Lahore: It isn’t necessary to be perfect in order to be beautiful

Published: December 7, 2012

I loved browsing shops stacked to the ceiling with glass bangles, in the two hundred year old lanes of Anarkali Bazaar. PHOTO: AFP

I loved browsing shops stacked to the ceiling with glass bangles, in the two hundred year old lanes of Anarkali Bazaar. PHOTO: AFP The imperfections that Lahore brought with it taught me that  it is not necessary to be perfect in order to be beautiful and unforgettable. PHOTO: REUTERS The imperfections that Lahore brought with it taught me that  it is not necessary to be perfect in order to be beautiful and unforgettable. PHOTO: AFP

I sat in the sweltering heat at the concrete shop, filled precariously with delicate china as the shopkeeper looked for the two white square plates that would complete the 36 piece dinnerware set I was buying.

He summed up my modest total on a calculator, as I fanned myself with a leaflet advertising herbal medicines that could supposedly cure anything from diarrhea to heart disease. Satisfied with my beautiful bargain china, I headed out into the labyrinth that is Ichra Bazaar, Lahore.

I squared my elbows just a little to create a barrier around myself and blended into the crush of pedestrians.

Dark clouds were rolling in as I left, and it was clear that the excitement that precedes a downpour is a matter of collective consciousness in Lahore.  We thrive in rain, sing in it, dance for joy in it, and later curse it for the multiple infrastructure breakdowns it causes.

That was my last trip to Ichra.

Later, there was a fire in the bazaar and I have always hoped that the little china shop stayed safe. The day after, my purchase all wrapped up in newspapers and stuffed into safe corners of my suitcases, I left Lahore and headed back to San Francisco.

I had been taking the 3:00 am flight for many years and as per my tradition, I looked out the window for the final goodbye. But the city remained still and dark as if to tell me that it is so used to the comings and goings of my sort that it no longer deigns to stir from its slumber for goodbyes.

When I left Lahore eight years ago, it was a mundane occurrence. Within the subset of society to which I belonged, the brain drain phenomenon was more prevalent than the common cold as young people left in droves for a foreign education and rarely came back. My husband was one such example and it was understood when we got engaged that I would join him in the US after the wedding.

And even though it was really my marriage that took me to the US, I was already itching for a break-up with Lahore.

I had so many grudges against it.

It was suffocating me, its society was too judgmental, and their attitude was too insular. But I had a right to hold grudges then. They were born out a deep sense of intimacy. Now even my compliments come with hesitation, sound almost sheepish, like those given by a lover who moved on and realised later that the love never died.

I was 15-years-old when my parents moved the family to Lahore. My first memories are of intense oppressive heat but within one year I was so acclimatised that I could sit under the steel shed of my college cafeteria and consume cup upon cup of steaming tea as temperatures soared. And even though the summer heat pounds down like a physical force, just when people are exhausted from the intensity of it, the heavens open up and pour the mighty monsoon rains on the city.

I spent many a monsoon season deliberately getting drenched in the torrential rain, letting it soothe the heat out of my bones. Occasionally, I would convince the family pooch Max to join me but turns out his hatred of getting wet trumped that of being hot as hell.

It was at times like these that I almost forgot the unsavoury aspects of the city like the unannounced black outs, the ulcer inducing traffic, the beautiful children in tattered clothes selling wilted roses at traffic signals, and the exhausted donkey pulling an overloaded cart.

I once got into an argument with a man selling fruit off of a donkey cart and lectured him about a wound on the animal’s back. He in turn showed me a deep gash on his arm and said he was living with pain too and that they would both recover in a few days.

“I love this animal, without him my children don’t eat,” he said, ending the discussion.

I went quiet, burdened and humbled at the same time, and went back to my safe life in my parent’s house in the Defence Housing Authority.

Income disparity is not a phenomenon particular to Lahore; in fact, it may be one of the most pervasive problems in the world today. And even though my upbringing was far from ostentatious, it was privileged enough that I carried around plenty of bourgeois guilt. In those days, the angst and guilt was soothed by the inherent optimism of youth.

With every passing year it has became harder to summon that optimism.

Also, the recent past has not been kind to Lahore. Increasingly, it has stripped the city of a delightful quirkiness and cast a long, sinister shadow of violence, unrest, and religious intolerance over it. The roots of Lahore’s problems are sprawled long and deep into our history but this particular period has been one of intense manifestation.

My relationship with Lahore is the kind one would have with a cranky old aunt or uncle who can drive you insane, but the minute anything happens to them, you run to their side, heart in throat, shouting instructions even though no one is listening.

And that is why my last few weeks in the city were spent saying goodbye.

I spent those winter days, full of watery sunshine in the back alleys of Liberty market browsing shops stacked to the ceiling with glass bangles, in the two hundred year old lanes of Anarkali Bazaar letting rolls of silk slip though my fingers, and laying in my bedroom with the curtains pulled back as the guava tree outside lazily shed its leaves one by one creating a rustling symphony so soothing it would lull an insomniac to sleep.

At night, I huddled on the cold stone steps of the Alhamra amphitheatre and watched the whirling dervishes become a blur of white, consumed copious amounts of Chinese food indigenised beyond recognition, and visited old book shops to pick out titles under the glow of an exposed bulb hanging from a wire on the ceiling.

As the wedding day drew closer, friends and family arrived to celebrate. They beat the dholki, danced up a storm, and sang folk songs about separation and departure with merriment. The house was draped in flowers and lights, the tea and sweets never stopped, and Max, ran around with a garland of fresh flowers around his neck.

The evening before my flight, I eyed the two empty black suitcases sitting on the cold marble floor of my room and wondered how to pack an entire decade into them. Could I squeeze in a bit of Lahore, a whiff of its air full of jasmine and dry dust, or the sound of its streets, a cacophonous mixture of bikes, cars, donkey carts, and rickshaws?

Finally, I just packed my clothes and a few keepsakes from my room and left everything else behind.

Inside the fluorescent departure lounge of Allama Iqbal International Airport, I felt as cold and empty as my surroundings and the mechanical voice announcing boarding and other such banal activities seemed to mock my pain.

The extent of my grief was as unexpected as is the longing that has stayed with me all these years. And even though San Francisco has been the most warm and gracious city an immigrant can hope to land in and I have come to love it dearly, there are still days when I crave a different city.

A city of old books with yellowing pages, of  persistent layers of dust on window sills, of chipped tea cups, of creaky fans, of cobwebs in every nook and corner, and other imperfections that taught me that  it is not necessary to be perfect in order to be beautiful and unforgettable.

Read more by Rabia here.


Rabia Mughal

A contributing editor for an online resource for healthcare professionals based in San Francisco, and a graduate of NYU School of Journalism.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • J.K

    Really beautifully written but you would like Karachi better. It is ten times more lively and better than Lahore, trust me on thatRecommend

  • Ali Rana

    Wonderful article! As a student studying in london, I can totally relate to those last moments at the airport and the last glimpses through the airplane window. No matter what problems we have, Lahore truly is the best place on earth. LAHORE LAHORE AEY!! Recommend

  • Parvez

    You certainly have a way with words. I doubt anyone could have said it as poignantly as you have. Recommend

  • Rauf

    With no offences, she just said in last few lines ‘ it doesnt have to be more lively and better to be beautiful and unforettable’.
    A Lahori in EuropeRecommend

  • Baji Please

    I hate this Lahore vs. Karachi war thingummie. Both cities have their unique appeal and charm. Lahore has what Karachi doesn’t. Karachi rules where Lahore lacks. Lahore gallops when Karachi lags.Recommend

  • gp65

    Evocative. The emotions resonate whether one is from Lahore or Mumbai. Beautifully written.Recommend

  • Mountie

    Baji please!!! you dont need to be politically correct here. I am assuming you are from neither of these places so you dont know what its like. Whatever it is Lahore Lahore ayeee!Recommend

  • The Khan

    I have this exact feeling with Karachi. Nowadays i am in Canada but i miss the spicy life of Karachi. I miss night-cricket matches in Ramadan, the amazing food of Bar Be Que tonight, shopping frenzy on Tariq road in days leading upto Eid, amazing eateries in Zamzam etc
    I love you Pakistan!Recommend

  • Dr. X

    Very beautiful. Lahore is my home! And There is no place like home!!! Recommend

  • Robert

    This is a beautifully written article. Very nice. Thank you for it.

    Someone once told me, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” This article makes clear that perfection has nothing to do with beauty.

    All good wishes,


  • Ayesha Pervez

    Superb! Very well done, Im totally in love with Lahore :)Recommend

  • Atif Yousufzai

    The good thing about Lahore is that you can see the whole city with in just one day but you need at least a week or two for Karachi.Recommend

  • Close_enough

    Excellent blog. Indeed we owe acknowledgement for this.
    Definitely Lahore is a very nice place. Even you (Lahori) immigrate to a developed place still you have strong gravity towards Lahore. It is truly said by the Qaid, ” Lahore is the Heart of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Yousaf

    you are quit a writer girl…amazing piece, spent my university days in Lahore and you brought all those memories back amazing ok now i need to call some uni friends cant stop myself…..loved it God bless you and keep writingRecommend

  • Maria

    @J.K: Lahore is truly a beautiful city with a soul but I think it’s kind of childish to compare this city vs Karachi or any other city. Despite my better instinct, you should remind yourself why people in Lahore wander the streets for good food and entertainment at all hours of the night and day. Lahore is relatively safe and secure compared to Karachi which is why Lahore is always packed with visitors. I don’t mean to dis Karachi or any other city but people don’t complain about crime in Lahore like they do in Karachi. Over the last few years, Shahbaz Sharif has done a great job of improving the infrastructure all over Punjab’s cities but especially in Lahore. That’s why the roads, bridges and schools have improved so much.Recommend

  • This was very beautiful and evocative. I really enjoyed reading it. As someone who left Lahore recently for graduate school abroad, I can totally empathize with the author. And as Dr. X said, Lahore is my home, and there is no place like home. Recommend

  • Harsh

    @Atif Yousufzai:
    Well whatever Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, and Peshawar, We are all Pakistan and we the expatriates know what we are missing. Love PakistanRecommend

  • Umair

    whenever i visit Lahore i feel like i am reborn. this song is completely true


  • Waqas ul Hasan

    Very well written, with lots of passion and a flowing command over expression !!!Recommend

  • stenson

    I don’t think anyone who has gone to Lahore can leave without being impressed by its beauty and history. As they say, if you haven’t seen Lahore, you haven’t lived! Jisney Lahore nay vekhya, oh jamya nayee!Recommend

  • Samia

    Wonderfully painted memories, anyone living away from their home
    land can relate to it, no matter which city it is,this luv for any city comes
    out of years of living in any place, developing sencitivity, concern and
    warmth with it. I hv lived my married life out of pakistan to date, and every
    time i leave its like parting with my soul.Inspite of living all these years out of
    my beloved pakistan, not one day i hv been able to convince myself for settling
    permanently anywhere but pakistan.May that day come soon when every pakistani
    could decide to come back to his roots without fear.Recommend

  • Duaa K

    This is so beautifully written.
    I am a Karachite at heart, but I have lived in Lahore for 4 years and visited the city annually for many more. This piece has made me miss the vibrancy of Lahore. You have truly penned your love affair with this city so well. Brilliant!Recommend

  • Sharmeen S.

    Whether it’s Lahore or Karachi or Islamabad, this represents the emotions of our generation and the love for our imperfect cities and country beautifully – love it!Recommend

  • Mlh

    Respect. Recommend

  • Alia Ali

    nicely written… though the romance of ‘imperfection’ includes what is in essence sheer and blatant injustice and wretchedness ….Recommend

  • Alia Ali

    Bourgeois blinkers – unfortunately :-/Recommend

  • Alia Ali

    an 8 year old was admitted in a Lahore hospital and the harrowing state of affairs has left me in no sort of humour to appreciate the aesthetics of this article – unfortunately. and that is one story Recommend

  • Hardliner

    Awww Babia, ur article just made my day…………. A beautiful, beautiful piece to read……… Lahore is a darling!! i’m truly in love with my city, forever……!Recommend

  • Tia

    It’s the first ever time I’m commenting on an ET blog. Never before have I felt the need to do so but this time I can’t help myself! Such a beautifully written piece! It’s as if the imagery is tangible… As if I was hearing the rustling leaves you mentioned or feeling the cold emptiness you felt. You’ve got some very strong prose, keep up the good work!Recommend

  • A. Khan

    @The Khan:

    What’s stopping you from returning ?Recommend

  • A. Khan

    Pakistan does have the appeal and allure, specially when you are well settled in a nice Western country like US or Canada. And cities like Lahore and Karachi look even better when you visit for a few weeks on vacation, do your shopping, eat out and then… take the 3.00am flight back.

    And living in DHS when in Lahore. Obviously you belong to the privileged few.Recommend

  • Hania

    Very well written. No place like Lahore. It has some pull! The warmth and love in its air is magical. And we own it. The feeling is marvellous !Recommend

  • http://None Hania

    Totally touched! Lahore Is love!Recommend

  • Tayyaba

    such a treat to read…lov it..lov Lahore.Recommend