Islands of Light, Shores of Stone

I plunge headlong into the cold, dark water. The taxi takes me from Mazang, a middle-class neighborhood built to serve the former civil lines of colonial Lahore, to the posh grounds of DHA, an upscale housing society originally constructed in the mid-1970s for army officers and their families. Night has fallen. From the backseat of the car, I quietly watch the cityscape unfolding. Fancy restaurants and shops are lining the streets. Brightly lit window panes scream their content into the world. The dresses and designs on display are rarely noticed by passersby strolling along the main boulevard, cell phones in their hand, bags across their arm. A young girl absent-mindedly looks at a shop window. With a nonchalant gesture, she throws her dupatta (scarf worn to cover the breast) over the shoulder and turns around to her companions, watching them laugh out loud at a joke.

The car glides like a fish through the streets, past elegant crowds of carefully groomed, manicured beauties and temples of consumerist culture. A powerful current draws me near the shores of one of the most privileged islands in this archipelago, Lahore University of Management Sciences. No visible borders demarcate one island from another, nor do coast guards patrol their boundaries. And yet, the territory is mapped out so clearly that no doubt remains. Everyone knows what water they belong to, how to breathe and keep afloat in it. The waiters in the restaurants and guards in the parking lot are aware they do not belong here. The young girls in short kurtas (tunics) staring listlessly into the distance feel at home. Or do they? Maybe the uncanniness of their existence escapes my notice. After all, even these islands of light are separated into individual units, marked out by even finer lines of social belonging. But far beyond, in outer lands surrounded by deep water, larger entities with scarce vegetation can be found. Bushes and low trees are lining their desert landscapes. Everyone knows they exist, but few have been there. Life on them is unimaginably hard, seemingly unbearable. Their sheer existence frightens people. Luckily, their inhabitants do not know how to swim, and the water surrounding them is rough and wild.

Although the outward shell of the taxi and my skin’s complexion allow me to blend in with the surroundings, I feel like a distant observer. The place is strange despite its appearance of familiarity (the shops, the dresses, the mobile phones), and only accessible through a currency people have already carried in their pockets since childhood – cultural capital. They smell differently, walk with more confidence and speak a language that reflects their upbringing. Urdu is spoken with an English accent here, heavily interspersed with foreign loanwords. Some sentences are already fully transformed and assimilated, bearing only an occasional “matlab” or “lekin” as a marker of former belonging. This island is half a world away from the street where I live. My street is inhabited by grumpy car mechanics with huge mustaches, shouting vegetable vendors making their rounds in the morning, and ice-cream sellers on bicycles playing brassy-sounding versions of Beethoven’s “For Elise”. But it already feels as if it belongs to a different archipelago altogether. So where do people go from here? Where is the ship that brings them to the other side?

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