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Notes from an author: Arifa Akbar on returning to Lahore, Pakistan

A trip back to a former childhood home in Pakistan reveals a city shaped by both the realities of modernity and the unshakable mythology of memory.

By Arifa Akbar
Photographs By Stockford Images
Published 4 Jun 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 18 Jun 2021, 11:05 BST
Arifa Akbar is The Guardian’s chief theatre critic, and author of Consumed: A Sister’s Story, published ...

Arifa Akbar is The Guardian’s chief theatre critic, and author of Consumed: A Sister’s Story, published this month by Sceptre.

Photograph by Stockford Images

After my sister, Fauzia, died from undiagnosed tubercolosis in June 2016, I began thinking of beginnings and endings, and our early lives in Lahore came back to me. 

I was born in London, but for two years, until I was five, we lived in the fashionable Lahori district of Model Town, moving back to Britain for good in 1977. Returning to Lahore for the first time in the spring of 2000 was such a shock to my system, I initially mistook it for disappointment — but thinking back now, it was a reminder of the way places become lodged within us and acquire their own mythologies.

I remembered those two years in Lahore as a perfect pocket of childhood happiness, running amok in the grounds of the extended family home with Fauzia and our ferocious posse of cousins. I was a cocky, confident child, always taking the lead, while Fauzia was shyer and quietly spoken. The house teemed with uncles, grandparents, cooks and cleaners. Guests came and went, and we were lost among the churn of sociability. In the heat of the summer months, we slept on the roof. Occasionally, we were dressed up and taken to weddings, which took place under circus-style marquees and passed in a blur of sparkly outfits and huge vats of biryani. We weren’t sent to the local school, and the freedom of being left to play is what made this part of childhood so idyllic. When we were told we would be leaving the city, I was bereft. Fauzia must have felt the departure even more acutely — she had been born in Lahore and was seven by the time we left. 

Everything changed when we came to London. This new city was cold and hostile. We were plunged into poverty. I felt silenced by my inability to speak English, and Fauzia became even more withdrawn. The trauma of leaving was felt starkly by both of us.

We never returned to Lahore as a family, but in my mid-twenties I grew curious about this lost city of my childhood. When a cousin announced he was getting married, I saw my moment. Fauzia didn’t return with me, as she was suffering from severe depression, so I persuaded my parents to come instead. 

“Back in Lahore, a cousin took me to Anarkali, an ancient market in the walled inner city. Venturing inside, I remembered my trips there as a child. Here was the city that had been nestled in my mind for decades.”

by Arifa Akbar
Consumed: A Sister's Story

I was sure the trip would be momentous, but on arrival I felt cheated by the modern metropolis, with its Dunkin’ Donuts, choking heat and shopping malls. The city I had left as a child had become entirely unknown to me. 

I decided to travel for a few days. I’d heard of the grandeur of the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier, which I imagined was the glimmering entry point to another, untouched version of the country. But as my bus drove into Muzaffarabad, I felt I was an outsider in this Pakistan, too, with its unfamiliar mountain terrain and its Pashtuns, who were so ethnically distinct from Punjabis.

Back in Lahore, a cousin took me to Anarkali, an ancient market in the walled inner city. Venturing inside, I remembered my trips there as a child, my hand in Fauzia’s, my parents ahead of us. Here was the city that had been nestled in my mind for decades. But inner Lahore was also grittier and edgier than the quiet area we had once played in. The Badshahi Mosque, a 17th-century complex carved in red sandstone and marble, sat close to the red-light district. Heroin addicts and beggars were slumped near a shrine, around which people sang devotional qawwali music, high on mood-altering drugs. 

The further I went into Anarkali, the more timeless it seemed, with its narrow lanes, donkeys and colourful grime. There were lamplit streets, crumbling facades and tradesmen with anvils, hammers and saws. I saw a man with birds crammed into a cage, and asked my mother what he was doing.
“Selling them,” she replied, explaining buyers could pay for the release of one bird, on whose freedom a wish was made. The scene seemed disconnected from the rest of the city — a frozen capsule of time in which the modern Lahore disappeared and its ancient, superstitious side revealed itself. This version of the city was as untouched and unchanged as my childhood memories. 

Now, I understand the trip wasn’t a disappointment at all, but a slow revelation of how the past and its geographies become imaginary cities inside us, as real and as vivid as the modern-day reality.

Arifa Akbar is The Guardian’s chief theatre critic, and author of Consumed: A Sister’s Story, published this month by Sceptre. 

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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