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