An Indian in a post-Partition world.
[Text and photos by Aanchal Malhotra]
Lahore was wild today. The sky had suddenly turned dark and it felt like late evening though it was barely noon. Rain poured hard against my window pane. But before the unexpected arrival of the clouds my morning had been spent exploring the beautiful Wazir Khan Mosque with a friend. We parked our car outside the Dilli Darwaza and walked through the grand gateway that pointed to my beloved city of Delhi.
The glorious sunshine of the subcontinent poured over us. As we walked to the mosque a strange feeling of déjà vu possessed me, like I’d been down these lanes before, the narrow uneven roads and dusty path. But though I hadn’t, they welcomed me all the same as if I were an old friend. The classically carved wooden jharokas of the old city wished me a good morning and the splendidly painted tiles of the mosque’s entrance invited me in.
When I explored my feelings of familiarity with the old city, what struck me most was that for the brief two weeks of my visit to Pakistan, Lahore had embedded itself into the place in my heart that was typically occupied by Delhi. This happened so suddenly that I almost didn’t even feel it. But it was only when I began to remember the streets and smells of Delhi, that I realized I didn’t miss it as much. In some ways, I was already in it.
I didn’t feel the same homesickness that I felt the majority of the year being away at university. On the contrary, I felt completely as though I knew this city, I understood it, I could speak to it. Its streets were alive with the same history that the streets of Delhi were, its monuments boasted of the same civilizations, its government buildings and old bazaars structurally felt the same. Strange as it was to think this way, it felt like an appropriate homecoming to a place I’d never been before.
I say this for a number of reasons. I have often wondered if it is possible to really know a place – a city, a country, a home – before one has even been there. Whether it is possible to really understand it, relate to it, all through stories and anecdotes. I have wondered whether one can feel its spirit only through narrated memories. I would have to say it is indeed possible to have unraveled the essence of it, as becoming physically acquainted with Lahore proved.
I was born in Delhi. I lived there my whole life until I moved to Canada for university eight years ago, which is where I really fell in love with Delhi. Through my memories, I explored its history, its culture, the colour of its sun, the crowds on its streets and the vibrancy of its life. In my recollections, I found solace, and in that distance from the city of my birth, I cultivated a relationship with it.
Paralleling this, my grandparents did the same with their respective cities of birth. I can trace their histories to Pakistan – from the North-West Frontier to Lahore to Malakwal. Pakistan is their land. It is their soil, their childhood, their families and their earliest memories. Pakistan is all of that. A powerful bond develops with the place where one is born and no matter where you live in life or what you become, no matter what passport you hold or what accent you acquire, that place never leaves you. It finds a way to seep deep into your heart and remain there. You must never forget the place where you came from, my dadi always says, because a part of that soil stays with you forever.
For the past year now, I have immersed myself in their stories and memories of Pakistan. I have come to revel in conversations that begin with, ‘Pakistan ki mitti’ or ‘humaare Pakistan mein…’ because these are the small, minute details of my grandparents’ childhoods, these are the banalities with which their ancestral homes were constructed.
Only in Pakistan can we find the shy smile of my dadi’s mother. Only in Pakistan can we find the story of the separation of my dada’s parents for a few months (during the Partition) due to his father’s work. Only in Pakistan can we find the enterprising nature of my nana’s father and the origins of the infamous ghara in which lassi is still made every Sunday, brought to Amristar from Lahore by my nana’s mother. Only in Pakistan can we find the school that my nani went to as a child and the large Punjab Bank that stood as a landmark near her home.
On hearing their stories, hearing them speak so lovingly about the country of their birth, my heart would be filled with joy. I would feel a kind of proxy-belonging to the country, as though I too, had a right to discover it. I could see the streets when they described them, I could feel the taste of the fruits that grew around their house, and I could hear the laughter of their siblings as they ran through the fields of their villages.
It came then, as no surprise that I was so at ease when I finally visited Pakistan. What had I been expecting?
To be completely honest, a place not much different than India, or at least Delhi. I had read somewhere once that Lahore and Delhi were twin cities of the subcontinent. I feel now that this label should be made official, as the two cities are near identical. The Mall Road of Lahore is reminiscent in places of Lodhi Road in Delhi; the Badshahi Mosque, a similar yet grander version of the Jama Masjid; the Lahore Fort restored beautifully to match its likeness in Delhi’s Red Fort; Anarkali bazaar is easily comparable to Chandni Chowk and the maze of alleyways of the walled city of Lahore are almost undistinguishable from those of Shahjahanabad, the walled city in Delhi. Apart from that, one can find many Delhiites in Lahore and many, many Lahoris in Delhi.
So as I sat by the window and stared out at the rain falling on the lush green lawns of the Lahore Gymkhana, I contemplated on my experience in Pakistan. It was my thesis research that brought me here, ‘Remnants of a Separation’ — a project that is attempting to narrate the history of the Partition of India through its material remains. A project that allowed me to search for the possessions people took with them when they left their homes on either side of the border.
It was a project that studied the division of Hindustan into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh through the objects that survived the test of time. It also explored the people of the subcontinent, their preoccupations, their perception of this historic event and the consequences of it on their lives. It was a project that allowed me to work closely with a wonderful and niche organization called ‘The Citizens Archive of Pakistan’ that dealt with the recording of oral traditions, histories, memories and experiences of Pakistanis.
I had not once, during the course of these research interviews with various people, felt out of place. It was quite the contrary, actually. I felt welcome and the hospitality of Lahoris warmed me. No matter what part of the city I was in, from Misri Shah to Defence, the generosity of the people was unparalleled. I had gotten used to it, this temporarily lifestyle in Pakistan.
I had gotten used to the beautiful sound of the azaan in the morning, the rich foods, the polite speech of the people, the long flowy kurtas and meticulously embroidered duapattas. I had gotten used to Mall Road, Jail Road, Canal Road, Barkat Market, DHA, Model Town. I had gotten used to the tree-lined streets and pockets of old historic monuments.
Somehow, all of the banalities of Pakistani life made me feel closer to my grandparents. Travelling back to their roots made me even more aware of my own. Visiting the twin city across the border made me dream endlessly of Delhi. So much so, that I tried to determine the differences between the common people of India and Pakistan from what I’d seen so far.
I compared myself to the young women my age living in Lahore. We looked the same – wheatish skin and dark hair, we dressed the same – modest shalwar kameez and dupatta, we ate the same kind of food and spoke practically the same language. Try as I might, barring religion, I could see no significant difference between us.
The Partition of the subcontinent truly broke our nation into pieces. Where there should be no difference, difference was created. Where there should have never been violence, violence was fostered. Where there should be harmony among the many religions of the region, there was none. And most importantly, where there was never a border, one was created almost overnight.
Amidst the consequences of this event, the unusual tale of two twin cities continues, separated from each other, yet almost indistinguishably similar.
[The author-photographer of this article divides her time between Montreal and Delhi. Click here to see her website]
A part of the soil (Photos by Aanchal Malhotra)
1. (Inside the Lahore Museum)
2. (Katas Raj Temple, about 250 km from Lahore)
3. (Katas Raj Temple)
4. (Kim’s Bookshop, Lahore Museum)
5. (Lahore traffic)
6. (Wazir Khan Mosque)
7. (The courtyard to the zenana- Lahore Fort)
8. (The road to Wazir Khan Mosque)
9. (The wall of the zenana- Lahore Fort)
10. (Windows of the Lahore Gymkahana)
Yet there is little official data on the sources of the pollution, or on just how bad the air actually is. In announcing a new antismog policy this month, the Punjab government admitted it had “scant” air quality data, saying only that the official safety limit for PM2.5 particles, 35 micrograms per cubic meter, was “exceeded frequently.”
Naseem-ur-Rehman, a director at Punjab’s Environment Protection Department, admitted that the government had bought six air-quality monitors last year but never installed them — until last week, when a public outcry over the lack of data led to a scramble to set them up across Lahore. He said the department was “closely monitoring the situation,” but as of Thursday it was still not releasing air-quality numbers.
“This is a crisis of data,” said Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist in Lahore. He said six meters were insufficient for a city the size of Lahore, let alone for all of Punjab.
In the absence of official information, some Pakistanis have taken matters into their own hands. One is Mr. Omar, who installed air monitors in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi, where he lives. He has set up Twitter accounts to post the readings in real time.
Mr. Omar was inspired by his experience living in Beijing, where the American Embassy changed the debate about pollution years ago by publishing air-quality readings on Twitter. The Chinese authorities were ultimately prompted to set up dozens of air monitoring stations in the capital and across China.
“I realized that in order for air quality to become a national conversation in the way it had in China and to raise awareness about hazards and solutions, we needed the numbers to be out there,” said Mr. Omar, whose Pakistan Air Quality Initiative publishes data about air pollution and information about its effects on health.
Mr. Omar’s Twitter updates have prompted many of Lahore’s middle- and upper-class residents to buy air purifiers and don face masks.
Another activist, Aysha Raja, who runs a popular bookstore in Lahore, started a Facebook group called Citizens for Clean Air, to discuss possible solutions to the smog problem and put pressure on the government to address it.
“The political will is missing on the government side,” Ms. Raja said. “We the public need to act as a pressure group, as a watchdog, to make sure that they do something effective.”
The throat-burning, eye-stinging smoke plaguing Punjab has created problems beyond the obvious health concerns. On Tuesday alone, at least a dozen people were killed in road accidents linked to poor visibility in Lahore, according to the police. Major highways have been intermittently closed because of the visibility problems.
Thirteen power plants that run on fuel oil have been shut down since last weekend, and power generation has been cut back at four others, leading to daily outages of more than 12 hours in many urban areas. At one Lahore hospital alone, more than 500 people have been arriving daily with complaints of respiratory difficulties and eye irritation.
“Lahore looks like a dystopian wasteland right now, kind of like a scene from ‘Blade Runner,’” said Adil Ghazi, a business owner.
The Punjab government says it has taken several emergency measures, including a ban on burning crops and solid waste. It says that more than 100 people have been arrested for crop burning and that hundreds of factories have been shut down for not having proper emission-control equipment. The Lahore traffic police say that they have collected more than $50,000 in fines in recent days from drivers whose vehicles did not meet emissions standards and that two centers have been set up for checking commercial vehicles for compliance.
But environmentalists say a real solution would require much more serious measures: improving fuel quality, phasing out fuel-guzzling cars, introducing solar and other renewable sources of energy, planting trees on a large scale and improving public transportation to reduce the number of cars on the roads.
“There is a lot of media interest in the story and public anger right now, so emergency measures are being taken, but a long-term solution doesn’t seem to be a priority,” Mr. Alam said. “The sense of urgency has to be sustained.”
Most important, he said, the government needs to stop looking for others to blame, including India, whose crop fires Pakistani environmental officials have blamed for the worsening smog this year.
“No doubt smoke from crop burning in India is a big problem, but let’s not pretend we don’t have our own part to play in this crisis,” Mr. Omar said. “The government needs to acknowledge the problem and create awareness.”Continue reading the main story