I landed in Lahore in the daze of a 15-hour flight from Canada, looking forward to savouring the city’s earthy smell. Instead I was greeted by stinging smoke and exhaust. The smog hanging over the Punjab in October and November mandated wearing a mask. This was my introduction to the Lahore of 2017.
The area east of Canal and south of Allama Iqbal road has been turned into the so-called shining Lahore. Its roads have become veritable highways (signal-free drives), residential streets have been lined with dazzling stores of global brands, and houses have been replaced with four- to six-storey buildings of concrete, glass and bright lights. Beyond the main streets are walled bungalows of pastel hues and manicured lawns. This is the historic civil lines and cantonment whose bungalow estates have been eclipsed by those of Defense Housing Society (DHA), Johar town, Bahria town, which are planned ‘communities’ of houses, apartments and shopping plazas with universities, hospitals and supermosques.
It is the city fashioned after Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s vision of beauty. That beauty is inspired by Dubai with its penchant for underpasses and wide roads for unimpeded traffic flows.
I attempted to follow my routine of crossing over into Model Town for a morning walk in its spacious and well-maintained park. The road around the park was hazardous to cross in the morning smog, when visibility was no more than 10 metres and the hurried motorcyclists and car drivers seemed to be coming for you. I was persuaded to give up the morning routine for safety.
Losing the pedestrian
In shining Lahore, pedestrians have been driven out as main roads have been converted into signal-free passages. There are no sidewalks and wherever provided, they have been encroached on by parking, front lawns and tea stalls or they have been absorbed in the service roads.
These signal-free passages, nay highways, have cleaved the two side roads from each other, making it almost impossible for shoppers, neighbours and delivery men to cross over. What were once two sides of integrated neighbourhoods and markets are now sliced in linear halves.
The few overhead bridges are so far apart as to be useless. I saw, more than once, pushcarts being gingerly wheeled against the flow of traffic on the turn-around ramps of the drives to go from one side of the road to the other.
Pedestrians do not fare better anywhere else in the city. The absence of sidewalks, crosswalks, and the disregard of traffic signals have made pedestrians moving targets for speeding cars and motorcycles.
Cities come alive with walkability. Not long ago, strolling on the Mall and Anarkali or hanging out in Liberty Market were the way to spend an evening in Lahore. It was known as a friendly city for its walkability, though largely for men. Women always felt uncomfortable in the macho culture of its streets.
There is no more leisurely browsing and bargain hunting for merchandise. Now we have destination shopping. The public sphere has been squeezed and socializing has retreated into homes and private places.
The new spatial structure of Lahore is that of parallel towns, centred around bazaars or commercial areas such as Liberty market, Link Road, the DHA boulevard or Anarkali
Lahore is no longer a unified city. It is a collection of communities set apart by class, culture and lifestyle. Neighbourhoods such as Baghban Pura, Chah Miran, Walled city, Badami Bagh, Nawan Kot or Niaz Beg of the northern and southwestern sectors are a world apart from Gulberg, Johar town, DHA.
In the former communities, the two- to three-storey houses are piled onto small lots along narrow streets through which motorcycles thread their way, spewing exhaust fumes. Punjabi is the language of these neighbourhoods, both at home and in the street. In contrast, in Model Town, DHA and other modern areas, Urdu is spoken as the language of good manners. There Punjabi is for joking and back-slapping.
Socially, so distant are the different neighbourhoods that rickshaws and taxis from one part are reluctant to go to the other. I tried to hire a rickshaw near Data Darbar to take me to DHA. I could not persuade three different drivers despite offering the fare they wanted; they all said the area was not in their ‘beat’.
Lahore has also taken a big leap towards modern consumerism with the development of mega malls, such as Emporium, Packages, Gulberg Galleria, the Mall of Lahore and some less glamorous ones. Each neighbourhood has its own ‘niche business district’, differentiated by price, type and quality of goods in accordance with its social standing. Yet almost every shopping area has international and local franchises squeezing away independent businesses.
The city does not have a unified ‘downtown’—that function is now distributed among central business areas of neighbourhoods. The new spatial structure is that of parallel towns, centred around bazaars or commercial areas such as Liberty market, Link Road, the DHA boulevard or Anarkali.
Economy of commercialism
A typical commercial market has two to three rows of shops and sellers supplementing each other. A fancy store of brand name clothes, shoes or eyewear is the draw for shoppers, but its corner could support stalls for bangles, slippers or used cell phones, while the footpath can seat a fruit or chat stand.
Behind many mainstream markets are rows of small shops like tandoors, kebab houses, photocopy kiosks or Biryani stands, presumably catering to the workers of the market, but in many cases they are patronized by car-riding families looking for bargains or street food. The trade is brisk and money circulates fast. There is buying, selling and eating everywhere, not only in Model Town or DHA, but in Kashmiri Bazaar, Mozang or Bhatti Gate. Consumption is the new spirit of Lahore.
The high velocity of commerce is evidence of people’s ambitions to earn and spend. We expatriate Pakistanis are surprised by the prices of goods and services, which are almost comparable to what we pay in North America or Europe. Yet the buyers have money to spend. Not all, but some of this prosperity may be driven by remittances. In a small plaza of about 18 stores in Model Town, there were 11 Western Union or MoneyGram outlets testifying to the scale of transfers from abroad.
There is an entrepreneurial spirit in Lahore. On every visit, l find new lines of businesses. This year, for example, l found the ‘girls hostels’; there is an unmet need for housing for working women and students, who come from places near and far. Women are working in large numbers, not just in prestigious professions but also as security guards, health visitors or sales workers. Such hostels point to the unacknowledged social change.
Über is another new idiom of enterprise. How smoothly it has taken off! In my few weeks’ stay, l used it extensively and was impressed that it has raised the prestige of taxi driving to an acceptable occupation for the middle class. Among the part-time Über drivers l met were a law student, a businessman and a public official.
Restructuring the city
The transformation of Lahore has also been greatly influenced by the massive investments in public transportation. The Bus Rapid Transport (BRT), known as the jangla bus, is already an overused, popular service. The ring road is being built in segments to siphon off traffic from the city streets. An elevated commuter rail, called the Orange train, is being built to link the Southwestern exurbs through the historic city centre, the Mall and McLeod road, to the north east extremity beyond Shalimar garden.
Though these projects are controversial for their high costs, how they accumulate public debt and harm the environment, the provincial government has waved aside such objections. Its transportation projects are changing the form and structure of the city.
Lahore is spinning out new paradoxes of development. First, it is a mega city of 11 million people but anybody who has travelled along GT road both towards Jhelum in the west and Sahiwal in the south, or towards Faisalabad and Sialkot, can see that Lahore is the pivot of a densely built up region of about 45 million people in central Punjab. It is the centre of a megalopolis.
Second, Lahore is a fragmented city. The poor and indigenous areas are segregated from the affluent modern parts. The separation is striking, though it does not rise to the level of ghettoization. There are remnants of the old villages within the modern suburbs and correspondingly many affluent households live in the poor-indigenous areas. Different social classes are linked to each other in symbiotic relations of mutual dependence through the domestic help, provision of services, clan or family bonds or religious brotherhoods. Despite these links, the poor have been marginalized and pushed out of sight in the new Lahore.
The signal-free roads have eliminated beggars and squeegee kids who used to swarm motorists at traffic lights. Now they have been spared confronting poverty. The malls, stores, restaurants and gated communities have security checks that discourage the ill-dressed from mixing with the affluent. The well-off classes have private schools, colleges, clinics and hospitals that insulate them.
Finally, the narrative of Lahore is divergent from the city as lived reality.
There is always some cultural lag between the imagined and lived life of a city. In the case of Lahore that lag has become a chasm. Lahore is imagined as a leisurely place of living history, where people are outgoing and the food is splendid. There is a literary genre called Lahore nostalgia, recalling the colourful and harmonious community life, enlivened by poetry recitals, concerts, melas and religious festivals. The Hindus and Sikhs who had migrated to India in 1947 have particularly contributed to the nostalgic genre. Yet that Lahore is long gone.
Yes, today’s Lahore maintains a bit of the old masculine spirit of fun, but its free-wheeling public life has been suppressed by the fear of terrorism and by self-censorship necessitated by the intimidation of religious zealots and the state’s demand for ideological conformity. Lahoris have embraced commercialism and conspicuous consumption as their cultural icons. The new Lahore is drifting towards soulless globalism.
Mohammad Qadeer’s book ‘Lahore, Urban Development in the Third World’ (Vanguard, 1984), is a classic of the city’s internal dynamics. He is also author of ‘Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation’ (Vanguard, 2011)
This font was created specially for TFT’s Authenti(cities) series by Habib University student Zainab Kazmi. It is called ‘Fracture’ and works with the original font of Didot.