Lahore, the big, fat, privileged cultural and artistic capital of Pakistan, is running to seed.
“He who hasn’t seen Lahore hasn’t seen anything” goes the local proverb, referring to the once opulent Ghaznavid HQ, Mughal polestar, jewel of Ranjit Singh’s crown, pride of the British Raj, Pakistan’s artistic and cultural hub, the big, fat, privileged capital of the big, fat, fertile Punjab. Well folks, times they are a-changing. I recently visited and found myself in a city brought to its knees. Along with an astonishing eight hours of power outages a day, a severe winter was rendered utterly Dostoyevskian by the inexcusable gas crisis; no more cheerful, hissing gas fire, now it’s stoves that don’t ignite and cold bath water when it’s 6 degrees out. Warm living quarters now rely on the availability of firewood. Previously comfortable households are now struggling as they find themselves shelling out for the basic amenities their taxes were due to provide. The emergent middle class is being sent right back to where it came from. The young, the elderly and the poor, as always, are at high risk of illness or worse. On the plus side this at least means that the practice of torching young housewives possessing insufficient dowries and passing it off as ‘accidental stove explosions’ has currently ground to a halt.
“We’re very resilient”, a Lahori friend tells me, referring to the fact that a particularly grand society wedding is about to take place, spread over two weeks, with parties on alternating nights for the first week, and then one of after another on the second week. The word ‘resilient’, I’ve come to learn, bears no reflection on personal achievement. It simply means that one is trapped in an unfortunate situation with no viable alternative. Still, there is something almost heroic about the unabated Lahori desire for conspicuous consumption in the face of all this misery. This is what you call sticking to your strengths. But then I’ve always had it in for Lahore, as gracious and hospitable as America’s lost old South and also as rigidly status conscious. A city of eight million people, where within two weeks, it’s nearly impossible to meet someone you don’t already know, and where directions are provided not using road names or public landmarks but indicators such as, “you know X’s house? Take a left there”.
Stubbornly grandiose, even when in tatters, Lahore’s talk of the town, in fact, is not the dreary winter and the government’s catastrophic failure to cope. No, the dinner party circuit is abuzz with an up and coming young interior decorator, with a mission of teaching Pakistanis the ‘art of living luxuriously’ (and, boy, did he pick the right city), selling Fendi and Versace furniture, along with his own, from his centrally located showroom. In addition to this, his business extends from re-envisioning your space and arranging your furniture to hanging up your clothes in the closet and arranging for a (Filipino) maid to keep said tableau spick and span. And all this for a nominal fee ranging from 5–20 lakh (the 20 lakh package, it is rumoured, comes with a diamond pendant thrown in as a freebie, like a mint on one’s pillow). This service comes with a side order of seminars, no less, on how to lay a table and deal with dinner party disasters and other such social crises. At all of 27 years old, this young man can only be described as admirable for having his finger on the pulse and recognising that even in the face of certain doom, keeping up with the Jones’ remains the Lahori concern du jour. All of twenty customers in the city, what with the plummeting Pakistani rupee, possess the sort of disposable income required to indulge themselves at his salon of style, but those that do, really go to town. “My parents” he said in an interview “didn’t understand how I was making all this money. They thought I was selling drugs”. If only. Of course, my whining is simply sour grapes, I don’t even mean to criticise. I am, in fact, a huge fan. In an interview with a local magazine, he makes a point of mentioning with rightful pride that he wasn’t born into privilege, into the tightly knit tangle of Lahori ‘power families’. As far as I’m concerned, if he wasn’t pocketing the money himself, he’d be Robin Hood.