Cleanliness: Another dream for Lahore
Shahbaz Sharif, our chief minister, has said he wants to see Lahore become as clean and presentable as Istanbul. The statement is music to my ears, weary as I have been growing of stereotyped statements reeking of hatred and violence. Given the oppressive atmosphere created by these, this one came as a breath of fresh air.
But then I remembered some more statements of a bygone era and then some more – the declarations about beautifying Lahore. One I remember particularly well was an announcement that Lahore would be turned into Paris. And it was not a single Punjab minister who said it. One after the other, countless ministers and city managers – experiencing a high – have promised us the same.
Everybody who issued the welcome statement was soon claimed by other issues and campaigns and the idea of turning the city into another Paris faded into a forgotten dream.
Now I remember that it was in 1996 that another VIP announced, once again, that Lahore would be turned into Paris. I also remember vividly how I was worried, thinking that the statement was not a good omen for the city. “These days, as soon as I think of something aesthetically pleasing a whiff of foul odour assails me so that the idea cannot be sustained.”
I was stumped. “Why… how…?” I asked. “The cursed WASA people,” he answered, “have constructed an open sewer which runs right in front of my home. Comrade, you are a columnist. Make a noise about it.”
This moved me and I wrote a column saying our poet was in distress; that his poetry was threatened by the sewer. It was all fine for Lahore to become Paris but fixing this sewer ought to be a priority. Else, I wrote, we should be told the time by which Lahore would become Paris and whether or not our poet would be rid of the sewer trouble WASA had landed him in once it did.
When I happened next to meet Munir Niazi the first thing I asked was “any news about the sewer?” His surprise reply was: “Comrade, I have discovered another beautiful man. Together the two of us will make Pakistan beautiful. There will be no open sewers here.”
“Who,” I asked in bewilderment, “is this other beautiful person?” “Imran Khan,” he said, “I am about to join the Tehrik-i-Insaaf.”
I gave Munir Niazi an anxious look and read the famous verse about the futility of designs on the heavens while earthly concerns remained unresolved. That gave him pause and sent him homewards. But there was the same sewer there and the winds carried the same foul smell so that Munir Niazi once again appeared bent upon venturing into politics. “What if there is a sewer there as well?” a friend, trying to dissuade him, asked. And that was the way it was. He encountered another obnoxious stream – the corruption drain. Faced with an open sewer on one hand and another on the other, the poet was so thrown off, he did not know which way to turn. Insufferable odours assailed him, now from one direction, now another. There was no way to fight it and no escape. If you lived in Lahore an open sewer could not be very far.
And it did not stop with WASA. Every agency charged with the management of the city’s affairs did its bit. Having fought his futile battle, Munir Niazi resigned himself to his corner. The open sewer flowed unchecked and continued to annoy the sensitive poet.
The poet is no longer in this world; neither am I much bothered any longer whether or not Lahore becomes a Paris. It is just Shahbaz Sharif’s pledge to turn Lahore into Istanbul that has brought the episode back to me.
Much else has changed in the city since, all for the worse. The city, once the home of all good, is today home to all evil. But one should hope that the chief minister’s is not going to be the latest of the kind of promises that I have just recounted.
As for me, I am tempted to say: O people, O lords of the city, who wants you to fly so high? Lahoris will be quite pleased if Lahore can be just Lahore. Why should Lahore be a Paris? Why should it be a London? Lahore should be Lahore first and Lahore last. I mean, Lahore used to be different, nothing like what it is today. It should return to its original state. It is great to dream as long as dreams can come true.
*Translated from Urdu
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