City of Love

The Friday Times | Mar 8, 2007

Cyril Almeida was in Lahore for Basant and set eyelashes aflutter; now his heart is flying like a kite

Lahore’s Achilles heel has long been its women: cookie-cutter LGS princesses who are more girl than woman. They are always pretty, but few are attractive few weeks ago an article in these pages extolling the virtues of Karachi made me throw up my hands in disbelief. I am a Karachiite. I voluntarily came back to the city after seven years away. I would rather not be anywhere else. But Karachi is an awful city. Anyone extolling the virtues of a city that is a crushingly bad place to live could only be from a place that is qualitatively worse – there being little doubt that there are corners of the world where the quality of life is even worse than in Karachi. Yet, the writer had the temerity to compare Karachi with Lahore and decide that the former definitely trumped the latter. And how? On the basis of seeing a mannequin wearing hot pants in a boutique display!

For the record, I have yet to see anyone wear hot pants in Karachi. I conferred with a few members of the well-heeled party crowd and they too reported no sightings of hot pants. In any case, I thought hot pants were only meant to be seen wrapped around a pole. But enough digressions, Karachi is an awful place to live. The trick to living in Karachi is to insulate yourself from the city: the madness and the mayhem on the streets outside your home, car or favourite cafe is debilitating if you think about it. Then again there is little respite indoors. Electricity, water, food and clean environs each come at a staggering price, and there is a no guarantee you can get all of them at any given time.

“The people maketh the place,” is a truism that needs little elaboration in the Pakistani context. Cities here are only as enjoyable as the people you know. Elsewhere, in civilisation, you can imagine turning to the person in the theatre next to you and saying, “Hello,” or walking up to a stranger in a watering hole and striking up a conversation. Admittedly, this may not be the easiest thing to do and there may be many times that you will be rebuffed, but there is always the possibility of success. Approaching a stranger in Pakistan is a non-starter, however, and everyone must depend on a ready-made network of friends and acquaintances from school, the workplace or family. This made me more aghast at the claims of the Karachi-lover. Karachi may be a relatively more liberal and open society than Lahore, but it lacks the richness in conversation that Lahore has to offer.

Workplace contretemps allowed me to escape to Lahore over Basant and re-examine what I had long considered to be true, but had so unequivocally been rejected by the unhappy Lahore-based writer. Passionate debates, quiet conversations and a few raucous evenings later my faith has been reaffirmed; Lahore still has it. Consider the evidence: an invitation to an elegant Basant afternoon in the company of the country’s political elite, including Gen Musharraf, on the grounds of a beautiful farmhouse was the least exciting part of my short stay. That is no small achievement, for the host had laid out everything to perfection and a political animal such as myself would ordinarily leap at the opportunity to socialise with any number of politicians, academics and other familiar faces. But the party line of those in the public eye was not what I was seeking; the real Lahore lay elsewhere.

That elsewhere was found in the quiet, spacious garden of an angst-ridden idealist who decided to spend the weekend at home to protest what he believed was a weekend of death and injury in the pursuit of anti-social behaviour. I listened intently, picking at blades of grass as two lawyers-in-the-making argued the case for and against celebrating Basant. Ordinarily I would jump head first into a debate on social issues, but I just listened, which prompted a misguided query from friends wondering if I was getting bored. Bored? Impossible. Karachi does not offer debates of this sort. The city may be going to hell, but there is little outside the Op-ed pages of newspapers by way of debate. I should know. I blog on a site about Karachi that gets thirty-thousand visitors a month, but nary a debate worth reading. “Things will get better,” “Things will get worse” – it is an endless debate between uninformed hope and schadenfreude.

Lahore’s charm was again on display over cigars on a terrace as friends and I indulged in a meandering conversation that started with the economy, then flitted on to personal politics before scrutinising the effect of the explosion of the electronic media on Pakistan’s middle class. The ability to bounce ideas of people who are interested and not in a hurry, the passion, it’s missing in Karachi. Yes, the bankers and the brand managers and the computer geeks are passionate and committed and invaluable to the economy, but their passion is commercial. After a hard day spent at work in Karachi, the idea of unwinding is putting on the television and watching it until you fall asleep or waiting for the next party to be announced.

From anecdotal and personal experience I know Lahoris are different. In Karachi an independent publisher has a small projector room in which he screens indie films every Friday evening. On average ten people turn up. In Lahore, despite being half the size of Karachi in terms of population, twice as many would turn up. Liberty Books’ largest branch in Karachi has a non-existent section on political theory or philosophy. When I asked for a book on political philosophy, I was pointed towards the self-help section. It was not meant as a political statement. The book fair in Lahore over Basant may not have had Isaiah Berlin, but it did have people looking for him and settling for other finds.

Karachi does have its share of dreamers and thinkers, but they are more practical. Fix the system, clean up the mess, get the house in order, etc. Aesthetic considerations are given a pass; functionality is the badge of this city. Lahore’s dreamers have a certain je ne sais pas quoi. They are dreamier. They read political science, spout Camus and quote Neruda.

I must confess that the trip to Lahore did more than reaffirm my past realisations: I achieved a significant new one. Lahore’s Achilles heel has long been its women: cookie-cutter LGS princesses who are more girl than woman. They are always pretty, but few are attractive. Then I discovered M – who quickly became dangerously attractive before soaring to devastatingly appealing. An ingenue turned temptress – it wasn’t even a battle. So this is to the preternaturally sharp – for rendering an emphatic defeat into a rout. Now if only I can think of a way of moving Lahore to Karachi.

Cyril Almeida is a lawyer in Karachi

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