The Seductive Lure of Lahore

By Shobhaa De
Mumbai Mirror, Feb. 22, 2014


Inshallah! I am keeping my fingers crossed I’ll be in Lahore when you read this. The Lahore Literary Festival has grown into an important property in a very short time, and may soon rival our very own Jaipur Lit Fest. I jumped at the invitation to participate in its 2014 edition, which has attracted several authors from India, including Vikram Seth and Amit Chaudhuri. Of course, Pakistani biggies like Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie will be participating as well. I am looking forward to three sessions (“India, a Cultural Conundrum” being one), and a book signing at Liberty, the largest bookstore in Lahore, where I am sure I’ll be asked a hazaar questions on the controversial Wendy Doniger book.

I have been to the Karachi Lit Fest and enjoyed it hugely. I couldn’t make it to last year’s edition, much to my disappointment, since my visa didn’t reach on time. Now, with less than 24 hours left for our flight to Amritsar (and then on to that dramatic walk across the Wagah), I am understandably jittery. The organizers tell me other invitees like Mira Nair have made it across the border smoothly and safely. So, here’s hoping my next column will be a post-Lahore one.

This is my third trip to Lahore. To me, Lahore is like a veiled houri—full of intrigue, beauty and mystique. Lahore is seriously oomphy. Differences between Lahore and Karachi are a lot like the differences between Delhi and Mumbai. Karachi being a commercially driven port city, the mentality of the people is similar to ours—dhanda matters. Time is money. People are like worker ants, rushing around from shop to shop, office to office. The level of education here is possibly the highest in Pakistan. One meets well-qualified professionals—mainly chartered accountants, bankers, doctors, IT professionals. Most people converse in Sindhi. The city itself isn’t half as pretty as Lahore. It’s more like Mumbai, without Mumbai’s glittering skyline and impressive sea link; and, of course, minus Mumbai’s glitz and glamour.

Ah, Lahore! Let me put it simply: Lahore is laajawab on many levels. If one leaves those burly, tough looking cops, fierce generals and oily politicians out of the picture, it’s easy to fall in love with Lahore. It is an extravagantly romantic city. The kind of destination that makes you long for languorous trysts on moonlit nights, clad in flowing muslin, ittar on the wrist and a poet spouting flowery verse, with indolent companions greedily feasting on partridge… and compliments. Lahore is a complex and layered city, with incredibly creative people doing incredibly creative things—everyone is a closet shayar. The begums of Lahore are stunningly beautiful and supremely stylish. They seem to float and glide, not walk or stroll. All their adas make them irresistibly beguiling. They wear their impeccably cut clothes with enormous élan, while their makeup tricks could give international makeup artists a serious complex.

The rich in Lahore are seriously, seriously rich. They enjoy their wealth with complete insouciance. The decadence of the rich in Lahore takes one back to another era when money spoke an unapologetic language of power and privilege that was understood by all. The men are, ahem, unambiguously macho, sharply dressed and effortlessly gallant. If these studied, old-fashioned mannerisms are just an affectation, let’s have some more of the same! Everyone speaks robust Punjabi, thinks Punjabi, and lives Punjabi. Extravagance and shosha count for everything. Flashy lifestyles are openly admired; discretion is reserved for the fainthearted. Doesn’t it all sound soooo Delhi!

Culturally, Lahore can be compared to Istanbul (another favorite destination). It has a vibrant arts scene that encompasses architecture, sculpture, movies, music and literature. As for the legendary cuisine and hospitality, once you have sampled the mutton chops and kebabs of Lahore, you can’t settle for anything less! Like Delhi, the markets are crowded and teeming with locals shopping and eating at street stalls virtually round the clock. Compared to our steep prices, it’s possible to buy quality fabrics (oh, those amazing cottons!) and designer outfits without spending too much. As mehmaans from across the border, the warmth extended is genuine, and all interactions are unfailingly polite. Lahore is self-indulgent and glorious. Lahore resembles a pampered mistress, while Karachi is the neglected wife. I enjoy both cities. I am lucky. I don’t have to choose!

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