by Claire Chambers
I’m just back from a short trip to Lahore and, while the colours, tastes, and sounds are still vibrant in my mind, I want to write it all down.
On my way to Pakistan I got talking to someone at Manchester Airport. We were both eager to charge our phones before the long flight and ended up taking turns with our plugs at the socket as we engaged in desultory chat. This young woman hailed from London and, like me, was unusual in travelling alone. She told me she was on a visit to her Pakistani husband. They had met on their degree courses at the University of Nottingham, and while they waited for his UK spousal visa to come through she was making regular trips to Lahore to see him. A British Indian Sikh, she still hadn’t told her family, even though the couple had been married for almost two years. His family in Lahore also had no knowledge of their nuptials, for the couple believed that their relatives on either side would never accept this marriage across borders and faith groups
Indeed, this is a tense time for Indo-Pak relations. In Lahore, friends would from time to time reveal their heightened awareness of how long it had been since Narendra Modi’s abrogation of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. At the time of writing it is fifty days since this decision was passed by the Rajya Sabha. Aghast as I am at Modi’s lockdown of the valley, before this trip I would not have thought of counting days (like a prisoner, aptly enough).
I read somewhere that Pakistanis feel a strong affiliation with Kashmiris, whereas many Indians tend to be more interested in the territory’s beautiful landscape. That may be true in general, but the only Indian I met in Pakistan during this stay – a music ethnographer visiting Lahore as part of our research project – was as horrified as any Pakistani at what the Modi government is doing in her name. This Indian colleague had to check in with police at the start and end of her trip to Lahore, and procuring her visa beforehand had been far from easy. But she said that the Pakistani police operatives she met treated her with great kindness. One policeman was quick to show her pictures of his wife and daughters, as if to reassure her he was a family man who posed no threat. It was a highly emotional journey for our Indian colleague, whose family moved to Delhi on Partition, decades before she was born. Seeing everything through her sometimes misty eyes, an insider when it came to culture and language but very much a first-timer in other ways, was at once moving and invigorating in ways it is hard to describe.
Once the plane touched down, my dearest Lahori friend met me and we went straight to Data Darbar. I had been feeling drawn to Hazrat Sahib’s shrine after recently reading Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Both novels feature shrines, in Lahore and Delhi respectively. Mansab and Roy make their devotional activities and qawwali music sound thrillingly transcendent. Understandably, after a number of bomb blasts at Data Darbar, there was airport-style security and Thursday night qawwals are no longer sung. Perhaps less fairly, women’s movements are quite restricted within the marvellous white marble corridors and only men have the privilege of circulating around the saint’s tomb. It was early morning still and the premises were sleepy, but my friend and I found ourselves garlanded, our hands pressed, and laddos offered to us. Later I would find a few rose petals in my bag like the trace of a dream. My companion browsed a slim pamphlet of the Qur’anic verse Surah Yaseen she had been given to read. Regretting my illiteracy in Arabic, I tried to soak up the spiritual atmosphere and thought idly of Regula Qureishi’s classic book Sufi Music of India and Pakistan. When I was last at Data Darbar in the mid-1990s I was lucky enough to see and listen to qawwali, but the shrine is now a very different place, as I’d expected. My friend’s university had decided to give us a security detail, but the staff made this unnoticeably seamless and I felt safe. Despite the restrictions, it was a visit I’ll never forget – made all the more luminescent by the strange mind fog afforded by jet-lag.
After some rest and a little wafting around my hotel’s grounds, I went to an evening art exhibition by recently-graduated National College of Arts MA students at Royaat Gallery. My invitation came from a Pakistani woman who had written her dissertation under my guidance at the University of York in 2013 and is now back in her home town of Lahore having married into an arty family. It was a terrific exhibition, showcasing for example the work of Ramzan Jafri, a Hazara artist from Balochistan, who uses shirts, bones, and other found materials to depict friends lost in terror attacks. Sarah Mir’s paintings are more humorous, verging on caricature, and portray middle-class Pakistani society from a newly-wed couple to a man wearing jeans in his family home. Not for nothing is Lahore known as having the liveliest arts scene of any Pakistani city. I also love the funky fashions on display at the exhibition, with young and older women more expressive with their clothes than anyone I’ve seen in Paris or London. But a few dissenting friends point out that neither Jafri nor Mir are Punjabi. ‘Everywhere’s arty,’ one person remarks acidly. ‘It’s just Lahore gets subsidies and funding because of their cultural hegemony.’
The next day I head to the high-end cafe Cosa Nostra in Gulberg to meet two colleagues from Lahore’s prestigious University of Management Sciences (LUMS). They tell me the business is run by Mohsin Hamid’s wife Zahra Khan and her family. This made sense as she is half-Italian, and the place does the best pizzas and gelato this side of Bologna. We gossip that the restaurant I ate at with one of these lunch accomplices not long ago when I was last in Lahore has recently been closed for selling alcohol. The alleged truth, though, is that on a busy night the management wouldn’t reserve a table for a senior police officer, who then used Pakistan’s strict liquor laws to get his revenge.
I reflect that in my research, one thing I’ve been striving for unconsciously is that the Pakistani experience should come through in aspirational terms. It is far commoner in the West to read about the struggles of Pakistanis than the successes. This is not to ignore the nation’s stark divisions. (But where isn’t divided at the moment? I write from Brexit Britain!) Nor do I mean to overlook the failing economy, corruption, and elitism, subjects which I will touch on in my next column. Still, I can’t help feeling joy when I think of Pakistan’s family-oriented culture, exquisite food, firm friendship, and fun! Sticking with alliteration, there is also the country’s poetry, politics, and people audaciously playing with words. In Lahore, I have marvellous or disastrous experiences, but it is rarely, if ever boring. I love Pakistan because anything can happen.