Lahore’s tryst with modernity

October 27, 2014

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The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

DESPITE its growth as an urban metropolis of nearly 10 million, Lahore continues to exhibit some of the same characteristics found in the more provincial towns of Punjab — ethnically homogenous, socially conservative, and imbued with an entrenched sense of entitlement over time.

There continues to be a certain languidness to all action (or mostly inaction) in the city that one would be hard-pressed to find in conurbations of a similar size elsewhere in the world.

The one thing that has changed, though — and this becomes acutely apparent to individuals who transition from being passive consumers of the city to active observers — is the pace of what we colloquially call ‘modernisation’. A popular refrain amongst an older generation holds that ‘Lahore has become very modern in recent years’. Thanks, one would think, in no small part to the efforts of its Paris-inspired, concrete-obsessed rulers.


Privileged Lahoris take immense pride in living in a more advanced city than their cousins in provincial Punjab.


Contemporary modernity, in Lahori terms, is linked to a changing economic base, and acceleration in the volume of consumption, rather than to any major shake-up in the ethnic, religious, or political character of the city. Having made its mark as a trading town many centuries ago, the city has reverted to type by becoming the focal point and principal beneficiary of a two-decade long services sector boom.

As a result, employment in large-scale manufacturing, and the sector’s share in the city’s GDP, both pale in comparison to the shares of the construction business and of retail and wholesale enterprises.

Even at a cursory glance, this consumerist reality stands out sharply through the built fabric of the city. Well-paved gated communities, shopping malls boasting retail outlets of major local and international brands, car dealerships selling luxury vehicles, and foreign fast-food franchises — of both the well-known and the strikingly obscure variety — all populate different commercial pockets in the city.

Elite neighbourhoods bask in all their ‘authentic’ glory (KFC and McDonalds) while less gentrified spaces have to make do with cheaper knock-offs (HFC and Mickey Mouse Burger).

The acceleration in the city’s services economy reflects itself in other aspects of social life, albeit more as continuity, as opposed to a cause of any major disruption.

The socio-economic elite has expanded its membership, beyond the bureaucracy, the industrialists, and the Raj-era landed relics, to include the trading and real estate flipping entrepreneurs (or what some call the nouveau riche behind their garishly — albeit expensively — clothed backs).

Posh private schools, as pointed out so clairvoyantly by Bourdieu, now serve an important purpose as a melting pot — places where children of the newly wealthy can exchange economic capital (hard cash) for an elite aesthetic (what one should wear, watch, buy, and eat) and elite social connections (where and with whom should one be seen).

The political manifestation of Lahore’s evolving modernity is equally flaccid. The PTI vs PML-N rupture within the city’s population, blown out of proportion by observers and participants alike, is an internecine fight between two parties who differ largely in the amount of time they’ve spent in power.

Demographically, they recruit their candidates and financiers in urban Punjab from the same socio-economic stratum. Hardly any of their leaders are ex-student activists, and certainly none of them belong to any labour unions or working class collective.

The sole difference worthy of comment is the presence of the much-vaunted ‘educated middle class’ amongst PTI’s core electorate, and their (only) relative absence from the PML-N’s support base. That too is a function more of historical contingency, than any deep-rooted structural difference in vision or priority.

Finally, underscoring all of Lahore’s modernisation is an ethical framework that is conservative — in the social and political sense — and one that celebrates conspicuous consumption as a justified prerogative; the manifestation of which is seen in Lahore (or urban Punjab as a whole) through the complete absence of asceticism and thrift amongst its propertied classes.

This is clearly problematic at an economic level: the less you save, the less you invest, the less you create in terms of formal employment, and the more you spend on frivolous non-productive items that increase your import bill and weaken your foreign exchange position.

Over the past few years, even when entrepreneurs in Punjab have invested in other businesses, they’ve increasingly preferred to undertake elite-serving initiatives like high-end restaurants, boutique cake shops, designing clothes, wedding and event management, and other such tax-dodging, informal labour-employing enterprises.

It is also much more problematic at the abstract level of political morality. There is simply no impulse, or for that matter discourse, for economic redistribution, cultural inclusivity, and social justice, except in the language of token, religiously inspired charity for the becharas.

Ostentatious displays of wealth are, almost as a rule, never held back by any notion of noblesse oblige, let alone a more nuanced understanding of where one’s wealth actually comes from and how it continues to grow.

None of the mainstream political parties — all of whom are controlled by fathers, brothers, and uncles of the same evolving elite — are asked to talk about social protection for the poor, or asked to articulate a different, more inclusive idea of municipal development.

Privileged Lahoris take immense pride in living in a more advanced city than their cousins in provincial Punjab, in a more exciting city than their friends in Islamabad, and in a much safer city than those strangers living in Karachi.

What is also clear from its tryst with modernity is that the city’s elites, and its upwardly mobile lot, have fully embraced consumerism and gaudy capitalism, and as yet have failed to grow a conscience in the process.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

umairjaved@lumsalumni.pk

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2014