Literary Landscapes



Children do not get to pick the cities they are brought up in. They arrive as strangers and are responsible for making themselves at home. But what makes a city home? In the late 1980s my family returned to Lahore, Pakistan from Saudi Arabia and our status changed from that of summer tourists simply looking forward to activities planned by relatives. Now we were residents. As tourists we’d visit Main Market just for freshly squeezed juices. As residents, we walked down dusty stairs to a pokey little shop that could rival any shoppe in Harry Potter’s world to purchase school uniforms. Instead of tourists driving past Pioneer General Store, we now entered the single aisled grocery with a long list in hand. Living here, I learned how to stand safely in front of open air vegetables stalls, always situated at the edges of dusty conveyance congested roads, and haggle in my broken Urdu with vendors who’d toss a few free green chillies or paper lemons into my bag. There was commerce here, but also generosity.

Long drives to point out landmarks are always a tourist staple and every summer we would be taken to Mall Road, a tree lined road constructed during the British Empire and wide enough for horse drawn carriages. The British had named it after their Mall Road in London which connects Buckingham Palace with Trafalgar Square. Look! The Lahore Zoo. The Lahore Museum. The High Court. The Post Office. The Governor House. As tourists, we’d either whiz past places like the High Court, to me one more British red brick building, or stop at the Lahore Zoo, begun in the 1860s and one of the oldest zoos in the world. However, once we started living in Lahore, the Mall was just another road we took to get to Anarkali Bazaar or Ferozsons Bookstore or Data Darbar, a sufi saint’s shrine. A city becomes home then when you stop sightseeing and take others instead.

Rather than any physical map per se, Pakistani society resembles Regency England’s in its emotional makeup, its morals, manners and attention to social hierarchy. That said, Jane Austen’s Bennets in Pride and Prejudice live in the village of Meryton and so, in my novel, Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan, I created the fictitious small town of Dilipabad. Like me, my Binat sisters are also third culture children who have spent their formative years in Saudi Arabia and are returning to Lahore.
Alys Binat, my Elizabeth Bennet, has a difficult time adjusting to the move though she eventually finds her way around town. She has chai and chicken patties at the legendary Pak Tea House with a gossiping Mr. Wickaam. She goes with him to Wagah Border to see the changing of guard ceremony. She also realizes that, to be at home in a place, and not a just a tourist, is to have peopled its buildings. During a drive on Mall Road, Alys makes a mental note of all the associations she’s grown to have with the brick and mortar surrounding her:

“Up ahead on the Mall Road, closer to the Simla Hill, was The Convent of Jesus and Mary, the school Alys and Jena had attended before leaving for Jeddah. There was the National College of Arts where Aunty Nona had studied. And King Edward Medical College where Aunty Nona’s brother and Uncle Nisar had studied. And Aitchison College where Darsee and Bungles had been classmates. Further up at the American School and the British Council, Alys had attended plays and lectures.”
These details got cut out of Unmarriageable and now live on the editing floor. However, there remains a drive down the Mall in the novel. So it is with memory and places—you move but they live in you.
When I left Lahore for college in the U.S., I did not know at the time that I would never be back permanently, that I would become just a visitor in what was once my home. Lahore for me is memory and nostalgia, deep roots but also no address of my own. When I think of Lahore, I see a post-midnight return from a big fat wedding, our car creeping through dense fog, the howling of stray dogs, a promise of reaching my house, my bedroom bathed in the fierce orange glow of electric rods from heaters burning bright, and me snuggling under colorful quilts that will keep me warm. What makes a city home? Memories only, perhaps.[/fusion_text]