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Oh Lahore!

A trip to the cultural capital of Pakistan for an academic conference to discuss the clichéd topic of peace, conflict and violence threw up many pleasant surprises

I am not a frequent flyer but this trip was special for many reasons – right from my visit to the Pakistan High Commission, located in Delhi’s posh Chanakyapuri, where every ‘Kaeshur’ is treated as a special guest and received warmly. From Kishtwar to Karnah, it is like a family. After reading my recommendation letter, a visa was stamped on my passport. As dusk fell over the capital city, I headed towards erstwhile Ramdaspur.

Next morning, after thorough questioning at Wagah Immigration Centre, I was allowed to cross over to the Pakistani side. At “Bab-e-Azadi”, two Rangers responded to my greetings wide smiles. When the Pakistan immigration officer learned that I hail from Kashmir, he said, “Khoshaamdeed, Aap to apne hai” (Welcome, you are our own).

As the cab drove towards the old city of Lahore, with Mussarrat Nazir’s nostalgic ‘Chale to kat hi jayega safar’ blaring from the stereo, a fellow passenger briefed me about the historic significance of the City of Gardens.

TOWERING ELEGANCE: Minar-e-Pakistan

In the afternoon, protests spread across Pakistan. Six people were killed and nearly 200 injured. For more than three weeks, clerics had castigated the country’s Law Minister Zahid Hamid for omitting a reference to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a new version of the electoral oath. The government restored law and order with the help of the military. As the crackdown began, all TV news channels were taken off the air. Access to social media sites was also blocked. In response, head cleric Khadim Rizvi called his followers to bring the country to a grinding halt.

It reminded me of my Kashmir, where frequent “downtime” of internet is a norm.

Lahore is known as Pakistan’s educational capital, with more colleges and universities than any other city in Pakistan. With dog-eat-dog competition, the education sector is thriving here.

At the conference, delegates discussed everything under the sun. From Trump’s travel ban to the Qatar crisis, Rohingya refugees to prostitution in Pakistan, ‘honour killings’ to mass rape in Kunan-Poshpora, it was a great platform for battle of ideas.

I travelled the length and breadth of the city. For a travel freak, Lahore offers love. When I entered the hotel meant for delegates, I was dog-tired and hungry. I ordered breakfast. They told me that I need to pay the bill in advance. I did. And when I wrote ‘Srinagar’ in the Register meant for guests, the owner smiled. He folded his hands and apologised. Why?

“Sir, mujhe nahi pata tha aap maqbooza kashmir say hai, Maaf karna.” (I am sorry sir, I didn’t know that you are from Indian-controlled Kashmir).  They refused to accept even a single penny. I asked for a reason. He said, “Agar hum aap say bhi paise lengay phir hamara rishta hi khatam hogaya” (If we take money from you too, then our relationship will be over).

Lahore is a bustling city. Here, women enjoy relatively more freedom. At famed Liberty and Anarkali markets, dubbed a shopper’s paradise, I saw young ladies shopping at ease and women shopping at 12:30 in the night. None dares to stare at them, harass them or pass comments. They go home alone and no-gun wielding soldier ogles at them, unlike in Kashmir. Lahoris are fond of food. Eateries are open round the clock. Politics and religion are widely discussed.

HISTORY PRESERVED: Nankana Sahib

I prayed for peace at the imperial Badshahi Mosque, a historical monument. Grand Jamia Mosque is the world’s seventh largest and Pakistan’s third largest mosque and the best place to visit from an Islamic perspective. Wazir Khan Mosque, described as a “mole on the cheek of Lahore” covered with decorative tiles is a splendid example of Indo-Islamic architecture. Every single monument, building, artefact, road and even the atmosphere tells the tales of historic emperors and dictators. The religious diversity’s prosperity is clearly shown by the happy co-existence of Badshahi Masjid, Gurdwara Dera Sahib and Krishna Mandir.

Old Lahore is a replica of Srinagar’s downtown. One feels the aroma of Razekadel, Gojwor, Kawdor and Habbakadal. It was fun walking alone in the lively lanes and talking to friendly people on shop-fronts who offer smiles and sweets in return. But the stark difference is that Srinagar’s downtown has been caged and Lahore is a free city. I saw kids playing at 2 in the night. Yes. Can we take this risk in a fortified garrison called Kashmir where the night holds terrors?

As Aisha Bano, one of my friends from across the border remarked, Lahore is life. Lahoris are truly a blessed breed. An added bonus is a fair share of showbiz celebrities — Lahore produced the icons of Pakistan’s film industry like heartthrob Fawad Khan, Atif Aslam, Ali Zaffar, Saba Hameed, Faisal Qureishi etc.

From revered Nankana Sahib to the equally sacrosanct shrine of Baba Bulle Shah in Kassur, Lahore is a must-visit place for every traveller. I also visited the Lahore Zoo — second oldest zoo in South Asia after Kolkata — which has been a source of amusement and recreation for families for more than a century now. I enjoyed my brief reading session at Quaid-e-Azam library at Bagh-e-Jinnah. This “White-house” of Pakistan has an excellent auditorium which is frequently the venue for exhibitions, seminars, conferences, workshops, symposia and lectures. The intelligentsia discusses contemporary issues here. I also visited Punjab Public Library near Lahore Museum at Mall Road. This tour was a treat for a bibliophile like me.

In one Friday congregational prayer at Raiwand Markaz, home of the religious movement in Pakistan, a person in the front row bowed in prostration — and it proved to be his last prayer. Shell-shocked, I realised how death visits without permission. As I recall the moment, it sends shivers down my spine.

The next day, I clicked few pictures in front of mighty Minar-e-Pakistan and headed towards the border. A brief grilling session by men in civvies and I was allowed to go home. Now, I am officially born: As the saying goes, ‘Jine Lahore nai vekhya O jamya-e-ni (He who has not yet seen Lahore, has not been born!’)

Abid Rashid Baba is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar