak Tea House should be allowed to pass on into history books. Such institutions grow at a certain time and then disappear. The past cannot be recreated.
The city has changed. People including writers and poets have moved to new towns. Now they should start new hang out places in their respective areas and improve upon the idea of a tea house.
Slowly I reach the Regal Cinema crossing. Before the crossing I go inside a Co-Opera book store that my friend Said Ahmed Khan had located for me. Outside there is no indication about the size of this book store. A few steps down and you enter a new world. On the side corridors are shelves full of all kinds of books. About half way down there is a section that houses the paintings of local artists.
The city of Lahore keeps on surprising me. The buildings on both sides of the Mall still remain the same. There are no new multistory buildings in this area except the good old Alfalah and WAPDA buildings. This is the area of Lahore that has remained unaltered over the past many years.
The Urdu book stores have a large selection of religious books including Islamic history, Sufism, stories about Aulia Karam and religious novels of Nasim Hijazi. This indicates the emerging trend of finding a solution in religion or Sufism amidst the tide after tide of crime and corruption stories.
The book stores in suburban Lahore have more books in English as compared to Urdu. I did not find many books from new Urdu writers. Novelists of yesteryear still remain popular in the absence of new authors.
The Lahore certainly works in my opinion. Despite load-shedding the kids go to schools and colleges and universities. The offices, shops and restaurants are open. The traffic is in full force and continues till midnight. After midnight it starts to taper off and then starts back again early morning at 6 AM. Many shops open in the afternoon and close at midnight.
My belief is that the city of Lahore has deep roots in the old civilization. Lahore has gone through the epic times of strife and peace. Thousands of years of existence and living experience of Lahore area has given it great adaptability. I have seen people burning coal in factories to make up for the shortage of natural gas. There are factories that use old tires to produce oil. Many others are considering solar energy to augment the lack of electricity.
Lahore has become a mega city with a population of over 11 million people. It has spread towards the south and the west. The new towns are accessible through the highway and ring road. Although the traffic poses many hazards but the accident rate is low. I was amazed to see people crossing Multan Road and Band Road and drivers swerve to bypass them.
Lahore impacts the surrounding areas of fifty miles away. Many new towns like Defense Housing, Johar Town, Faisal Town and EME Town have very expensive houses. Many people from the surrounding villages and small towns have houses in these areas. The kids live in Lahore while the fathers work overseas or other cities. This is basically for the education of the kids. Lahore has many large universities and colleges. There are many small tutoring centers and academies for the students. You cannot escape the educational institutions wherever you go in Lahore. In the affluent suburban developments there is a high level of cleanliness, well maintained houses and lawns. People have spent literally millions on these houses. Somehow they remind me of old Mogul palaces. As soon as you come out of these areas the same old small shops line up on both sides of the road. The creeping poverty and squalor is fighting the affluence. Gradually the small vendors start to enter these developments.
It is up to the people living in these big houses to reach out and renew the outside areas. Otherwise in future the creeping poverty and pollution will impact these brand new developments.
I continue on from Lahore to Islamabad for a few days to catch a bird-eye view of the growing city. I take the national highway to Islamabad. This road is as good as any in Europe or North America. There are a number of service areas on this highway. I stopped at the Bhera service area. This is located close to the river Jhelum in the southern salt range area of Pakistan.
The service area is big by any standards. It has a restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore and a masjid in addition to a gas station. I found it clean and well maintained. I am surprised to see an oasis in the desert of poverty and pollution. Islamabad is a well maintained city. The prices in the big shopping centers are equal or more than Europe or North America. These centers are full of people who have lots of money.
A step out of Islamabad into Rawalpindi takes you to the old times of fifty years ago. You will find the same small shops, beggars, crowds and everything that belongs to another era. On my way back I decide to take the GT Road that passes through many cities while going to Lahore. The road shows you the real Pakistan. The GT Road is in a fairly good condition. As soon as it enters small towns like Gujar Khan, Noor Pur Sayyadian, Dina, Jhelam and Sarai Alamgir the past comes to life. The traffic increases in the vicinity of towns with same old small shops without any major changes. You can also see masjids accessible from the GT Road
One might think about the future of Pakistan. Based on first hand observations, my belief is that Pakistan will continue to muddle through. People have deep relationship with all their friends and relatives. The society has many layers based on the level of affluence. People do help their poor relatives but they will certainly like to go up in social structure. Joint family system still prevails. In small or big houses the old parents live taking care of the children while their sons work in faraway places. The money taken through bribes trickles down. The donation to charities is above the prevailing European averages. The lack of tax collection enforcement by the state and federal agencies is perhaps the reason for this phenomenon.
The politicians, feudal lords and bureaucrats have to spend money to keep the political power. Common people have great flexibility and appear to develop a solution to every problem. Despite all problems of bad governance, corrupt institutions, the society and people have adapted to the circumstances. Majority of the homes have a so called UPS system run with batteries. The UPS system can run a fan or few lights while all other appliances shut down. Affluent people have their own electric generators.
There are two major issues of Pakistan. First is the population growth. Every middle class household has two or more teenage servants. They take care of small chores living away from their impoverished parents. Pakistan simply cannot provide education, healthcare or even clean drinking water to the growing population. Growing population causes the problems of traffic congestion, pollution, unemployment and health. People get sick due to lack of clean drinking water. One sick child washes away the whole savings of family. Population growth has not been highlighted due to religious belief. I hope this issue gets the attention it deserves.
Second major problem is the lack of rule of law. This includes corruption and terrorism. Based on my observations I believe that if the top three layers of the ruling elite are replaced with competent and honest people the country will be back on track within five years. People have great desire to succeed even under the current prevailing conditions. If the energy shortages are eliminated and peaceful environment prevails the country will certainly make progress.
I am very hopeful about the future of Pakistan. The media, journalists, anchors know precisely the nature of the problems facing the country. The first step of defining the issues is important and media is educating the masses on a daily basis. I am sure the next generation of leaders will take Pakistan out of the current quagmire. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org