Lahore is struggling to prevent the new theatre kill the old. It is struggling to keep alive old memories — of good times. These memories have been captured over time by writers such as Bapsi Sidhwa. In City of Sin and Splendour, a collection of chronicles by people who have shared a relationship with Lahore, Sidhwa called the city “a marriage of the sacred and profane”. The book opened with Mohammad Iqbal’s ode to his city titled ‘On the Banks of River Ravi’, and ended with Ijaz Husain Batalvi’s story ‘Kipling’s Lahore’. Batalvi wrote about a man who took his ‘Kim’ to the bazaars of this “wonderful city” before he ventured into Waziristan.
Every stone tells Lahore’s story, say those who love to live there. “For me growing up as a child in Lahore, this metropolis with its chequered history and historical sites was compressed into tiny pockets of familiarity: They provided me with many of my characters,” writes Sidhwa. Lahore’s influence on her is so profound that the main characters in her other novels, Ice Candy Man, The Pakistani Bride and The Crow Eaters, seem to have leapt onto the page straight from the city’s colourful streets.
But Lahore in literature never was just pomp and splendour. It had a dark underbelly — the ugly truth of the Heera Mandi, where dancing girls fulfilled the nobility’s impossible fantasies, under the shadow of the great mosque. Louise Brown’s The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams recreated that world — of nawabs, music, courtesans, tehzeeb and a mother’s dilemma about her daughters staying within the family ‘business’. “The old women living here say it has been the red-light district for as long as they can remember and it flourished long before the British arrived in the mid–nineteenth century… The old ladies insist that women like them were respected…,” wrote Brown in an attempt to explain the city’s character.
Lahore lost its innocence and a new breed of writers began to emerge. They captured the angst of the English-speaking generation, also known as the ‘New York mafia’ because they may live in the local neighbourhood called Model Town but their values belong to Manhattan.
Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke told the story of man lost in the divisions of Lahore — old and new, rich and poor, conservative and liberal — and getting singed by its impossible attractions. Post 9/11, as Pakistan became the frontline state in a global war, Hamid’s second book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, caught the angst of a Lahori whose identity is becomes suspect with the seismic changes all around — the story perhaps of today’s Lahore. And now, Daniel Muennudin brings a story from just outside Lahore, Pakistan’s feudal backwaters, where the old order is crumbling even as the new order struggles to be born. That old order — of Scotch-swigging aristocrats, topless mujras and exotic delicacies at Gwala Mandi — is changing in Lahore too, under the shadow of the gun.