Slow Burn Lahore V: Archeology of Space

The modern traveler, wrote Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques, is forever chasing after “vestiges of a lost reality”. Such that writing about a city becomes a mode of constant nostalgia, a constant looking back, either textually or experientially.

Sarnath Banerjee’s Harappa Files (which I read recently; thankfully, after I had already planned and written some of this series), at first glance reads as a chronicle of the city’s capacity to fold the absurd into the norm. Then, later, I saw that it wasn’t so much about the absurd, but about those minutiae lost in the city’s creases which are simultaneously absurd and normal. His work (I love him) manages to find the bathos in the city, by chronicling these small moments, these lives lived in both plain view and along the margins – each tuned to some hidden frequency that Banerjee hears.

Aman Sethi’s A Free Man – an ethnography of Sadar Bazaar in Delhi – follows Ashraf and a host of day laborers around. What really worked in that text was Sethi’s own limitations and inabilities to transcend something he is trying to document or understand. Very unlike the gaze of Levi-Strauss who, burdened with reams of booklore, settles for the fleeting glimpse, for a gesture that explains it all. Sethi sits with, around, Ashraf and five years later, he is hesitant to say more than that he sat with, around Ashraf. It is for us, to look at Delhi’s crushing urban chaos, the labor, the drugs and exploitation, through Sethi’s observation of Ashraf. Rather Sethi’s attempted cataloguing of Ashraf’s chronology – and his failure.

Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables captured, in the chapter ‘Tabloid and the City’, a way of writing about city that resonates. He weaved narratives running across the cityscape with various sites of productions – the courtroom, the dailies, gossip circles, novellas, memoirs. It is a bravura chapter and you can see how different Prakash’s approach is to Sethi, to Banerjee in the tone of his essay, the evidence he marshals and the framing. In many ways, his is a furthering of Levi-Strauss’ archeology of space, but one which is not built on the randomness, aléa or the golden hue of past memories. In Prakash’s work the device of critically choosing fragments and sections of city (planned or otherwise), viewed across archives and lived space, works precisely because he brings a historians’ sensibility to the task – a deliberate distancing, that omniscient speaker.

I went to him, the mochi, to have a charm sewn in to leather. He sits on Joreypull (literally, the bridge that joins). Joreypull was a terribly unsexy neighborhood in which to grow up. At the end of the cantonment area of Lahore, abutting golf courses and airport runways on one end, and the dense population of canal on the other. Towards its east lay the Indian border and a vast farm lands. I never liked saying to people that the actual last stop on the bus to my house was called joreypull. Call it the bourgeois sensibility of a middle class kid. In retrospect, it was a great neighborhood to grow up in. The christian colony, the milk colony, the officers colony, the even more ridiculously named murghi-khana (hen coop) neighborhood, all packed together, surrounded by acres upon acres of open spaces teeming with puchal parei, churail, jinn, chalawa. At the tail end of every day, would be a gathering of elders and young ones where such encounters, from that day or days thence, would be recited and sworn upon and discussed – even some episodes too racy for ears as delicate as mine. During the day, these same open spaces became our cricket grounds – rows upon rows of men in never-quite-whites knocking balls into the air. Then, in the 90s, all that empty space disappeared under curlicue lanes of sectional housing, each distinguishable only by the number bolted to its front. Askari Housing Schema. Joreypull changed too. There were new populations to replace the spectral beings. The spaces were haunted with something much more malicious.

I don’t know his name. He never offered, even when I asked. He sat on the ground, surrounded by his wares- plastic bags with various bits of leather, scissors, cutters, moulders – and a steady stream of customers. A ten year old worked as his assistant or maybe was his brother. He was sewing it up, the charm, and looked up at me, and asked me to take a seat. I sat on the stone on the ground. This works? I don’t know. He nodded. A student came by with a bag full of brand new books. The spines had to be broken, and a new binding of cardboard installed. As he worked, I tried to catch his eye and smile. He spoke with the student in pashto, so I ventured a joke. He asked me what I do. I said I write. I asked him where he was from and how long had he been at Joreypull. He said only a year. Hazara. His eyes flicked to my ring. I smiled, hoping he would catch on. He relaxed a bit and said, it is not so nice here. They have to constantly shift their home – the neighbors complain about smells. We are dirty people, they say. I don’t like Lahore. I don’t enjoy eating this dirt and smoke all day. And the punjabis are just rude, superstitious. I looked at the charm now in my hand. Well, don’t you think there is evil-intent? He shrugged. So where do you live? I tell him. You? Garhi Shaho. Really? I say – that is a far trip.

My first day back in Berlin from Lahore, I went with friends to a flohmarkt. We had just wandered in, and were looking around (for that proverbial needle). I saw a booth manned with one desi uncle, and another older man sitting back, and I walked up, said hi and asked him where we could find whatever it was that was needed. He made some helpful indications and we went our way. Wandering back, half an hour later, I bumped into the second gentleman. He was walking slowly, hunched over. I guess he was in his late 60s or early 70s. Or he looked like he had lived those many years. Did you find it? Yes. I think. Hmm, he nods. And begins to turn away. You live in Berlin? I have been asking this from almost every desi uncle in Berlin (working on a small series on Berlin). Yeah, been here for 20 years almost. Oh. Where from? Lahore. Me too. Where? Joreypull. Aap? Garhi Shaho.

I laughed. He moved closer to me. I went to school there, you know. Right in Garhi Shaho. You must know it? I nod. It was the best, walking up the road to the school; used to be so crowded around school time. You must have seen it. I nod hesitantly. Our Lahores were separated by decades or more. He began to describe Garhi Shaho’s life. His trips to the haveli. Do you know why they called it Garhi Shaho? I went there two years ago. All these Afghans. Everywhere. Aab wo Lahore kahan? He sighed and turned away. I turned and went to find my friends.

The odd synchronicity of the encounter stayed with me. One of the places I had wanted to write about was Garhi Shaho. I had been reading about it. How during Shahjahan’s Lahore, a noble, Abul Khair, settled in Lahore and established a social meeting place. Aurangzeb gave him a land grant and asked him to establish a central Madrasa for students of Lahore. During the early years of the Sikh regime of Lahore, 1802-4 or so, bands of “outsiders” settled in the neighborhood, taking over empty or deserted houses. One of the bandits, named Shaho, came and occupied the Madrasa. It was known as Khair Ghar (House of Wellness). It became known as Shaho’s house. The neighborhood suffered many tyrannies, but also remained a place for first immigrants. Whether in 1947 or later.

I had wanted to write about Garhi Shaho because Lahore is, as I said earlier, a city of neighborhoods, constantly in flux, even as Lahore becomes a unchanging beacon to past glories. I had felt a cadence of nostalgia in my own voice, but that belied my effort to say something about Lahore (and Berlin) which was decidedly anti-nostalgic. I hadn’t realized though that my nostalgia was a result not only of my own distancing from Lahore but also of the archives I was reading – memoirs written from the 17th century onwards. They may moan about the past, but they moan precisely because Lahore is rapidly changing in front of their eyes. Change driven not only by raiders of Lahore (which, really, the 18th and 19th c were not kind to Lahore) but also by influxes of new citizens, driven to Lahore by crisis elsewhere.

Men like Shaho.

Which space in Lahore do we locate this discordance?

CM Anniversary: Acht So!!

Once again, I missed it. Eight years ago this little experiment – which, in 2011 produced two books (!) and countless millions of dollars (!!) – began.

There is no denying the fact that dhandha has been manda here lately. I have not found too much time to write.Yet, I have had so many amazing contribution from guest as well as the regulars that CM looks vibrant and alive to me. I intend to keep it this way. This year two of our old friends passed away. Ralph Luker shut down Cliopatria – the historian collective blog which I joined in 2004 as well. Ralph is an amazing curator as well as indefatigable member of the online community for many long years and I wish him all the best. The other good bye was from Sepia Mutiny – the place for desis to mingle. It was certainly a marker in media/social history of Desis in America. Both of these collectives were about community and about connections and about a certain relationship between dominant and marginal discourses. Their shuttering down is most certainly a step back and a diminution of public culture on those terms. There is no doubt that FB and Twitter have taken over conversations in ways unimagined in 2004 but that only means we need to incorporate newer ways of explicit community building.

CM will continue. We are actively adding new members to our writing team. I am excited to write. We are ON!

Newly Minted CM

Slow Burn Lahore IV: See Through Cement

You can’t see through cement – and neither can I. When I look at Lahore and the ways in which cement has cordoned off sight-lines, I see a city full of people blind-folded. The gated communities were the first variant – ghettos of the elite – where cement walls rose up to seclude and to protect. The Defense Housing Authority which emerged in the 90s on vast swaths of land confiscated, distributed and redistributed by the military junta. That military-gated community needed its own armies of servants, chowkidars, drivers who couldn’t live too far, but not too close. So behind Defense was the soft settlement – corroded tin, bricks, mud. Then came the newer colonization – the Askari Housing Society. A new generation of military families, needing cheaper fabrics. So more empty and settled land had to be cleared off, parceled out, built. Then more roads added. Access roads.


Lahore used to be a city connected by neighborhoods, each reaching a tentacle into the next, linked by small roads and alleys. The arterial Mall Road or Jail Road or Canal Road were remarkable not for what they traversed but by how much of the city they left alone, untouched. To go from my house – at the far end of Cantonment to the Old City, say the Fort, took forever plus an hour. It used to feel good to me – this slow, fitful, crawl across Sadr, Mughalpura, Railway Colony, Landa Bazaar, Do Moria Pull, Bilal Ganj – to visit my friend L. The journey was its own event.

Now, I got on the Ring Road.

A thick toothpaste slathered across Lahore’s exterior, the Ring Road horrified me. It cuts through arable land, dairy colonies, satellite townships – anything and everything. As we drove across, in silence, the road empty of other cars – I saw only those separated by this cement and concrete river, trying to swim to the other side. The eight-feet high wall of cement which frames the highway had been broken into – human shaped chunks torn through, where silhouettes gathered waiting to run and vault across. Single men. Women and children. Some carrying goods. Some empty handed. A donkey cart hesitant. Imagine if between your home and your grocery store was a major highway. You have to imagine it, because it is not your reality. Nor is it mine. I live inside the bubble. The nice people had built pedestrian bridges – 500 meters or so apart – high stairs. Imagine walking to one, climbing up the stairs and then down. Imagine if you have to do it 15 times a day. With weight of your livelihood. I saw one couple – him holding her hand; she carrying a child; they carrying cloth-wrapped bundles waiting for my car to whiz bye so they could cross. Hesitant.

But the torn fabric of these lives was not the full story. On other sections, as our car made its way towards Ravi, were other tableaus. Two kids – barely 12 – lying flat on the cement embankment, sunning. Their legs lazily entangled, their eyes chasing the clouds. At another moment, a group of men smoking on the cement wall. Gossiping. Perhaps these points existed as meeting places, and they were re-enacting a lost world. Perhaps the din of passing traffic provided its own pleasant soundtrack.

No matter what we do, we can never educate our people. There it is, the pedestrian crossing and look at our jahalat that we are jumping walls and sprinting through traffic, because we cannot simply follow the law and cross legally. There really is no hope for us, you know. In Germany, I bet no one would ever dream of such a horrendous way to cross a highway.

I replied that maybe in Germany they would not partition a neighborhood like this, but that seems a silly response to make in hindsight. I wanted to be angry. Because the Ring Road angered me. I wanted my indignation to be registered. How dare they create partitions. But, I can see partitions everywhere in Lahore. The walls have grown taller all across Lahore. Every house has its own, shielding its inhabitants. Every neighborhood its own. My anger at the Ring Road seems silly in one sense.

The convenience is really amazing.

Yes, it is.

In the last ten years, Lahore has finally had the immense migration which was long a hallmark of Karachi. Neighborhoods have changed – the new migrants bringing their own languages, their own habitations, their new economies. The Ring Road, the motorway, the heavy-cargo industry, all participate in this Lahore. I heard more Pashto in DHA than Punjabi. Yet social fabric of Lahore was tied intimately to the cartography of Lahore. To be from Lahore, was to answer with the name of a neighborhood. Samnabad. Garhi Shaho. Mazang Chungi. Each neighborhood an encoding of a particular genealogy, accent, attitude, charisma. As you moved slowly, were forced to, across Lahore you saw and heard all of this. The only sight you see from the Ring Road is cement. The only sound is the whoosh of the silent car.

#trashthestache: an unabashedly—but deservedly—fawning review of Belen Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work

More sophisticated readers of the New York Times’ editorial pages have, for years, fumed at Thomas Friedman’s inane musings. Even less sophisticated readers, some of which write book reviews and essays for online magazines named after mysterious flatbreads, have bristled at Friedman’s claims, prose and weak reasoning.

There are times, in fact, that one might suspect the Times’ Editorial Board is putting Friedman over on the public as some sort of Onion-style goof, a la Jackie Harvey.

Some readers have an automatic, visceral dislike of his face, alone: the suburban-mall Glamour-Shots photograph accompanying his crimes against logic calls for snarky comment; in it, he appears smug, self-satisfied and eager to be taken as the thinker of deep thoughts that, in The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, Belen Fernandez proves he is not.

One sure marker of a great work comes when, having experienced it, one is left with a sense of shame—that somehow, the thesis presented is so clear and well-argued that it was obvious all along, and to have not recognized it without the interlocutor’s help is somehow a grievous, personal shortcoming.

Fernandez’s spit-roasting of Friedman’s career is one of those works, and it is proof that America’s reading public should have itself a come-to-Jesus meeting about whom it reads, and on what subjects.

The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is a grueling, painful read, but it’s a necessary contribution to the greater, shamefully-necessary project of new/alternative media self-justification, vis a vis old media’s privileged place in public discourse; Friedman’s unearned, destructive bully-pulpit, and the appalling influence it holds over, with, and because of Occidental elites, created the need for Fernandez, and critical voices like Chapati Mystery, in the first place. Continue reading “#trashthestache: an unabashedly—but deservedly—fawning review of Belen Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work”