Slow Burn Lahore IV: See Through Cement

Posted by sepoy on April 07, 2012 · 6 mins read

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.


Sunday Reading « zunguzungu | April 07, 2012

[...] See Through Cement [...]

Qalandar | April 07, 2012

A very moving piece, at once about Lahore and about so many other cities too, as the sub-continent's infatuation with American-style urban development/planning proceeds unchecked. Once upon a time, Sanjay Gandhi's "slum clearance" in New Delhi was "merely" horrifying -- today it seems ahead of its time, horrifying mostly in what it says about our times (and the shoe's on the other foot: the city where, despite similar desires on the part of the upwardly mobile, this sort of thing has been relatively less achievable, may be called "Slumbai", for people for whom the New New Delhi is the model). The other way in which Sanjay Gandhi now seems prescient was in his intuition that far too many of us prefer barbarity in a sleek, convenient form, rather than the slower pleasures of civilized urbanity...

Dr. Qazi | April 11, 2012

Huge price for the so called "progress".

samir | April 12, 2012

So true and these horrors of Lahore are visible in all cities of the sub continent; be it Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Agra, Kochin, or Guwahati . The blind buying of developmental model (in particular of the urban planning ) from the WB-IMF by the rootless and de-cultured powerful middle class is the apparent cause of this situation. Hollow as this greedy class is, it is enamored by concertized infrastructure and sanitized-sterile life. This dream is sold to the masses by the political class in elections. Corporates, artists and academicians etc. does the same saying -either you join us and enjoy the share or continue the cursed life of 'those' people. And morally frailty is our alternate nature. BTW, I am not suggesting that people rooted in culture are not having problematic 'visions'.

Qalandar | May 26, 2012

Sepoy, I was reminder of this post when I read these lines in Naiyer Masud's "Bada Kooda Ghar" a few days ago: "Ye shahraah sheher ki sab se lambee aur seedhi sadak thee jo shumaal se nikal kar taveel faasla tai kartee huee junoob ke navaahi veeraanon mein gum ho jaatee thee. Shahi zamaanay mein, jab zameen ke past aur buland qat'on par basay hue gunjaan muhallon ko neechay utartee aur chahdtee huee tang aur paych-daar galiyaan aapas mein milaatee theen, sheher ke beechon-beech mein itnee lambee, itnee seedhee aur itnee humvaar sadak ka tasavvur nahin kiya jaa sakta tha. Shahraah Shahi ke khaatmay ke baad banaayee gayee thee aur is ke liye jaga nikaalne ki gharz se baday paimanay par tod phod huee thee. Is ke raastay mein aanay waalay saaray baday chotay muhollay, jin ki ta'daad bahut thee, khod diye gaye thay. Is ki sitah ko humvaar rakhnay kay liye un tamaam imaaraton ko jo bulandee par banee huee theen, nashayb kay makaanon par giraa diya gaya tha, aur shahraah in sab ke oopar say aasaani ke saath guzartee chalee gayeethee."

midweek reading « human landscapes | May 30, 2012

[...] Burn Lahore, Parts II (Meeting Old Masters), III (This Is My Culture), IV (See Through Cement), V (Archaeology of Space), VI (A [...]

Danka - Pakistan's Cultural Guide | December 13, 2012

[...] You can read Glover's book purely as a study on one aspect of Colonialism on the Subcontinent. I find it however an even better book when you read it while you pass by the check points into Cantonment that weren't there two years ago. When you pass under Shalimar Flyover and try to remember what it was like having dinner here before suddenly that concrete lizard raised its head. When you recall how driving from Thokar to Defense around town was through a maze of semi urban space while today it becomes a motorway trip on ‚the thick toothpaste slathered across Lahore's exterior', to use Manan Ahmed's definition of the Ring Road. [...]