|A tiny slice of life|
In the summer of 2008, I accepted an invitation to participate in a meeting of historians to be held in Lahore. On November 24, after months of trying, I finally got a visa from the Pakistan high commission in New Delhi. Two days later, terrorists based in or coming from Pakistan struck in Mumbai. Inevitably, tensions escalated between the two countries.
My meeting was scheduled for the first week of January. Should I go? Must I go? With these questions on my mind, I went off to the Niligiris on a family holiday. A few days before the new year dawned, the ministry of external affairs issued a travel advisory, asking Indian citizens not to travel to Pakistan. My mother, for whom this 50-year-old is, well, still a boy, urged me to heed the advisory. An aunt added that I had no business to visit an “enemy country”, one which, as she put it, “was full of Muslims”. But their sentiments and reservations were vetoed by my teenage daughter, who insisted that I must go to Pakistan, if only to show that “not all of us hate all of them”.
If I chose finally to go ahead with my visit, it was partly out of a sense of professional obligation — some colleagues had been kind enough to invite me, and I could not let them down — and partly out of curiosity — what would Pakistan be like at a time like this?
I live in Bangalore, which is where I normally take overseas flights from. Leaving now from Delhi, I noticed that this airport had a special “Haj Terminal”. When I reached my destination, I found that Lahore airport had a Haj Terminal, too. There were other similarities — thus, as in Delhi, the part of Lahore closest to the airport belongs to the army. Then again, Lahore’s main thoroughfare, the Mall Road, has large trees on its sides and elegant colonial buildings beyond. If one takes a left or right turn and drives on for a few hundred yards, one enters well-laid out residential colonies, with spacious homes of brick and concrete guarded by private security men. However, if one chooses instead to continue down the Mall Road, one leaves the British city to enter the older, or Islamic, one.
Architecturally and aesthetically, Lahore is a sort of mini-Delhi. The buildings are of these three distinct types — Mughal, colonial, modern —but generally smaller and on a less expansive scale than in India’s capital. Socially of course, the city is quite different. In Lahore, as in Delhi, one sees many women in burqas and the salwar kameez. But no women in saris and no men in coloured turbans, nor any in saffron robes either.
Before Independence and Partition, Lahore was a great, multicultural city. People of three faiths claimed it as their own — the Hindus, the Muslims, and the Sikhs (this listing is alphabetical). However, after the riots of 1947, the Hindus and Sikhs fled across the border. Their fate was shared by the Muslims of the Eastern Punjab who, likewise, were either killed or became refugees. However, there were millions of Muslims still living and working in the rest of India, adding to the Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains, all residents of what is not and will hopefully never be a nation in which Hindus are, simply by virtue of their numbers, treated as more authentic citizens than the others.
For 600 (and more) years, Lahore was a city in which many Muslims resided and some Muslims ruled. It is only in the past 60 years that it has become a Muslim city. Even so, it is the most broad-minded of all the towns in Pakistan. Unlike Quetta and Peshawar, Islamic fundamentalists do not (yet) dominate the city. Unlike Karachi, it is not plagued and crippled by sectarian violence. Given this relative peace, and this relative absence of religious bigotry, the residents of Lahore can more freely cultivate their age-old interests in literature, theatre, music, art, food, and, not least, conversation.
In the three days I was in Lahore, I was mostly listening, as the people I met spoke about their hopes and fears for Pakistan. Among the latter the threat of political Islam predominated. The beautiful valley of Swat, a place once visited by many foreign tourists, had just fallen to a group of radical Islamists, whose first act was to issue an order closing down schools for women. Meanwhile, there were reports in the newspapers of how the Taliban now owned wide swathes of property in the capital of Baluchistan, Quetta. The middle class of Lahore felt encircled and beleaguered — when, they asked themselves (and me), when would their own, more tolerant and mystical form of Islam be overrun and suppressed by the fundamentalists?
A second and older threat was from the army. For much of its history, Pakistan has been run by men in uniform. This was in part a product of bad luck — the loss, so soon after independence, of the nation’s founder, M.A. Jinnah; the accident of becoming a front-line state in the Cold War, which allowed the Americans to woo Pakistan with arms and money and hence consolidated the position of the generals. However, it has to be said that the generals had used their good fortune to their advantage. Whereas in Delhi and other Indian towns, the army is confined to the cantonments built by the British, in Pakistan the army had captured large chunks of property inside and outside the major cities. Here, they had built homes and bungalows in which they lived, hotels and offices from which they profited, and golf courses and polo grounds on which they played.
The third fear of the middle class in Lahore was of being abandoned by the world. The government of the United States of America, once so markedly biased in favour of Pakistan, was moving closer to India. The shift was even more pronounced in the case of the American public, among whom — even before the Mumbai terror attacks — Pakistan was seen as, increasingly, the most dangerous place in the world. Western states and Western publics were thus getting impatient with their erratic ally. Having sponsored terror while claiming to be part of the war on terror, Pakistan had wiped away, from Western memory, the decades of close support and solidarity in the struggle against the Soviet Union.
The urbanity and refinement of the Lahore upper classes is unmatched elsewhere in south Asia. The elegance of their modern homes matches the elegance of the medieval forts and mosques that pepper the city. Their conversation is effortlessly trilingual — switching between Punjabi, Urdu, and English, they connect their province to their nation and to the world. In this love of books and ideas, this commitment to democratic pluralism, this open-minded engagement with other cultures and nations, they are entirely unrepresentative. For the cosmopolitan upper class of Lahore is but a tiny slice of this nation of 170 million people — a tiny slice, and withal, the best.
I left Lahore with a sense of sadness. I had last visited the city in 1995; who knows when, or if, I will ever visit there again. Who knows, either, whether or for how long the democratic and humane sensibilities of the best kind of Lahori will be able to keep at bay the generals and the mullahs who, working in tandem, have pushed Pakistan to the brink.