Slow Burn Lahore: See Through Cement


Lahore ring road. Photograph from Google Earth.

by Manan Ahmed

You can’t see through cement – and neither can I. When I look at Lahore and the ways in which cement has cordoned off sight-lines, I see a city full of people blind-folded. The gated communities were the first variant – ghettos of the elite – where cement walls rose up to seclude and to protect. The Defense Housing Authority which emerged in the 90s on vast swaths of land confiscated, distributed and redistributed by the military junta. That military-gated community needed its own armies of servants, chowkidars, drivers who couldn’t live too far, but not too close. So behind Defense was the soft settlement – corroded tin, bricks, mud. Then came the newer colonization – the Askari Housing Society. A new generation of military families, needing cheaper fabrics. So more empty and settled land had to be cleared off, parceled out, built. Then more roads added. Access roads.

Lahore used to be a city connected by neighborhoods, each reaching a tentacle into the next, linked by small roads and alleys. The arterial Mall Road or Jail Road or Canal Road were remarkable not for what they traversed but by how much of the city they left alone, untouched. To go from my house – at the far end of Cantonment to the Old City, say the Fort, took forever plus an hour. It used to feel good to me – this slow, fitful, crawl across Sadr, Mughalpura, Railway Colony, Landa Bazaar, Do Moria Pull, Bilal Ganj – to visit my friend L. The journey was its own event.

Now, I got on the Ring Road.

A thick toothpaste slathered across Lahore’s exterior, the Ring Road horrified me. It cuts through arable land, dairy colonies, satellite townships – anything and everything. As we drove across, in silence, the road empty of other cars – I saw only those separated by this cement and concrete river, trying to swim to the other side. The eight-feet high wall of cement which frames the highway had been broken into – human shaped chunks torn through, where silhouettes gathered waiting to run and vault across. Single men. Women and children. Some carrying goods. Some empty handed. A donkey cart hesitant. Imagine if between your home and your grocery store was a major highway. You have to imagine it, because it is not your reality. Nor is it mine. I live inside the bubble. The nice people had built pedestrian bridges – 500 meters or so apart – high stairs. Imagine walking to one, climbing up the stairs and then down. Imagine if you have to do it 15 times a day. With weight of your livelihood. I saw one couple – him holding her hand; she carrying a child; they carrying cloth-wrapped bundles waiting for my car to whiz bye so they could cross. Hesitant.

But the torn fabric of these lives was not the full story. On other sections, as our car made its way towards Ravi, were other tableaus. Two kids – barely 12 – lying flat on the cement embankment, sunning. Their legs lazily entangled, their eyes chasing the clouds. At another moment, a group of men smoking on the cement wall. Gossiping. Perhaps these points existed as meeting places, and they were re-enacting a lost world. Perhaps the din of passing traffic provided its own pleasant soundtrack.

No matter what we do, we can never educate our people. There it is, the pedestrian crossing and look at our jahalat that we are jumping walls and sprinting through traffic, because we cannot simply follow the law and cross legally. There really is no hope for us, you know. In Germany, I bet no one would ever dream of such a horrendous way to cross a highway.

I replied that maybe in Germany they would not partition a neighborhood like this, but that seems a silly response to make in hindsight. I wanted to be angry. Because the Ring Road angered me. I wanted my indignation to be registered. How dare they create partitions. But, I can see partitions everywhere in Lahore. The walls have grown taller all across Lahore. Every house has its own, shielding its inhabitants. Every neighborhood its own. My anger at the Ring Road seems silly in one sense.

The convenience is really amazing.

Yes, it is.

In the last ten years, Lahore has finally had the immense migration which was long a hallmark of Karachi. Neighborhoods have changed – the new migrants bringing their own languages, their own habitations, their new economies. The Ring Road, the motorway, the heavy-cargo industry, all participate in this Lahore. I heard more Pashto in DHA than Punjabi. Yet social fabric of Lahore was tied intimately to the cartography of Lahore. To be from Lahore, was to answer with the name of a neighborhood. Samnabad. Garhi Shaho. Mazang Chungi. Each neighborhood an encoding of a particular genealogy, accent, attitude, charisma. As you moved slowly, were forced to, across Lahore you saw and heard all of this. The only sight you see from the Ring Road is cement. The only sound is the whoosh of the silent car.

Piece crossposted with Chapati Mystery. Part of an ongoing series on Lahore.