Laila Ghaffar on her annual trip to Pakistan
Arriving in Lahore is like plunging headlong into another world. The sights and sounds merge to form a head-spinning vibrant city. I was born and raised in London, a place of rules, discipline and order. Itâ€™s a place where traffic flows calmly, where you hardly ever hear a car horn, where the electricity never goes, where the skies are often grey, where people speak softly, where I have freedom to wear what I want and choose whichever identity. When I come on my annual winter visit to Lahore, itâ€™s a different story.
The first thing that hits me about Lahore is the poverty, noise and pollution. Piles of rubbish clog the city. Motorcycles weave through thick traffic, heaving under the weight of a family of five. I find it strange that women ride side-saddle on motorbikes, their heels almost skimming the road, dupattas trailing alarmingly close to the spokes of the wheels. People talk loudly, play their music loudly, honk loudly and even the birds, particularly the crows, call louder. The air has a rich ripe smell of traffic fumes, open drains and roasting meat. Many of the buildings, concrete boxes jammed together, appear unfinished. Thick tangles of electric wires loop across streets. And everything in Lahore is covered in a thick layer of dust. Iâ€™ve heard people describe it as a garden city but the ride from the airport to my grandparentsâ€™ house is not very scenic.
But Lahore has it charms. Lahoris are warm and friendly. In London, people tend to be distant. For instance at Heathrow, if youâ€™re struggling to lift your suitcase off the carousel, they wonâ€™t offer to help. Here you just have to say, â€˜Excuse me bhai sahabâ€¦â€™ to your moustachioed neighbour and before the words are out of your mouth he will have hoisted your suitcase on to your trolley. People are extraordinarily generous. They invite you to their homes without hesitation, even if they donâ€™t know you very well. They heap food and drink on you and donâ€™t mind going out of their way to pick and drop you. They will lavish time and attention on you and nothing is too much trouble. In London however, people just donâ€™t have that kind of time or generosity.
I am used to being anonymous in London. That is good and bad. Good because it gives me freedom but the flip side of that freedom is that most of my interaction with strangers is impersonal. They donâ€™t care about me. Here your identity is bound up with your familyâ€™s. Therefore people tend to treat you according to how much or little they like your family. I am lucky for in my case this means I am treated well most of the time. However this comes with a downside: no boundaries. If somebody feels they know your family well, they feel entirely justified in asking you a barrage of intimate questions. Should you choose not to answer, you are considered rude and stand offish. Should you answer, the next day a dozen people will know.
No boundaries includes staring too. From the moment I step out of Lahore airport I feel a thousand eyes upon me and that doesnâ€™t let up the whole time I am here. Wherever I go, whether itâ€™s the bazaar, library or even driving on the road, I am always ogled at. Usually itâ€™s men but women do not hesitate to stare you out when they get the chance. I know itâ€™s not just me. All the girls that Iâ€™ve spoken to say they also find it very irritating but that theyâ€™ve got used to it. Last night I went out to dinner and there was a man sitting at a table next to mine, who stared so much it was wonder he managed to eat at all.
I love the â€˜come and goâ€™ atmosphere in Lahore. Itâ€™s so different to the structured London way of things. You can be spontaneous here — just drop in on your friend uninvited for lunch, and leave in the same breezy manner as you came. It creates a fun, buzzing environment in each house. In London, I would have to tell my friend I was coming over the day before. I would then text them when I left for their house and text them again when I was five minutes away. A time for me to leave would have probably been negotiated the day before. Itâ€™s excessive but it means that less time is wasted. Londoners are punctual, and most Lahoris are not. To some people four oâ€™clock means 5, to others it means 6. If you show up at 4, you are considered a bit lonely.
All in all, I find Lahore maddening, exhilarating, annoying, exciting and joyous. If there were three things I could change about it, I would like it to be cleaner, safer and more fair for everybody, particularly for those at the bottom of the heap. But even if I couldnâ€™t change a thing, I would continue to love it as I always have.