The Lahores that have been

July 19, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

A FEW weeks ago, the passing away of Dr Enver Sajjad provided some people with an opportunity to compare the two Lahores that existed before and after July 1977.

The old ritual of singing the praises of an age gone by was invoked. Write-ups emerged celebrating the multilayered personality of Dr Enver Sajjad. Few come close to matching the variety that he gathered in one person. He had acquired many facets facilitated by the city that had exposed him to so many different dimensions of life — in contrast to the rather single-track model of refinement that today is best symbolised by the modern-day obsession with brick and mortar.

This was an era where a cultural icon could be used to look at the situations in a city after a big event or a series of events: the toppling of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his hanging, the imposition of a new Zia-Sharif order on the country or on a particular area or city.

Little do the new rulers care to understand that despite its exalted status in the Sharif kingdom, Lahore is still far from being a near-ideal urban centre.

This was a breathtaking summary of a life pursued well. But this latest spurt in remembering the lost came amid a growing realisation that the opportunities to bask in the reflective glory of the pre-Zia, pre-Sharif era are rarer now in comparison to the past. As new orders and new standards to base comparisons on take over, the pain of that pre-1977 city having drifted away from collective memory is felt progressively by fewer and fewer of those around.

The old Lahore which produced these oddities has ceased to be. The multifaceted personality that the likes of Dr Enver Sajjad represented have ceased to be, Doctor Sahib’s own trajectory in the latter years of his life signifying the survival course that those who sought to stay in the thick of things were forced to take.

In one of the obituaries written on Dr Sajjad, he was shown to have placed his faith in the leadership of Mr Imran Khan. This was as big a proof of the shift among the most celebrated, the most committed jiyalas as any. Not just that, at one stage, this proud Lahori who was such an integral part of life inside and outside the Walled City was compelled to find refuge in that powerful patron of the arts called Karachi.

It was only towards the end of his life that he returned to Lahore. He was welcomed by a small group of friends whose insistence that others in the city must also take note of his return could have found a better, befitting response than it actually did. His departure from this world did, however, entail a fresh, if all too fleeting, recount of all that we in Lahore have lost, and an equally quick but dismissive look at some of the truly unworthy souls who have held aloft this city’s flag in more recent decades.

There have been far too many modifications in life. The artist types have by and large been pushed too much to the side to be able to represent the city — at least represent it with the command and confidence and cultural candidness with which they did once upon a time. The more recent comparisons have been rather unexciting for those looking for nuances beyond the mundane running of government affairs — the kind of comparison the current incumbents are so eager to have with those they have replaced in power.

The July rains may be a significant occurrence on their own. They are also a reminder of how all new comparisons of Lahore as it was in its various manifestations stop with the critical analyses of how Shahbaz Sharif ruled the city by virtue of his long stint as chief minister of Punjab. His contrasting replacement Sardar Usman Buzdar driving through the flooded roads in the city, ferrying a couple or more of those marooned by water ... perhaps this is the end that everyone anticipated after all these years of Sharif-style developments, which among other things gave this city its blue-eyed tag.

All we need to do now is to measure how much water has collected on which road in order to paint Mr Shahbaz Sharif as a bad administrator with flawed priorities and an absolutely dictatorial work regime. Little do the new rulers care to understand that despite its exalted status in the Sharif kingdom, Lahore is still far from being a near-ideal urban centre that caters to the many needs of its inhabitants. They probably know just how crucial it will be for them to win over the city beyond the posh islands where, according to the self-declarations of piety, people untouched by corruption and so moved by the PTI’s clean-up drive have their homes.

Maybe the current rulers are just too afraid to appear as sympathetic to all that Lahore will need to achieve before it can truly qualify as a modern city — fearing the ire of areas that have been consistently told, for a long period of time, that they had paid a lot for Lahore’s unparalleled progress. At some point, however, the successors of Shahbaz Sharif will have to emerge from the flood of influences that he left behind.

Also, sooner than later for the good of the city and its estimated 11 million inhabitants, the post-Shahbaz rulers will have to realise that one of the most convenient ways they can beat the Sharif dynasty is by finding or establishing institutions. Somewhere this side of July 1977, they stopped working in aid of the institutions which could in response produce persons such as Dr Enver Sajjad. Building roads and clearing spaces of rainwater are important tasks, but on this count the incumbents may find it tough to compare favourably with Mr Shahbaz Sharif given, among other things, the sheer length of time that the much-remembered former chief minister had to be able to perform his feats. The alternative is to build institutions the Sharif kingdom had little room for.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2019