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The City and the Writer: In Lahore with Afshan Shafi

by Nathalie Handal

Image of The City and the Writer: In Lahore with Afshan Shafi


If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
 

Can you describe the mood of Lahore as you feel/see it?

As winter descends, Lahore breathes a sigh of relief. After the presence of yearlong heat, the populace feels a sense of freedom. Opportunities for conviviality are heightened, with weeklong wedding festivities commencing at the first sign of reprieve. There is much to smile about and a kind of optimism suffuses the landscape. Winter affords a feeling of heightened possibility to the pleasure-seeking Lahori, but it is a time when the disparity of the city’s occupants is in raw relief. Massive tents enclosing stages of neo-Mughal opulence are often rimmed with a coterie of beggars; there is a kind of Dickensian incongruity to the spectacle.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In the past decade or so, Lahore has suffered a rash of suicide bombings, with thousands killed, including children. There have been moments of impossible grief and helpless incomprehension, and a realization of the magnitude of the challenges facing each citizen. Yet the city carries on in its distinctive manner, with humor, culture and generosity.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The abundance of architecture, from the minarets of the Badshahi Mosque to the fluted intricacy of the Gurdwaras (Sikh Temple) to the colonial-era splendor of St Anthony’s College. Lahore is a place of flux, variety, bombast. One is always reminded of the ephemerality of empire in Lahore, and the notions of the old rulers.

The city grows at furious pace and in a unique way. The newer housing settlements are characterized by spatial mansions boasting a mélange of Gothic, Bavarian, and Islamic architectural styles, all melded into one structure. The results are delightfully bad yet intriguing.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Saadat Hassan Manto’s stories for their lacerating clarity, and the terrifying beauty of his work on the partition of India. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s verses of incarceration for their hypnotic gravity; they are distinguished by a passion to outlast the self, the mere individual. The work of the ideological founding father of Pakistan, Allama Iqbal, for its philosophical timbre and grand prescience. Intizar Hussain’s oeuvre for its rending nostalgia, its spacious metaphor.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Quaid-e-Azam Library is absolutely stunning. It’s located inside the Bagh-e-Jinnah Park, which was originally modeled on the design of the Kew Gardens. Formerly a private members club, it was built in the neoclassical style during British rule. There’s a majesty and repose to the structure and a kind of glamour. The outstanding collection of books range from the esoteric to the classic. Here, the act of reading is an elevating and habit-making experience.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Pak Tea House on the old Mall Road holds a special place in Lahore’s literary history. A former meeting place for the vanguard of the intelligentsia, it was an institution with an ambiance of confession and a home for modern ideas. The Progressive writers movement comprising writers such as Faiz, Habib Jalib, Manto, and Munir Niazi held their discussions here. One can only imagine the sheer brilliance of their exchange and the force of dissidence that particularized their point of view.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I think of those that live their lives outside of conventional mores. The city holds its hidden like a soul holding its truth. Its secrets are necessary and inherited, revealed only in the language of mystics, reluctant poets, seers. Lahore is languid with stories, provocateurs, nostalgia. Its secrets are the best of itself.

Where does passion live here?

In the works of the young artists. In their informed and profound vision of the world. It lives in the heart of the committed misanthropes, the ones who create in inspiration, anger, and defiance without hope of recognition or reward.

I also think here of the historical personages associated with Lahore. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the “Lion of Punjab” who drank crushed pearls in his wine and gained possession of the gigantic Koh-i-Noor Diamond. The Mughal Princess Zeb-u-nissa who wrote verses of longing under the pen name of Makhfil, “the invisible one,” and was imprisoned by her father Aurangzeb for nonconformism. Amrita Sher Gill, the legendary painter whose work transformed the modern art of this part of the world.

What is the title of one of your works about Lahore and what inspired it exactly?

A poem titled “Sunday Prayer,” about the faith healers, or “pirs,” who serve as spiritual counselors to all classes of the city. Armed with a medley of rituals and prescriptions of false hopes, many follow them devoutly. Their smoke and mirror dogma is often derided, yet thousands turn to them out of desperation. The enthrallment they inspire is bizarre, an act of resignation.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Lahore does an outside exist?”

I’m afraid the answer is a romantic one. Though an “outside” might sparkle brighter than Lahore, it will never have its heart. Nor does an outside have a light at its center that appears out of the darkest dream, again and again and again.
 

Afshan Shafi lives in Lahore, Pakistan and has studied English Literature and International Relations at The University of Buckingham. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Wales, Blackbox Manifold, Flag + Void, Luna Luna, Clinic, 3am Magazine, Ala Champ Magazine, Smear, Ink Sweat and Tears, Public Pool, Uut Poetry, Muse India, Full of Crow, Melusine, Pour Vida, New Asian Writing, Black Heart Magazine, and others. Her prose has appeared in Libas International, Pakistan Toda, and DailyTimes. Her debut chapbook of poems, Odd Circles, was published in 2014, and her collection of poetry Quiet Women—with illustrations by Samya Arif, Ishita Basu Mallik and Marjan Baniasadi—is forthcoming in 2017. She is a poetry editor for The Missing Slate and the forthcoming Aleph Review, and serves as an assistant editor at GoodTimes Magazine.


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