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?