The Lights of Lahore: A Cartography of Loss

This article was written by Farha Noor for

Ae roshnion ke shahar
Kaun kahe kis simt hai teri roshnion ki raah
Har jaanib be-noor khadi hai hijr ki shaharpanaah
Thak-kar har soo baith rahi hai shouq ki maand sipaah

Oh city of lights
Who could say in what direction is the road to your lights?
On every side stand the unlit city-walls of banishment:
Weary, in every direction, the exhausted army of ardour is sitting (Faiz Ahmed Faiz, trans. by V. G. Kiernan)


I went to Lahore in search of a dead woman – a woman who belonged, more in death than in life, to this city she decided to make her own. I went to know about the unknown, to throw some light on the darkness of her past. In belonging to a city in death, one often imparts life to the city itself. My journey to Lahore made me realise much more than I could imagine: that the search for the dead can often lead one to many more deaths, to being trapped within the apparition of an illuminated city that thrives on darkness. For me, Lahore now translates into an enigmatic sense of loss. It is a loss that is not mine, that would never be mine, that could never have been mine. I am an outsider, a mere traveller. Yet, it is this loss that reaches out, connecting dots on the map of Lahore, darker than any other line. It is this loss that I have gained. It is this loss I accidentally inherited as I went astray in the glittering alleys and gardens of the ruining city I thought I escaped.

Alys Faiz (or Alys Catherine Ivy George) died in her Model Town house in the year 2003. It is here in 120 H Model Town that I spent my first two months in Lahore. She died mainly of old age (at 87) and illness (a painful, broken hip). I was in school at that time. I did not know of her or what she would mean to me ten years later.  I could not foresee that I would traverse the border between India and Pakistan in search of an English ‘memsahib’ (as she was fondly called), her literary adventures, and a persona that would overwhelm me.  In 2013, I crossed the border at Wagah to go to Lahore and begin my research on the life and writings of Alys, who had by then taken possession of me and with whom I was absolutely obsessed. During my theatre days in Delhi, I read Alys’s letters written to Faiz while he was in prison (during1951-55) and decided to find out more about her. After a lot of uncertainty and more unexpected kindness, one fine day in November 2013, I found myself in front of the archives of Alys Faiz in the office of Faiz Ghar in Lahore.

Inside the drawers, I found numerous letters, mostly personal. Some were written by her, some addressed to her. There was a bundle of postcards sent from all over the world and an envelope of old photographs. Some of these were of her English family, most of them with Faiz, many with her children and grandchildren, and a few with friends and comrades. I found an invitation letter to Benazir Bhutto’s wedding and wads of newspaper cuttings. One of them particularly caught my attention – she had stuck it on her scrapbook. It was a comic strip of a party where a bald, old man in glasses looked forlorn with a cigarette in his fingers as a seemingly attractive woman in high heels and party attire held a glass of drink and snapped, ‘After the War, every other bald old man calls himself a poet’. Below the strip, she had scribbled ‘For FAF’. Her scrapbook was filled with sketches by the renowned artist, her elder daughter Salima Hashmi (Cheemie), and ocassional threats by the influential television personality, her younger, Moneeza Hashmi (Mizu). Her daughters had also scribbled in almost all her letters. I found a guide that mapped the stone beasts of London; school certificates from a school in Leyton in the county of Essex; a library card of SOAS, University of London. There was a letter from Mulk Raj Anand. I found a red folder, containing typed out, unpublished poems on yellowed paper, penned by the poet’s wife. These were stuck together by rusty pins. I found an envelope that contained lots of knitting patterns. I found heaps of issues of the leftist magazine Viewpoint, where Alys Faiz was a regular columnist; papers of a once active Young Readers’ Association founded by her; a map of Lahore that Alys had marked in Urdu. I found that I could not see things clearly anymore as my eyes became moist. As if in answer, I found a pair of Alys’ broken glasses.

Faiza, fondly called Faizi by all and sundry, managed the office, daily activities and archives at Faiz Ghar. She handed me some tissue papers while increasing the drama quotient of the situation and said to me, “Yeh to kuchh bhi nahin hai! Main aapko aur bahut si cheezain dikhaoongi. Aap to pagal ho jayengi.” (This is nothing. I will show you some more. You’ll lose your mind.) And she did. Every morning, I used to get up late, rush through breakfast and be dropped at Faiz Ghar by ten. Faizi would greet me with open arms. Every day she would hug me as if I had gone somewhere far away and had just returned. She said she was scared I had fled to Delhi overnight. She would make sure that I got my cup of tea and she got her daily dose of chatter. She would relentlessly complain about my shabby appearance and ask me why I didn’t dress up, why my clothes weren’t ironed well, why my face was not made up, why my hair was not styled, why I didn’t wear jewellery, and so on. I would roll my eyes and yawn. She would sigh, informing me that nothing was going to become of me, and would finally unlock the archive drawers. She would come back every two hours with tea and stories. One day she told me she was over fifty and upon seeing my pupils dilate, she nodded and said that she takes care of herself. Another day she told me she had met Faiz when she was a child, living in Canada with her family. She told me her father was a poet and when he came to know that Faiz was visiting, he made sure that Faizi and her sister would meet the great Poet. Faiz had smiled at the sisters, blessed them and had apparently said, “I too have two daughters, exactly like you two.” Another day Faizi confessed that she often dreamed of Faiz; that he smiled at her in her dreams and told her not to worry, that he knew she would take care of everything. One day she broke down and told me she had been depressed since her mother’s death and her life at home was hell; her husband was a conservative old man who wanted her to leave this job immediately. She told me she would die without this job and that this job held her life together. Every day, she showed me some new picture or document pertaining to Alys’s life; if not, she would get something from Faiz’s archives, only to cheer me up. Every day, she force-fed me half of her egg sandwich. Every day she plucked lemons for me from the lemon tree in the garden. When I was leaving, I gifted her a madhubani painting I had made. Her eyes got watery. She scolded me that I must write about our time spent together. Some months later, I came to know that Faizi did not work at Faiz Ghar anymore. I intended to write to her but kept putting it off until a couple of months later, when I came to know that Faizi had passed away. She had Parkinson’s. She also often hallucinated – this being the reason why she stopped working.

During my field work in Lahore, there were times when my research would often hit a blind alley. On those days, I would be rescued and would often find myself in Lahore’s dazzling, elite gatherings where I could avoid and indulge in boring conversations and interesting spirits respectively. At one such gathering, in loneliness and in the company of glasses half-filled, I saw a very handsome young boy. He was full of life. He was drunk, he was happy and he was lost. With one cigarette hanging from the interstice of his lips, and one eye squinting, he looked around frantically, presumably for something he wanted to light his cigarette with. We were out in the open. The chilly evening was warmed with tea lights scattered across the place. I picked one up and handed it to him. His eyes smiled, nodding in ‘thanks’. Sheepishly, he lit his cigarette in the flame of the candle. I smiled back, finished my drink and left the party. Months later, I read of his death on the internet. I didn’t know his name. I saw a picture of a young, handsome boy, full of life. He had smiling eyes. He was shot by some goons who were trying to rob him. It seems he had resisted.

Apparently, nothing can bring you to life better than death; nothing can make you more familiar with it than loss. I have known Lahore through these three deaths and my association with the city is most in the knowledge (or the lack) of their lives. After all, how much did I know about these three lives? And yet, that is all I know of the city. My knowledge of Alys is through my interpretation of her persona, filtered through my academic training, and the remnants of her life on paper. Half of it is factual understanding; the other half imagined. Yet, this imagination is highly restricted by the overflowing facts I have gathered about her. In my seeking to know her life in Lahore, I imagine her sweating profusely as she rides her cycle from her former home at 41 Empress Road to The Pakistan Times office. “My route to the office lay along Egerton Road,” she writes in her memoir, “onto the Mall, turn right along Hall Road, cross McLeod Road, and straight onto the offices of The Pakistan Times.”[1] She curses ‘haraamzaada’ under her breath as she is refused a raise. In order to lift her spirits and those of others around her, she decides to celebrate not having a raise and to spend on dinner at the Argentina Restaurant. She walks back home with two little girls, each holding one of her hands as they return from an evening show of A Streetcar Named Desire. She writes to Faiz, “I shouldn’t make you feel sad but we saw a good film recently – A Streetcar Named Desire. Have YOU seen any good films lately? Bali is here for the weekend and the girls are so happy.”[2] She holds Faiz’s hands silently after a disagreement as they sit on a bench under the glorious trees of Lawrence Gardens. I imagine all this from her letters and memoirs, her pictures, her poems, stories about her from her daughters and others. And in her imagined life, I imagine the city, sipping her soul, one day at a time, from every tree she planted and every brick she placed. In these ways, I have travelled to Lahore, not in 2013, but from 1947 to 2003 and beyond. In Lahore, I have travelled as far as Leyton in Essex, into the house and life of a bookseller whose daughter took me there. “Our house had three storeys, shops and rooms at street level, up to bedrooms and then what were called attics, although they were really large rooms with sloping roofs – four of them.”[3]

The theatre where she watched films was burnt down, Argentina Restaurant does not exist anymore, and Lawrence Gardens is now renamed Baagh-e-Jinnah. All that remains is a flowered grave beside Faiz’s and a museum made of the lives of two people, called Faiz Ghar.

And what do I know of Faizi’s life? Whatever I know is from what she told me. I was also told, after her death, that she hallucinated often and imagined things she believed in. And who is to say that is not knowledge? How would I know her better, from what actually happened to her or from what she believed happened to her? I imagine her rising early, every morning in an affordable house in a middle-class locality near Laxmi Chowk, dressing herself impeccably, readying herself to be suitably unnoticeable in the posh Model Town locality where Faiz Ghar is situated. |Day after day, she cooks breakfast for her large family and having no time to make anything elaborate for herself, fries eggs and slots them into slices of bread for lunch. She rides a chingchi (a ratty Lahori rickshaw, generally used for public transportation) to work every day. She commutes back the same way every evening for she cannot afford to be late. She gets startled as she hears her husband entering the main door, hurriedly hiding her diary of poems. She is restless, sweaty, and nervous as she imagines in her sleep that she is dreaming of Faiz and her mother, waking up in the middle of the night, seeking solace in the fragrance of the raat ki rani outside her window. I imagine all this, from what she had told me, from my willingness to believe. I create her life from what I saw of her and her city. And in my imagination, I travel to another Lahore, of a struggling ageing existence in a lower middle-class conservative family. I see the city snatching from me every bit of happiness in return for some poetry.

And how will I know about the unknown boy? I will not know. I will imagine. Imagination reigns where knowledge is scant. I can imagine him driving to his university every morning, with one cigarette hanging from the interstice of his lips. He squints as he looks around for a lighter and the sun showers on his eyes. He sings with his friends, out of tune, stoned at Lahore’s elite parties. He bargains in Punjabi over a lump of Pesawari hash from a dealer in Anarkali. Naturally, he is misunderstood. He drives carelessly, late into the night as he zooms past the lanes of sheher (old Lahore) to catch dinner at Andaaz beside the Badshahi Masjid. His eyes smile at the scent of noon chai made by his mother. The aroma wafts towards him, warming him on winter mornings. He buys motia flowers at the signal on the way to his girlfriend’s place. I see him when I see the city. I live a life I do not know about. I live it as the city does, in not knowing enough about its dwellers.

My map of Lahore is criss-crossed with these imagined lives, intersecting each other over time and space. The unknown boy comes to drop his sister to Faiz Ghar where she has enrolled for poetry classes; Faizi asks him to wait for a little while as the class will wrap up in another ten minutes; he waits in the gallery and goes through the pictures of Faiz and Alys. The city makes them meet in poetry and in death. The city kills its dwellers to become known to a stranger. In killing them, it gives birth to their imagined lives in the minds of travellers who wish to escape the city, its fears and its dreams. Lahore is the life of Alys, standing tall through time, in the face of adversaries, preserving itself to be found later. It is the life of Faizi, polished and manicured, yet crumbling inside, waiting for earthquakes and heartaches to shatter over, trading sanity in exchange for beauty. It is the life of the boy I did not know – mysterious, enticing, full of life, dying a little everyday as it resists death. The city is a trap. In not knowing these lives, and in knowing these deaths, I have no option but to let the city re-introduce itself, beyond the limits of spatial and temporal knowledge. In these three deaths is kept secret and sacred the essence of the city. Travellers don’t map cities; cities map themselves out of the madness of travellers. Knowing a dead person, the death of a known person and the unknown’s death are the three dark corners of the city of Lahore that I know, within which I am trapped, exhausted. For me, Lahore is a monster that thrives on these three deaths. It has expanded itself through the iron-will of a loving old woman, through the obsessions and fantasies of a trapped middle-aged soul, through the ruthlessly snapped future of a young boy. The city is a wilderness – full of fear and desire, ever consuming, ever creating – conjuring itself through mirages of light, in the shapes of ghosts as it kills its dwellers and gives birth to imagined memories lived by lost travellers. All that remains is an unintentional cartography of loss that drains the traveller, who rolls it up and walks away, deceived into dark alleyways, till she stops travelling, becomes a dweller and finds herself consumed by the city, transformed into a mere blot in other travellers’ maps. That is how cities are built and expanded – from reflected light on unlit city walls, from imagined knowledge of obsessed city-dwellers, from the misleading maps of lost travellers.



[1] Faiz, Alys. Over My Shoulder. Peshawar: The Frontier Post Publications. 1993.

[2] Faiz, Alys. Dear Heart – To Faiz in Prison. 1951-1955. Lahore: Ferozsons Ltd, 1985. (From a letter to Faiz, dated April 15, 1952.)

[3] Alys. Over My Shoulder.

5 responses to “The Lights of Lahore: A Cartography of Loss

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