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-Illustration by Tahir Mehdi
-Illustration by Tahir Mehdi

A family friend from old times recently visited me in Lahore. They come from a remote Punjab village where they own 25 acres of land, that is a murabba in local measure, and are considered well to do. My family is their only direct contact in Lahore. But let me make it clear that we are not the 'reason' for which they need to connect with this city. We only serve as a conduit for their relationship as we offer a transit-type facility to their actual destination – that is Daata Sahab, the shrine of the famous 11th century saint of Lahore.

There were times when this family would visit the darbar annually or even more. But of late, they prefer giving me a ring asking to offer a daig of food to the poor there on their behalf. I would oblige. You do that when you are either in distress or feel blessed. So through their visits and phone requests, I had always known what thick and thin that family went through.

They visited Lahore and offered a number of daigs when their eldest daughter was married. On the birth of their grandson, however, they preferred to use my dial-a-daig service. One of their child's serious illness deserved a visit and a floral wreath and when five of their buffaloes died of a mysterious disease, they offered one daig each for their remaining beloved animals. My children could not understand why would anyone do that and in fact found it too funny.

A few months back they visited Lahore to buy some spare parts for their ailing tractor and as per routine did go to the darbar for a salaam. But last week, when they told me that they are coming again, I was not expecting that their next visit would come so soon. I was a bit surprised as the reason for their visit was not a compelling one too. Whatever, I shrugged, they are a good company and why should I mind another can of desi ghee!

They did not want me to drive them to the Daata darbar this time. They instead opted to take the brand new Metro Bus service and when we met over dinner, I would know the secret of their visit. They have always made me see this city from an angle that I myself was unable to discover. This time they were finding the city too hot to handle. They were overjoyed by the bus service and described their experience with such an effervescent zeal that it left me astonished. I had not yet bothered to take a trip on this latest wonder act of the Punjab Chief Minister, probably thinking that reading through a few skeptic media reviews is all I needed to do. But my friend just needed a lame excuse to travel all the way from his village to enjoy the ride.

When I hesitantly put forward some of the economic and policy pitfalls of the project, he ignored me as if he wasn't listening at all and continued his alif laila with the same sparkling eyes and exuberance. I was forced to shun my views and listen to him.

He compared his Lahore bus experience with his lone travelling experience abroad when he had briefly accompanied his mate to Dubai for exploring an opportunity to export vegetables. That was his only brush with 'modernity' and the two experiences matched each other well – the flyovers, the underpasses, the moving staircases, I mean the escalators, etc. But he did not solely rely on his only encounter with the modern world.

He had put together an imaginary collage of a modern city, drawing heavily from his visual exposures to European cities via the daily dose of TV and thanks to films. The bus service struck a chord with these images as well. So when he would tell me "when in Dubai, I had seen" or "did you watch in that TV serial", he anticipated that Dubai or the TV serial city have come to Lahore and this 'escalator' gave him butterflies in stomach.

I learned that he wasn't jealous of Lahore as would some opponents of the project want us to believe. He often complained about his 'wretched' village life and blamed his nonchalant attitude and agrarian lethargy for his remaining life 'holed up' in there. He did make a few attempts to come out of the slumber but it didn't work. Maybe he found the economic security offered by that murabba too dear to risk for some uncertain dividends of a business. But his continuous grumbling about his status showed that he always longed for something better.

His eldest son did not do well in school and now partners him in farming but he is sure that the younger one will soon make it to a college, preferably in Lahore. Does he see Lahore as the destiny of his next generation? But who knows what the chhota Chaudhry will eventually turn into. I think his relationship with this city is not selfish. Whether or not he wishes to take a residence here himself or for his next generation, he owns the city – as a source of fascination.

The bus service has made the city sexier and its fascination more fatal. The ability to help people dream of a better tomorrow is the most potent of the political potions. It has magical powers. It can transform common political workers into jiyalas and bestow a leader with what they call charisma.

The Punjab Chief Minister has been desperate for a place in 'the hearts and minds' of Punjabis from day one in office. He thought that his sasti-roti scheme will be a hit with the poor but it didn't click. His daanish schools could not do the trick either. But by casting the modern city dream in concrete, has he finally hit the jackpot?

We have yet to witness how much of this 'awe' is finally converted into the real political currency – the ballot. But an awe-struck electorate is bad news for his opponents. Howsoever great their playboy credentials may be, in the cat walk in Punjab's polling stations, Shahbaz is likely to end up as the sexiest.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.