I first arrived in Lahore 35 years ago! I last arrived here from Karachi on Monday night, having spent an enjoyable week in interior Sindh. It is good to be “home” here in the Columban house and in Lahore again. I left here in 2000 and have been back twice for short visits, once in 2006 and again in 2011. On this visit, I look forward to spending about three weeks here.
Yesterday I went for a long walk from the Columban house into the centre of the city. It was a chance to begin my re-orientation, at ground-level, as it were! My first and overwhelming impression is that the city looks a bit tired and run-down. The paint on the walls of the buildings is often faded and peeling. Buildings show wear and tear. Advertising looks overdue for renewal. Political posters from the last election are still on display but now looking a bit shabby; likewise religious posters from the last religious event (websites are not the only things that get dated!). The streets and footpaths on the main thoroughfares are fairly clean, but when you get into the side streets there are more potholes and broken paving to trip the unwary driver/walker. There are very few new cars. Most vehicles look some years old, all of them proudly bearing the battle scars of dents, bumps and scrapes from many years of negotiating (or failing to negotiate) the traffic. The leaves of trees and plants are covered in dust and pollution. They need a real good downpour of rain to wash off all the dust. The refreshed greenery would provide some visual relief to the pervading, monotonous, dull grey. The dust and exhaust fumes get into the nostrils too, also into the hair and clothing, so is seen, smelt and felt.
It is winter here at the moment, not desperately cold, but cool enough. It is necessary to wear a jumper or coat to ward off the chill. Like the city itself, I thought even the clothing of the people was looking old and worn. Admittedly, most were laborers going about their daily work, so theirs were work clothes rather than office clothes, certainly not their best as would be the case when they dress up for social events. I guessed that some of the clothing worn was imported second-hand goods made available at discount rates which makes them more affordable for the poor.
However, all is not old. Prominent on the particular route I took was the new “metro bus system”. This is a raised carriageway down the centre of Ferozepur Road with dual lanes in each direction for the exclusive use of metro buses. It runs 27 kilometres from Yuhannabad to Shahdara. Being restricted to buses only, it ensures rapid transit from one end of Lahore to the other. It is subsidized and relatively cheap, though there are some questions about the effectiveness of its location for servicing the city and the number and location of boarding “stations”. The carriageway down the main thoroughfare required the addition of new bypasses and turning lanes at major intersections, so this arterial road which once was quite familiar has taken on a very different aspect. It will take some time to adjust to it if I should ever have to drive in the coming weeks.
I had the impression there are also new shops, markets and petrol stations around, or at least, only a few years old. I suspect the older, smaller places are being pushed out and larger, more corporate operations are taking over, at least on the main road. Though off the main road, the same business were still doing their usual trade, with the usual congested traffic, vehicles double parked narrowing the street, cars and vans forcing their way through, motor bikes taking advantage of smaller gaps, pedestrians weaving in and out of traffic. And of course, in the traditional markets the small shops of the bazaar continue to ply their trade with an amazing variety of goods. The sights, colors, sounds, smells are an assault on the senses.
I noticed more armed guards outside banks and shops. They were there before, certainly in the larger city banks, but I don’t remember them being in such numbers at local branches. I noticed that others had electronic “wands” to frisk customers coming through the front door. Both testify to a heightened sense of insecurity.
Mobile phones are ubiquitous. They are a huge asset to a country like this. I am told the units are not too expensive and the packages are very affordable. Only requiring towers, with no need of landlines, they make communication more accessible to the people, especially the poor. It is a democratization of communications! Still, I find it particularly disconcerting when I see motorbike drivers coming towards me with one hand holding a mobile phone to their ear as they weave through the traffic. I know from long experience that both hands are required for effective control, one for accelerator and the other for the gears and front brake, so I keep a wary eye on them, ready to take sudden evasive action if necessary! Mind you, I feel a similar apprehension in Australia too when I see car drivers coming around a roundabout with one hand holding a mobile phone to their ear! So lawlessness and fear are not particular to Pakistan but universal!!
When I arrived in the city I visited the Catholic Cathedral and paid a courtesy call on Bishop Sebastian Shaw. He was Rector of the Franciscan Formation House when I was here. He received me very warmly and invited me to his upcoming installation. He is to be installed as the new Archbishop on the 14th of February. I look forward to participating in that celebration. It will be a big event for the church here, so I expect to be able to meet lots of people from all around the country. We had a brief discussion about interfaith relations here in Pakistan, in Europe and my work in Australia. The Bishop is a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
While the city may look tired, the welcome of the people is as warm as ever. When I went into the Cathedral ground, one of the first people I saw was a catechist with whom I had worked, now working in a parish on the other side of the city. His instant greeting was “come to our house”. I am sure I will receive many such invitations in the coming weeks. Even before I had arrived in Lahore, I had already received an invitation to be a guest for an event scheduled for next week at the parish school where I worked. I had received another private invitation by phone in the morning. It is very evident that I will have a busy social life in the coming weeks. I look forward to catching up with many friends.