Sidhwa’s Lahore, A Lovingly Embroidered Family Heirloom

21 May

Every great city deserves a worthy admirer. Lahore has just found one. Bapsi Sidhwa’s edited volume is a tribute to the city, a celebration of its landmarks, its cuisine, its gourmets, its brutalizing summers, its people, and its stories.

The book strikes an immediate rapport. It is akin to being invited to a Punjabi family gathering. Reading it, I felt, alternately, like a kid sitting on the lap of his maternal uncle and being told stories about the city, a young adult guiltily listening to adult conversations about brutal episodes from the city’s history, and an objective adult reflecting on the city’s history and politics.

There is a warm intimacy that suffuses each of the stories in City of Sin and Splendour: Writings on Lahore. The emotional immediacy comes from familiarity with subjects and surroundings. And from the naturalistic storytelling. Authors rarely go beyond what is known. It is an important talent. For authors are often tempted by superfluous cleverness. Here, they practice the Jane Austen method of writing — they write honestly, perspicaciously, and often with great wit about what is known, without flirting with the unnecessary or the arcane. It is grounded writing. The authors use words that are well worn and apt, not those with peripatetic grandiloquent pretensions. The resulting atmosphere is educated and homely.

I have never been to Lahore. Yet the city stands alive in front of me. Though I don’t eat meat, I savor the morning Nihari with Irfan Hussein. I share the pain of partition with Ved Mehta and Sadat Manto. I celebrate the indomitable spirit of Ismat Chugtai. I stand ringside as Bina Shah describes the long-standing tussle between Karachi and Lahore. And I wear my heart on the sleeve when I read Urvashi Butalia’s Ranamama. (Butalia’s phrase, “cracked pistachio green walls” perfectly describes the color of the walls of some subcontinent homes.) I admire the honest revolutionary spirit of Habib Jalib’s Dastoor. How did he know the story of Pakistan before it was ever written?

Third World
Many of the big cities in South Asia are shabby and poor and slung in unending mediocrity. The heat is often brutalizing and the atmosphere, dusty and arid. Trees and grass struggle to take root in face of hot summers, scarce resources, and petty corruption. Globalization, self-serving politicians, immigration, sprawl, and poverty presses from all sides. Yet the cities thrive in crevices, in neighborhoods and families, in visits to each other’s houses, in stories exchanged, in chai, and love. People exchange stories with their doodhwallahs (milkmen) and their kaamwaalis (maids). Everything is held together by talking. It is these relations, these conversations, the unsaid courtesies, that Sidhwa celebrates in her book.

Colonial Rule
The British Raj left its mark on Lahore. Kim’s gun haunts the hollow haunches of the emaciated old city. The gardens and separate civil line quarters for the English are a vital part of the city’s social topography. But more importantly, the Raj has scarred Lahore psychologically. Chastened by West that races ahead, and surrounded by pockmarked skeletons of pre-English architecture, Lahoris are unsure of what to make of their heritage.

Delhi and Lahore
Delhi is seen as Lahore’s twin. The cities have similar climates, both are (or, used to be) Punjabi dominated, have similar histories, similar old-new city Raj-inspired distinctions, and similar heartaches of partition. One can easily find flavors of Delhi in the book—the ‘gates’ of the old city, the civil lines area, the colonial bungalows, the partition stories, and the oncoming McDonald’s culture. In getting to know Lahore, you learn about Delhi.

Contemporary Conditions and History
He whose light shines only in palaces
Who seeks only to please the few
Who moves in the shadow of compromise
Such a debased tradition, such a dark dawn
I do not know, I will not own

Dastoor, Hajib Jalib
Lahore has suffered from the vicissitudes of the people in Islamabad and Washington. The onslaught of globalization and technology, unleashed without prior thought, continues unabated. People try to craft their lives around one technology while being led by their noses to the next. It is unsettling when you stop and take stock of all that will be lost to time.

The Elite Lahore
The remembrances of a city and the love of a city only come naturally to those with time for leisure. To that extent, this book is about the padshahs of Lahore. The book is an ode of the ruling class to itself, to its culture, and to its landmarks. Yet, often, the book is much more than that. The everyday street is never far in this book. The everyday street may not have the kaamwaali in it, but it does have the patang baaz, the halwais, the rickshaw wallahs, and more. It is that everyday street that I carry in my heart.