The heart, stomach and backbone of Pakistan

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The heart, stomach and backbone of Pakistan”: Lahore in novels by Bapsi Sidhwa and Mohsin Hamid

Claire Chambers

University of York


Although much research has been undertaken on Indian cities, particularly Bombay/Mumbai, Calcutta/Kolkata, and Delhi, Pakistani urban environments have not been subjected to anything like the same degree of scrutiny. There already exists a long and rich history of artistic and textual interpretations of the city of Lahore, but this body of work has gone largely unappreciated in academic scholarship. To redress this critical gap, the article examines fiction by two diasporic authors from the Pakistani Punjab, Bapsi Sidhwa and Mohsin Hamid, for their representations of Lahore as a postcolonial megacity which is crucially important to the nation and the Punjab. I argue that Lahore is an unevenly developed, international urban centre, which constantly interpenetrates with and is cross-fertilized by its Punjabi rural hinterland. In illustrating this, I focus on two central loci in the city as depicted in the novels: the red light district (Heera Mandi) and the nearby mosque (Badshahi Masjid). Examining literary representations of the heterogeneous nature of the people who congregate in these two very different areas enables exploration of the metropole/hinterland dynamic in West Punjab. Discussion of the mosque also necessitates discussion of the important and changing role of religion — Islam and, to a lesser extent, Zoroastrianism — in contributing towards post-partition Lahori identity.

Keywords: Lahore, Pakistani Punjab, Heera Mandi, Mohsin Hamid, Bapsi Sidhwa, Pakistani literature
“The heart, stomach and backbone of Pakistan”1: Lahore in novels by Bapsi Sidhwa and Mohsin Hamid
Claire Chambers

The University of York


In November 2013 an Indian television advertisement for Google entitled “The Reunion” went viral on YouTube, garnering over four million hits from India, Pakistan, and the wider world in just five days (Associated Press, 2013; Google India 2013). The advert pivots on the friendship of two boys from different religious backgrounds who were separated due to the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Now an old man living in Delhi, the Hindu boy Baldev Mehra reminisces to granddaughter Saman about his younger years flying kites and stealing sweets in what is today’s Pakistan. He recalls his best friend Yusuf especially fondly, and so, aided by the Google search engine and associated apps, Saman traces this fellow septugenarian and brings him to Delhi to be reunited with Baldev on the latter’s birthday. The ad has generated largely positive reactions on both sides of the border, although Associated Press quotes one second-generation partition migrant’s observation that it is not so easy for ordinary people to travel between India and Pakistan in the ongoing climate of hostility between the two countries (2013, n.p.).

However, for the purposes of this article about the city as a simultaneously material and textualized space, what is most noteworthy about “The Reunion” is that Yusuf lives in Lahore, the antique city which Baldev and his family fled, never to return. Indeed, the way in which Lahore is represented in this tear-jerking commercial is indicative of the nostalgic diasporic lens through which the city is often depicted. Its opening scene features the call to prayer from a red-brick, white-domed mosque, which is presumably intended to be the city’s most famous monument, the Badshahi Mosque, commissioned in the late seventeenth century by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (16181707). In the course of her research Saman googles Lahore’s ancient history, parks, city gates, and sweet shops — rich, culturally loaded, and nostalgic images of the city. In this short film as in much other cultural production, Lahore is thus emblematic of partition and the shared history of these two hostile subcontinental neighbours. As Gyanendra Pandey puts it, partition’s legacy is “an extraordinary lovehate relationship” bifurcated between “deep resentment and animosity, and the most militant of nationalism” and “a considerable sense of nostalgia, frequently articulated in the view that this was a partition of siblings that should never have occurred” (2001, 2). The viral video tacitly supports and helps to answer this paper’s central research questions: how are South Asian cities and regions imagined by their inhabitants, their diasporic communities, and their artists? How does partition and its aftermath continue to impinge upon such imaginings of the Punjab, the province that was most affected by the violence and population exchange that occurred after partition?

This article stems from awareness that the Punjab has long been an area of key importance to pre-/colonial India and to postcolonial India and Pakistan. The two Punjabs experienced overlapping but distinct residues of British imperialism, great trauma in partition, relative economic vitality and hegemony within their nations, and centrality in the reinventions and imaginings of the postcolonial Indian and Pakistani nation-states. In an effort to enhance understandings of Punjabi literature, history, and anthropology, I examine depictions of the Pakistani Punjab, and particularly its ancient capital of Lahore, in texts by Bapsi Sidhwa and Mohsin Hamid, two important writers who are from that city and are among its most observant chroniclers. However, given this article’s location in South Asian Diaspora, I have chosen these writers in part because they have spent significant proportions of their lives in the diaspora, specifically the United States. Their perspectives on the city are therefore to some extent shaped by what Dennis Walder (2011) terms “postcolonial nostalgia”.2 Sidhwa (born 1938) is from the generation affected by India’s partition and the creation of Pakistan, while Hamid was born in 1971, the year of a second partition after a bloody civil war which resulted in Bangladesh seceding from the Pakistani union. As well as exploring their representations of the city’s topographical, cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity, the essay also examines a central locus of Lahore as depicted in the novels: the iconic red light district, Heera Mandi, which stands incongruously close to the religious site the Badshahi Mosque.

Much research from various disciplines has been conducted in relation to Indian cities, particularly Bombay/Mumbai (see, for example, Hansen 2001; Mehta 2005; Prakash 2010; and Patel and Thorner 1995), Calcutta/Kolkata (Chaudhuri 1990 and 1995; Dutta 2008; and Gupta, Mukherjee, and Banerjee 2009) and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Delhi (Kaul 1997; Dalrymple 1994; Hosagrahar 2005). However, Pakistani urban environments have been strikingly underrepresented, with Karachi and especially Lahore receiving a small amount of scholarly attention in comparison with the vast archive on Bombay.3 In an attempt to fill this lacuna, I examine Sidhwa’s work, especially her acclaimed partition novel Cracking India (1991), alongside Mohsin Hamid’s three novels, for their textualized descriptions of Lahore as a postcolonial city and as the heart of the Punjab and of Pakistan more broadly. I then weave in the theoretical approaches of Fredric Jameson, Edward W. Soja, Michel Foucault, Michel de Certeau and others, which allow the same geographical locations to be framed as a dynamic space of social and cultural contestations.

But what is it about Lahore that has apparently made it invisible to literary and other humanities scholars, while other South Asian cities, such as Delhi, Calcutta, and Mumbai, have been vociferously celebrated by critics? The first reason for this neglect is that Lahore is in Pakistan, a country with a troubled and variable relationship with the West, and with its own internal problems apropos of scholarship. Ever since Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, which was bankrolled by the US as part of Cold War strategy, censorship has been institutionalized at the heart of Pakistani governance. While the media opened up dramatically during Pervez Musharraf’s military rule (1999−2008), Pakistani higher education institutions, particularly their arts departments still chafe under restrictions and a lack of funding which hobble indigenous research. Secondly, Lahore used to be an important destination along the hippie trail (loosely mapped onto the old Silk Route), but after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and occupations of Afghanistan by the USSR and later the US, ordinary tourists could no longer enter or exit Pakistan’s western gateways with ease, meaning that fewer outsiders have had a chance to be inspired by the city’s history and culture in the way that Indian cities have spawned their Mark Tullys, William Dalrymples, and Dominique Lapierres. Finally, in relation to urban studies, it is Karachi that grabs the headlines, in part because its megacity status dwarfs Lahore’s, with populations of approximately 9.4 and 5.2 million respectively. Karachi’s a higher profile is also due to its disproportionately larger population of muhajirs (the migrants and descendants of migrants who fled from India to Pakistan during and after partition) and attendant ethnic and political conflict, which attracts much scholarly attention (see, for example, Anjaria and McFarlane 2011, 298−337).

Yet Lahore could not matter more in terms of its history and hold on the South Asian imagination; its location and strategic importance as a hub connecting India and Khyber Pakthunkhwa, formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province; and its economic productivity in the manufacturing and communications industries. As I show in this essay, the city’s close proximity to the almost impregnable Wagah border means that it is uniquely vulnerable when the two nations of India and Pakistan square up to each other, as they do periodically, for example in the nuclear standoff of late nineties and the crisis following the Indian parliament attacks of 2001.4 More positively, Lahore is the cultural capital of Pakistan, even if it has never been the political or administrative capital of anything larger than the Punjab province. In 1940, it was in the city’s Iqbal Park that Jinnah issued what became known as the Lahore Resolution, advocating the creation of Pakistan through an inchoate plan for “autonomous national States” within independent India that would allegedly “allow the major nations separate homelands” (Jinnah 1994, 55). Lahore has long been Pakistan’s social and cultural heartland; its landmarks provide architectural testament to the many pasts which have overlaid the city, making it a palimpsest and the space of intersecting identities, and pre-dating colonial India by centuries if not millennia. The metropolis has a vibrant arts scene that is diminished because of partition but is still clearly present, and I discuss the work and reception of one of its visual artists Iqbal Hussain in the next section. Lahore also matters because it acts a barometer of the changes that are happening in Pakistan. Unlike Karachi with its high numbers of muhajirs and ethnic violence, Lahore has until recently been a relatively peaceful city. However, the last five years have witnessed a sea change in relation to terror, sectarian violence, and international machinations. I argue that Sidhwa and Hamid trace the genesis of this transformation back to the class, gender, and ethnic divisions that have always been present in the city and which were exacerbated by the creation of Pakistan.

A Personal View

This section is structured around my own impressions of and anecdotes about Lahore; these are underpinned by research and by recognition that scholarship is never wholly disinterested, culturally neutral, and allowing access to objective “truth.” Soon after my arrival in Lahore in 2011 for my first visit in nearly two decades (I went back for two further sojourns in the subsequent years), the friend I was staying with took me to Faiz Ghar, the former home of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911−84). Faiz was associated with the leftist Progressive Writers Association and was widely considered one of Pakistan’s finest poets. His poems were made into songs, sung by well-known singers like Noor Jehan and Tina Sani, so they are famous throughout Pakistan and its diaspora. Faiz Ghar is now an art gallery, which is run by Faiz’s daughter, the feminist, activist, painter, and art critic Salima Hashmi. At this house of the arts and liberal education, Hashmi shook my hand, declaring in an impish tone, “Welcome to the Land of the Pure.” However, in the aftermath of the assassination of Hashmi’s first cousin, the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, for allegedly calling Pakistan’s corruption-ridden blasphemy legislation a “black law,” during that trip I was to discover that the chasm between “impure,” outspoken liberals and those known locally as fundos or fundamentalists is growing increasingly wide.

While I witnessed elite groups of artists, academics, and other professionals discussing politics and poetry with similar passion over copious amounts of illegal alcohol, it was sobering to watch as every vehicle entering university campuses was searched with under-car mirrors to check for bombs. Lahore is still coming to terms with its heightened status as a terrorist target, made especially apparent in the gun attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team there in 2009, lethal bombs detonated in the Sufi shrine Data Darbar in 2010, and the case of a “diplomat” Ray Davis (later revealed to be a CIA contractor) who fatally shot two men and killed another in a hit and run accident on 27 January 2011. 5 Yet despite the “blowback” from this last incident and from unmanned drone killings by the United States which is encapsulated in the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, there is another Lahore, that of Faiz and his daughter, cultural and intellectual energy, pluralism, tolerance, the arts, and sexuality. Yet it should go without saying that Lahore is not a space — as represented in fiction, life writing or scholarship — that can or should be mapped in terms of binaries. If my recent trips and research has shown me one thing, it is the absence of uniformity in Pakistan and the city which is arguably its most accurate microcosm, Lahore.

To anyone who disagrees with the idea that Lahore is representative of Pakistan more broadly, it is worth thinking of Anatol Lieven, who, in a section of his book Pakistan: A Hard Country entitled “Lahore, the Historic Capital,” mistakenly writes: “Pakistan is the heart, stomach and backbone of Pakistan. Indeed, in the view of many of its inhabitants, it is Pakistan” (Lieven 2011, 267). This tautological but revealing substitution of “Pakistan” for “Lahore” chimes with the saying Lahoris use, almost shruggingly, to emphasize their city’s distinctiveness: “Lahore, Lahore aye (Lahore is Lahore). The northeastern city is the cultural heartland of the country, with a detailed recorded history going back to the tenth century CE, and a much longer oral, cultural, and communitarian presence. Its economic powerhouse status and the hold it has on the Pakistani imagination, particularly through the movies of Lollywood (the nation’s film industry, based in Lahore), have also meant large-scale migration from the rural areas to Punjab’s capital in order to find work.

From the dire situation of many women in Lahore (which I will explore in the later textual analysis), to the intelligence, independence, and creative power of Salima Hashmi and others, the picture revealed is extremely complex. Lahore is often seen as a pleasure city,6 and Mohsin Hamid in particular is interested in millennial Pakistan’s voluptuary, ecstasy-taking social whirl, as well as more familiar scenes of violence and stark class divisions. His debut novel Moth Smoke (2000) was viewed by Anita Desai as a turning point for subcontinental literature, in that it was one of the earliest twenty-first-century novels to depart from the Indian magic realism fashionable in the eighties and nineties and venture into darker and generically indeterminate territory inspired by his hometown Lahore (Desai 2000, np). Indeed, for many, the metropolis represents pain, exploitation, and danger. Or, as Bapsi Sidhwa puts it in her anthology on Lahore (2005), this is at once a city of sin and splendour. Even the Lahore of the late seventies and early eighties under the viciously Islamizing Zia ul-Haq regime is portrayed in Sidhwa’s novel fourth novel An American Brat as a city of “paradoxes, where bold women of a certain class often wield as much clout as pistol-toting thugs” (1994, 192). To enrich Desai’s analysis of Moth Smoke as a seminal text within an emerging renaissance of Pakistani fiction, therefore, we might locate it within an alternative canon of writing on the Punjab, or what is often termed the Punjabiyat (linguistic nation of the Punjab), from Anglo-Indian writers such as Flora Annie Steel and Rudyard Kipling, to such evocative storyteller of partition as Amrita Pritam and adopted Lahori Saadat Hasan Manto, to the more recent Khushwant Singh and Bapsi Sidhwa, and now such diasporic writers as Daljit Nagra, Amarjit Chandan, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Tariq Ali.

My second, even shorter anecdote concerns artist Iqbal Hussain (Fig. 1), who runs Cooco’s Den (Fig. 2), a restaurant in Lahore’s famous red light district of Heera Mandi, which ironically stands in the shadow of Pakistan’s most famous mosque, the beautiful Badshahi Masjid. Hussain set up Cooco’s Den to support his mother and sister who are both prostitutes from the Kanjari caste who carry out sex work and music in the historic area of Heera Mandi or the Market of Diamonds (the more cynical, like Prince Kamaruddin in Sidhwa’s debut novel The Crow Eaters (1980), suggest that it is more accurately described as a flesh market: “Plenty of gems — walking around on two legs!” (1982, 131)). Hussain is also an acclaimed artist, who exhibits his paintings of sex workers (Fig. 3) on the walls of Cooco’s Den, as well as displaying statues of nudes, Hindu gods, and so on. This unorthodox, bohemian restauranteur has been on the receiving end of threats and antagonism from the Islamic Right, because to them he represents godlessness and/or creeping Hinduization, female sexuality, and general transgression. However, Hussain considers it his duty to paint the lives of the matrilineal dancing girl community from which he comes. In her book The State of Islam, Saadia Toor writes, “the artist was not allowed to exhibit his work at the state-run Alhamra Art Gallery in Lahore because they were deemed obscene. In protest, Hussain exhibited them on the roadside near the gallery (2011, 151).

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