Overtaken By Events: A visitor in Lahore

09 Aug 2009


When I returned to South Asia earlier this year for the first time since 2004, I began by spending three weeks in India. In my book Alive and Well in Pakistan, I privileged Pakistan because I believed other western writers wrongly treated it as a distasteful and rustic sideshow to their pro-India predilections.

For the sequel I'm now writing, I felt fairness required me to listen to Indian points of view. In the 14 years since I had been there, India had become a global presence too enormous to disregard. It also had been, very recently, the victim of a sinister and deadly attack launched from Pakistan. Now, I needed to listen with attention and sympathy to Indians, to hear what they had to say about Pakistan. Mumbai was where the trip needed to begin.

By an accident of timing, I was in Mumbai when the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team happened in Lahore. Salima Hashmi, whom I had known in 2003-04 as a dean at Beaconhouse National University, where I taught, had introduced me to a girl from Mumbai named Vidha Saumya.

Vidha had studied at BNU in 2007-08 and had discovered a strong personal affinity for the city — and for Pakistan itself. On my last day in Mumbai in early March, just before leaving by overnight train to Hyderabad, I had a long conversation with Vidha that will appear in my book in some form.

'You must have been shocked when it happened,' I said to her.

'I just went, like, 'Oh please,' she said. 'Anyways, it's just getting bad to worse. We were having such a nice time. Things were going on really well, it had become so easy to go and come, and everyone had started taking kind of a positive stance.

And then this happened, and I was like, 'Oh God, please don't do this again.' It's like they're just spoiling it all. Because nobody is going to really try to understand what probably was the reason — you know, who did it. It just becomes 'Oh, Pakistan.''

'And there's been some of that,' I pointed out. 'Some Indians are saying, 'Oh, these Pakistanis, they're going to portray themselves as the victims now, but actually, they're the problem.''

'People will probably say something like that,' she said. 'But just yesterday or the day before, I heard this Pakistani journalist on the radio. He was saying this is the time Pakistan needs that kind of support from everyone, to fight these people who are creating all this havoc.'

I asked if she had been to Liberty Market.

'Yes,' she said. 'In fact, when the attack happened, I was just remembering that time. The last five Saturdays I was with this friend of mine, and we used to just travel the entire night in Lahore. We would meet at around 9-10pm, have dinner somewhere, then just take a rickshaw, go somewhere else. Then just roam around, maybe have a Coke, or have some coffee, then take a rickshaw, go to somewhere else. That whole last one and a half months is when I have seen the whole night life of Lahore. And, maybe because I was with a male friend, it was really safe. ...

'Around 330, four, we would go to Qaddafi [Stadium] and be there till around eight o'clock, because there are lots of practices, and there are lots of children who come there. It's just very nice to see all of that — these cycling matches, and people come with bikes. It would be Sunday morning; everybody has a holiday.

'From kids to college students to older men and people coming for their walks, or to play cricket. It used to be a very nice time; I used to really enjoy myself.

We would make it a point to get there by 330, four in the morning, and see that whole turn towards 8am. Then obviously it used to start getting really hot. And then we would go to Liberty Market and have our breakfast there, and I would go back to my hostel.'

'Wow,' I said, impressed.

'I did not take pictures,' she said. 'I sort of decided that I'm not going to take them. Because people start getting conscious, and you also start getting a lot of attention, and I did not want that to happen. It was just such a lovely time.

'At two o'clock in the night, one o'clock in the night, we used to go to this ice cream place which is near Anarkali. And it used to be filled with people families, and just that whole street completely lit up. It was
extremely safe. Nothing happened.'