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Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The Pathos of Exile 

In Lahore for a wedding, Mohsin Hamid is seduced by the city's bright lights and wonders why he ever left

I am dancing with my cousin Omer. my hands and feet are on the ground; my rump is in the air. It is that kind of party—the kind all other parties are measured against. Around us are many of our childhood loves: Ajoo and O.H., Saad and A.T., Shahid and Nippy and Booboo. These are the boys we grew up with. The girls, our sisters and cousins and wives and fiancés, are standing back for a moment, letting us go at it. Our grins are infectious. Some of us are dancing with our eyes shut. Some of us are barely moving, just shaking a shoulder or arching an eyebrow to the beat. I am utterly happy.

Omer's mother was my mother's friend before she married my uncle. When our mothers were pregnant, my mother had a series of dreams. She dreamed she had two mangoes, then two apples, then two oranges. In all of her dreams, my mother gave the larger fruit to Omer's mother. "I know this," my mother told Omer's. "Whatever you have, boy or girl, I will have the same. Only mine will be smaller."

Omer was born a week before me. As a baby, he drank two bottles of milk and cried for more while I struggled to finish half a bottle. We grew up together, cousin-brothers, in a family with nine aunts and uncles and innumerable cousins. He turned out six inches taller, many, many pounds heavier and several shades darker than I. He held onto his hair better. We shared friends and many nights on rooftops, picking up bad habits from one another, smoking, talking. We left for college in the U.S. around the same time and returned to Pakistan when we were done.

Then I went to the U.S. again, to law school, and Omer stayed behind. I became a management consultant, living first in New York and then in London. Our lives followed different courses. And now, nine years after we ceased sharing continents, we are back together for his wedding in Lahore, his home and the city he lives in, my home and the city I left behind. We are dancing for the last time as single men. In two days, Omer will marry.

I leave the dance floor and step outside. A tent covers the garden, and a log fire burns in the night. I walk away, around my uncle's house, a house built when we were teenagers, and into the great lawn that curves around what was my grandfather's house. My body steams in the cold air. We played here as children, we cousins. There were more than enough of us at Friday family lunches for any sport that came to mind.

It is February, not long after the kite-fighting festival of Basant. Lahore's winter fogs have given way to the clear nights of spring, but there is still a chill in the air. I sit down on a bench, stroke the wet nose of a dog that comes to me and shut my eyes. This is the passage of time. I am a grown man now, 31, and I am in a place that will always be sacred to me as the place of my childhood. I feel an allegiance to this house, this family, this city, this country. It makes my eyes burn. I do not want to leave. But I know I am a wanderer, and I have no more choice but to drift than does a dandelion seed in the wind. It is my nature. It is in my soul, in my eyes.

Still, Lahore touches me. I am doing well in my career abroad, and I am able to visit often. But there is something about Lahore, something that makes me want to be part of this city's story. Even though I have moved away, this is where I evolved, where my basic notions of love and friendship were formed. A snow leopard can be taken to zoos in other places; it can perhaps even be well fed and content, but it will always wear a coat designed for the Himalayas. I see Lahore when I look in the mirror, and I feel the strength of my attachment at this moment, as my cousin prepares to marry.

My sister and I had arrived on a flight from London that morning. She busied herself with the many errands of the wedding: flower arrangements, tent and lighting designs, food preparations. I, typically and lazily, claimed exhaustion and jet lag as an excuse to go straight to bed. When I woke it was evening. My father was on the telephone from Islamabad, his voice full of excitement at the prospect of seeing me soon. I climbed up onto the roof of my parents' house to watch the sun set and to look out upon my city.

Lahore had changed and was changing. From this rooftop, where I spent many hours struggling to get kites aloft, one used to see only trees and the rooftops of other houses. Now bald patches had emerged where trees had died, and tall office buildings had risen up not far away, almost uniformly hideous in their architecture but robust and healthy signs of life, of growth. I watched them warily and wondered what my house would one day become. A shop perhaps. Or maybe a small museum.

I went down to my room, showered and shaved, slipped on a well-worn pair of brown cords and a brown shirt and a secondhand blazer, and headed out to the party with my sister, who asked me what I had been up to.

"Just thinking," I said.

"Yeah," she replied with a grin. "As usual. While the rest of us were working."

At 3 in the morning, after half an hour of sitting on the bench by myself, I rise up and return to the party. It is still going strong, but people have begun to leave. I linger until there are just a few of us remaining, the boys, standing around the speakers with our eyes shut, hardly able to move. Then even the boys disperse, and I head back to Omer's room for a chat and a cousin sleepover, an old tradition between us.

The lights are off, and we're under the sheets. Omer's fiancé, Natasha, is a warm, lovely woman, with a doctorate in microbiology and a ready smile. Still, I ask Omer if he's nervous about getting married. I imagine I'd be terrified. But he tells me that it doesn't feel like a big deal, that it just seems natural, what was meant to be. "I'm calm," he says, "calm and happy." Ah, I think, calmness and happiness. Signs of home. Very welcome to a transcontinental mongrel like myself, soothing me as I drift into sleep.

We're woken by my aunt banging on the door. "Omer! Mohsin! Do you know what time it is?" We could be 10 years old again. Omer covers his face with his pillow. I yell that we're already up. She opens the door and turns on the lights. "Up? You're never up. It's 1 o'clock. There are a million things to be done." And the preparations continue.

My father arrives from Islamabad that afternoon, and I meet him at the airport. He gives me a hug, I pick up his bags and we make our way to the car. He is an economist, and on our drive home our talk turns, as usual, to economics. Things in Pakistan are improving, he tells me. Reserves are up. Property and stocks are soaring. But people are still holding back from investing in new industries. There's a lot of uncertainty and people don't know what's going to happen, so they're waiting and seeing. And while they wait and see, millions of young men and women are trying to enter the workforce every year.

My father takes off his glasses and cleans them with a white handkerchief. His eyes are soft and unfocused, but he seems pleased, perhaps because my sister and I are here. "You know," he tells me. "A year ago, you could see troops passing through the city, heading for the border. Trucks would go by during the day, full of equipment and supplies. And they would come back at night, empty. Our driver used to drive tanks. He was mobilized with the reserves. It was a frightening time." He puts on his glasses. "But things are better now. Let's hope they stay that way. Peace is a blessing."

Later that day, my cousin Omer comes by for tea at our place, grabbing a quick break from the hectic preparations. Omer designs and manufactures furniture. With population growth, he tells me, comes housing growth, and with housing growth comes furniture growth; so he is sitting on many more orders than he can handle. "You know one thing I really like about what I do?" he says, dipping a samosa in ketchup. "I get to meet all kinds of people. I mean, everything from types like us to families that do full purdah, where you can't even see the women. Sometimes I'll be talking to some guy about furniture he needs and he'll be so nervous, because he's trying to get exactly what his wife wants and she won't come to the showroom and he's terrified of making a mistake."

"What happens if he buys something and she isn't satisfied?" I ask.

"I let him return it. Customer service, bro. You have to keep the clients happy."

I think about this, about families with husbands who are terrified of wives who don't go out in public, and I try to imagine the sight of Omer, in his shorts and T shirt, reassuring earnest young men with beards.

Lahore has had a difficult decade and a half since I graduated from high school. Many of those who could leave have left, like O.H. and Nippy and I, who have flown in for the wedding from jobs far away. Most of the gang who used to go every summer to the mountains, where we went to flee heat and parental supervision, now live abroad. But we are a tiny minority. And many of those who could not leave have struggled to find work. Some of them now wear the physical uniforms and hard expressions of religious intolerance. I see them on the streets, in the markets, in front of the mosques. They worry me. They are frown lines of disappointment on the face of the city.

I think about why so many of my friends left Lahore and why so few of us returned. None of us seemed to think, at the time, that we were going away for good. The universities were in bad shape, and we went abroad for a better education. But as the economy stagnated and as law and order declined, we delayed our homecomings. We began to work. We began to settle into new lives. And as the years passed, it became harder and harder for us to think of what we would do if we went back to Lahore. The city changed and we changed, and somehow we became voluntary exiles. But at least in my case, the homesickness that resulted from exile, although not fatal, has remained uncured.

As I dash from one friend's house to the next, avoiding wedding chores while catching up with people I haven't seen in a long time, I can't help thinking of Lahore as the girl I first fell in love with. I have fallen in love with other cities since: with New York, the girl I will always lust for but who left me exhausted; and with London, the girl who bored me at first but whose company I have come to savor. But my heart will always have a special place for my first love, for Lahore, the love of my childhood and teens and early 20s.

She has hardened, become more cynical, angrier. She has lost some of her looks. She is less complacent than she was then, less sure of her enduring centrality in her universe. But Lahore is still a charmer, and she is more urbane and cosmopolitan than she was in the days when the opening of a new ice-cream parlor was enough to get her excited for months. Lahore is speckled with Internet cafés, with billboards offering broadband connections, with advertisements for health clubs featuring personal trainers. The students of the National College of Arts have helped restore parts of Anarkali market and a bit of the old city now called "Food Street"—they look like glamorous backdrops for a period film. The restoration of the palace in the Lahore Fort is also nearing completion, as is the construction of the rather chic new airport, done in a style someone described to me as "modern Mughal."

No, Lahore is no longer the same girl she was when we parted ways. And I am no longer the same boy. But even after all these years, even with the scars and frown lines she has acquired, she still makes my heart race, and I can't help wondering what would have happened if we hadn't broken up, what would have happened if I had stayed.

I get a glimpse of it that night. The boys agree to gather after the dancing and ornamental henna-painting activities of the mahndi for a late session at my place. I arrive home with my parents, who begin to play cards in the living room while I work with Rahman, a servant I have known for most of my life, to set up the study. We carry cushions up the stairs, move the old boom box in from my bedroom, fetch ashtrays and glasses and ice. I put on a Joe Satriani CD we listened to on our first big trip to the mountains. Then I sit down in the gentle light, surrounded by books and wood paneling, and wait for my friends to arrive.

They come one by one, stopping to chat for a while with my parents and then clumping up the staircase. The study fills. Shahid and Nippy and I discuss women woes, or more specifically my women woes, and the most recent disaster in my romantic life. Booboo and Saad argue about Pakistan's role in the so-called war on terror. Ajoo tells O.H. about his latest hunting outing. A.T. gets on his mobile to his wife. The room grows smoky. The music switches to Neil Young. I settle back into my cushion and relax.

This is the magic of Lahore. Maybe because of the heat or the big families or the social restrictions or the relative lack of money, Lahore is a place where bands of friends tend to form and hold together. I would not trade this evening in my long-disused study for a party in the coolest nightclub in SoHo or on the swankiest yacht off Portofino. There is far more pleasure and sustenance to be had here, and I gorge myself on it tonight.

The next day I wander around the city, dropping in on places I once visited often. I buy a pack of cigarettes from the paan shop in Main Market, and I'm recognized by Saleem, the kid who used to take my orders and let me run a tab when I was a teenager. He comes over to say hello and ask how London is treating me. "How did you know I was in London now?" I ask him. He shrugs. From my cousins, he tells me, from my friends, you know, word moves around.

The shopkeeper at the bookstore in the corner of Liberty Market recognizes me, too, and he tells me that my novel is still selling well. "Yeah, but all your copies are pirated," I say. He assures me, smiling, that this isn't true, and he also points out that being read is more valuable a reward than being paid.

That evening, I turn on the water in my shower, but the pressure is low because my sister is taking a shower in her bathroom and my mother is taking a shower in hers. I turn off the water and wait. This is what life would have been like if I had stayed, I think: less convenient, perhaps, but more connected to the people I love.

After we have dressed, we meet in the living room, my mother and sister in saris, my father and I in suits. A cousin appears just in time to take our photo, and then we are off to Omer's house, where some of the boys have gathered in a corner of the veranda, smoking. I join their circle. Omer makes his appearance, looking nervous at last and sweating slightly even though the weather is cool.

Then the order is given, everyone disperses to their cars, and we form a massive convoy with the groom's flower-bedecked vehicle in front. We drive slowly, hazard lights flashing, and we block traffic at busy intersections for many minutes at a time. No one honks at us. In Lahore, no one would. Weddings are sacred in this place of bonds, moments for the city to bind itself together even more strongly.

We arrive and pass through a reception line of flowers. Some of the cheekier, and unmarried, girls on their side flick their flowers at some of the cheekier, and unmarried, boys on ours. Then we are inside the tent, which is holding up well against the light rain that is falling. I wander about saying my hellos and thinking how strange it is that just a few nights ago I was working on a PowerPoint presentation in my office in Piccadilly.

The bride and groom sit on a stage, surrounded by family and friends. I stand with my parents and my aunt and uncle. My uncle looks at me, and we share a moment of silent understanding. His son and my cousin, the closest person I will ever have to a twin, is marrying. My uncle's face is full of emotion, and I wink at him to hide the moistness in my eyes.

When I watch Omer walk out of the tent with his wife, I smile, happy for him and for his life, a life much like one I could, perhaps, have led. A wave of nostalgia rises up in me but I wait for it to subside, and I focus on savoring the moment.

I am a wanderer. Soon I will again have left Lahore. There will be time enough then to think about the past. For now, I accept the blessing of the present. This is the gift my city has always given me, a sense of home to sustain me on my travels.



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