Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Lahore, not Paris

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I was born and raised in Lahore and here I have lived all my life. Except of course the seven years in the army and the ten I lived in Karachi immediately after quitting the army in 1978. That is, of my sixty-one years I have spent forty-four in this city. It has been my hometown and a place which I would not gladly give up for anywhere else. In 1986, travelling around Germany I fell in love with Augsburg: it is such a lovely little city. My German friend Günther asked if I would like to live there for the rest of my life. I said no. Lahore was the place for me.
When I was younger, as in my 20s and 30s, I took Lahore for granted. From the city of my childhood to the city of my youthful years, it seemed immutable. The sense of humour and joviality that Lahoris were well-known for did not change. I have three classic examples of printable Lahori humour but I don’t know if I can translate them appropriately enough from Punjabi to English. The general civility of the people remained uniform in all these years; their concern for the stranger's predicament did not vanish. And this was the strangest thing about these people: a total stranger if seen worried or in a fix was suddenly everyone's prime concern and Lahoris went out of their way to comfort and help such a person. Friendliness was endemic, universal. Standing in a line for more than five minutes sometimes made friendships. When a friendship did not begin, there was always jocularity as long as the line lasted. There were no strangers in Lahore; only friends you had somehow missed meeting.

Things started to change in the 1980s. I may be wrong, but the petro-dollar income seems to be the culprit. Suddenly ordinary people were rich beyond their dreams. Their nature changed. They may have thought they had now to behave like sahibs and put on airs, but there was a decided change in attitude and behaviour. Humour and friendliness were the first casualties.

This was also the period of vast numbers of rural families moving into Lahore. Officialdom called it urbanisation. Fools. This was the beginning of the ruralisation of Pakistani cities, especially Lahore. So vast were these incoming migrants that rather than adopting the culture of the city, they swamped it with their rustic manners and everything else. Lahore lost out completely. Where the petro-dollar did just a fraction, this influx overturned everything. In place of the old bonhomie of Lahore, boorishness took over. Today loutish and crude manners are a sign of courage - and this is true for the entire country except Gilgit-Baltistan.

Six years ago, my brother and I were at Gander Sports (60, The Mall) and we had to compliment the owner for retaining that old Lahori air. Though we spent only about thirty minutes with him, we knew he was an old Lahore salt (like us, he was past 50). I told him I'd return with my recording machine to talk about the city we both knew years ago and do a piece. But as things are, these promises are never kept until it is too late. Last year, I went back and found a woman minding the store. Though rather somber, she had a pleasing personality. I asked her about the jovial owner. He was her husband who had died some months earlier.

In my childhood, Durand Road, where we lived, Davies Road, The Mall, Sunderdas Road and Lawrence Gardens were not the only places where trees – real, indigenous trees – grew tall and leafy with millions of birds taking shelter in their foliage. Everywhere you went, there were trees, kikar, pipal, shisham, amaltas, neem, gular (wild fig), banyan, what have you. These were the trees where one hundred and seventy species of indigenous birds bred and lived, enriching our lives with their song.

As a child I remember cycling up and down Davies Road and suddenly a whirring drone would catch my attention. Above, there would be a flight of five or six grey hornbills. These majestic birds now live only in Model Town and Lawrence Gardens, perhaps also in the cantonment. Durand and Davies roads are treeless concrete wildernesses, ugly as ugly can be.

The 1980s were also the time for Lahore to grow beyond the older Raj era parts and Gulberg and Shadman. We had all sorts of towns and housing societies sprouting up everywhere. What was farmland and orchard right outside your home was of a sudden denuded and replaced with concrete. The few trees that the idiot city fathers planted in place of those they cut were only and only the alien eucalyptus imported from Australia. Everyone's excuse was that this tree 'grows fast'. It did not bother anyone that this tree was not favoured by our birdlife. Worse, it was a water-guzzler. The city expanded and with it eucalyptus.

Indigenous trees were cut down and replaced with this water-guzzling monster. Soon afterwards came the blight of rubber plant (Ficus), asoka, and alstonia, all trees that were unknown to the birds of Lahore. Where we once woke in summer mornings to the mating song of the beautiful red avadavat or the brown munia, there was nothing. The golden oriole disappeared with its mellifluous whistle and so did the koel and the papiha. From being everywhere, these birds were pushed into some small pockets, like Aitchison College, Lawrence Gardens, cantonment and Model Town where old trees planted by the Brits and Hindus and Sikhs still survive. I shudder to think what would have happened if we Muslims had been in charge of Lahore's plantation back in the early 1900s!

The bottom line about us is that we simply hate trees. This is true if the trees are indigenous species. Exotic are welcome. Point. The first thing we do is destroy the nearest tree we see and replace it with shrubbery or a date palm. This has been the greatest bane of Lahore.

The road from Jalandhar city (India) to my ancestral village Uggi is at one spot bifurcated by a lovely pipal tree. In India no one would ever dream of cutting the tree to streamline traffic. Here in Lahore, when they were double tracking the road from Thokar Niaz Beg to College Road via the cancer hospital and Wapda Town (remember, we have no road names), there was a spot near the Lesco grid station that had three beautiful pipal trees right by the side of the then single track. When the survey began (I think early 2004), I immediately went out and photographed the trees because I knew these idiotic brutes would have no thought of preserving them by giving the road a curve. Sure enough the trees fell. No chipko women, no tears flowed, no protest to save them happened. I now have their memory in five or six 35 mm transparencies.

And road names. I grew up in a city where every road had a name. In the 1960s, the moronic bureaucracy got it into their heads to change road names. Fletcher, Cunningham, Elgin, Empress and The Mall and dozens other were given names that no one ever uses. But these were the only names that were worth giving because they were all Muslims. Who on earth was Shaikh Abdul Hameed bin Badees that we have a road named after him?

By the time the city expanded further, the city fathers had run out of names. So Garden, Johar, Iqbal towns and those hundreds of fancy and not so fancy societies have millions of streets without names. But our idiotic administrators never tire of ‘renaming’ already named roads. They will never name a road, only rename. So now Sunderdas is called after some judge whose name would have sat pretty well somewhere in the newer areas of the city.

Another blight struck us in the early 1990s. This was the sickness of the date palm introduced by none other than my friend Kamran Lashari who is considered by everyone to be the smartest bureaucrat ever created in the history of mankind. He cut down two century-old mango trees from Main Boulevard, Gulberg and gave us the shade less, fruitless date palm. In a city where we need shade, we are getting less and less of it as more and more real trees are destroyed to be replaced with shrubbery and palm trees.

Ever notice the vast open space in front of the airport? It only has shrubbery, not a single tree. No god's creature must ever get shade to rest under! That is the policy of our city planner, bureaucrat, real estate tycoon and politician.

But Kamran is not the only one who does not understand ecology. Everyone who followed him and even ordinary people have no clue of it. Consider the new housing estates of Bahria, Sukh Chain etc where they do not have a single tree other than eucalyptus, palms and some insignificant shrubbery. All these idiots who create these sterile spaces only want to turn this country into the Arabian desert or California. I suggest they import sand from there so that we only have dunes and palm trees.

I have written and written but have now wearied of writing about this foolishness. If I say to someone we have moved down from one hundred and seventy species of birds to less than sixty, the patent response is, ‘Here we have people dying right, left and centre and you're worried about some miserable birds!’ What does one say to illogic? It seems that everything perpetrated by officialdom upon this sorry city is meant to make life here miserable. We used to have those Vespa rickshaws that never had silencers. Then something about 2000 we got these new natural gas rickshaws that worked well enough with silencers and suddenly life was pretty good in the city. Then some moron thought up what we now call the Chingchi (from the Chinese Qingqi motorcycle that was first modified to make this wretched piece of work). Some motorcycle mechanic came up with the idea that if you remove the silencer it will work better. The 70 cc machine mounted on the steel superstructure and hauling up to ten grown men can only do a certain amount of work, with or without the silencer. But in Lahore, the second city of Pakistan, every single one of these monsters goes without a silencer creating a din that rouses the monsters of Hades (look around and you’ll know what I mean).

Speak to the Environment Protection Department and they tell you they will ban these nasties once the bus system is in order. That is, NEVER. They simply will not consider the easier idea of putting back the silencers on these stupid things. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is a very smart man. But I fail to understand why he and others insist on turning Lahore into Paris. For crying out loud, why can we simply not turn Lahore into the Lahore it once was? It was never and can never be Paris, but it was a very beautiful livable city once upon a time.

Postscript: As I grow older, I have even begun to enjoy the furnace heat of May and June in Lahore – something that unnerved me earlier. At the end of winter, every growing thing suddenly breaks into green in a spurt of growth. But as May begins to sizzle, this growth is checked hard. Everything; the sky, the greenery, even the colour of bricks; turns to half tones and plants stop waxing. By the time the month of Savan begins in the middle of July, things are transformed again. The green takes on an unreal shade. I sit on my patio and look to the shisham and pipal in my garden and for many years now, I have wished that when the end of my time on earth is come, it should be the month of Savan or Bhadon so that the last sight my eyes see is this heavenly green.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 27 May 2013 at 10:38, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Of course Lahore was the best. I join you to cry for this city. Let us turn it into Lahore that it was. That will be much better than Paris or any other city. Great post.

At 27 May 2013 at 11:07, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Nayyar. Gather your friends, make a group and go see CM Sharif with the plea to give us the real Lahore again.

At 27 May 2013 at 18:44, Blogger Sybarite said...

OMG ! that was such a beautiful article. my heart goes out to all those birds who had to leave their nests because the trees were cut down to build stupid claustrophobic societies and it is definitely true that Lahore has been ruralized by all those people coming over from villages to settle in the big city. I mean why do most of the lot has to speak in that degrading language where almost each and every sentence ends with a gaali. I'm proud to be a part of that area of Lahore where we still try to save the old ways and actually grow trees not the eucalyptus.when i was 15 i asked our gardener to cut all the eucalyptus in our gardener (there were 4 at that time) because i knew they were bad for our environment. i think small efforts like these matter. Love you Model Town. your article has ignited a spark in me to grow more trees to make our city more beautiful. although Lahore might have lost a little bit of its beauty, we can still try to help it to regain some of its flora and fauna and i think starting from my garden will be a small step in giving what this amazing city deserves.

At 27 May 2013 at 21:39, Anonymous Kausar Bilal said...

What an insightful article! I shows proper education is needed when it comes to city development. Why don't you design a course where you can teach all that you have learnt as part of a travel, tourism, town planning or so program? Or, you can offer it online for the people interested in the topic. There should be an organization that plan educative tourism plans within and outside Lahore, where such issues can be discussed.
As a first step, we need awareness on the topics like it is my first time to be exposed by this material.
One thing is very touching, we don't need a Lahore like Paris, but like real true LAHORE. I don't know when will we learn to be confident and proud of our unique and beautiful culture and country. Why to be like a foreigner rather than being a pure Pakistani?

At 28 May 2013 at 09:45, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Well done Sybarite! You are a blessed soul to know that the E tree does not belong to this dharti. If you begin your own private campaign, you'll be helping bring back a good deal of the lost avian fauna.
Kausar, I cannot design courses. I am a writer and this is all I can do.

At 28 May 2013 at 11:07, Anonymous Haris Mir on FB said...

what I miss the most about Lahore while being here in this desert aka saudi. TREES ! I want my garden to look like this too. This will be my first project right after i go back. To grow sheesham and Lahori trees in my garden.

At 28 May 2013 at 11:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Better hurry up, Haris. The way we are going with date palms, we might soon be importing sand and other rubbish from S. Arabia to turn this blessed land into a desert.

At 29 May 2013 at 14:57, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

ye blog androoni aur berooni taqaton ki meray khalaaf sazish hai ta k main inko parhti rhun aur apna kuch na likhun

At 29 May 2013 at 18:39, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

From my view, I should buy a car to view and browse all Lahore. Despite being in Lahore for more then 5 years I cannot say that I have seen Lahore. But what I have seen is just beautiful. lhor lhor ay

At 30 May 2013 at 07:15, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Good to know that this blog is keeping your from writing your own stuff! This certainly is the best compliment I've had in a very long time, Saima.

At 30 May 2013 at 13:16, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Thanks for your comments

At 9 July 2013 at 12:23, Anonymous Anonymous said...

وہ کاغز کی کشتی، وہ ساون کا پانی۔

At 24 January 2014 at 09:13, Anonymous Nelly Raza said...

Your garden seems so peaceful. Few mango trees soaked in rain n it be my garden-also, mine beats yours:)

At 8 February 2014 at 13:58, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nelly, how I wish I were rich. I'd have a bigger garden. Half an acre of plantation would be the best. This is only a matchbox.

At 11 February 2014 at 16:28, Blogger Sohaib Qamar said...

Very eloquently described. :)

At 11 February 2014 at 17:03, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Shoaib.

At 27 July 2014 at 22:22, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am just fourteen years old and your writing has inspired me a lot. I am starting to enjoy everything after this. You made me realize what our culture is. And I even came close to the environment. Thanks a lot.

At 27 October 2017 at 11:21, Anonymous Amal Farhaan said...

My garden is similar to this...Trees and plants trying to take over whatever little space there is. Often people in my locality refer to our house as " That-which-is-hidden-with-trees" ! Seriously! As ours is the only one on our street which is so. All others have either no lawn at all, or just a few palm or asoka trees.There is, unfortunately no space left to plant anymore trees on the edge of our small patch of grass. I have even had the gate painted a deep deep green to blend in with the all the greenery. It looks great!

At 2 November 2017 at 05:06, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Amal. Nice to know that you too are a tree lover. Our house has changed a little because the pipal and tahli are gone as they brought down our neighbour's wall. We had to rebuild for them and, sadly, cut the trees. This year the rains were not good but we still had it green. The new plantation is now slowly coming up.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

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