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Lahore: Bliss in disguise

With birdsong clear in the skies, Lahore, Pakistan, is become the City of Gardens again. Mehreen Mustafa is under no illusions about the menace of Covid-19, but, like the weary cats and dogs baffled by relief from harassment, she can see that it brings a certain bliss in disguise.

Covid-19 has struck the people of my city as another wave of inflation, i.e. the city knows it will come with all its might and wrath yet is never prepared to receive it. The city knew since the Covid-19 cases had started taking deadly shape in the neighboring country of China that the pandemic is not going to spare its urban life either. Yet somehow my city has managed to believe that the virus will not upset the way it crawls, runs and jumps for its daily operations. And now when the virus is here and has infected the people in thousands, Lahoris (people living in the city of Lahore) still hold the same reaction; sure the virus is deadly yet even surer that they’ll manage to survive.

'The city is still a collection of spatially unjust colonies stuffed next to each other meanwhile harboring magnificent architectural wonders adding more to its cultural glory.'

Where the responses of Lahoris remain constant since December 2019 until today is that the city of Lahore has somehow silently started morphing its appearance. It doesn’t look, sound or smell familiar nowadays. Although nothing has particularly changed in its urban form and structure, the life of the city somehow has subtly transformed. The city, though, is still a maze of roads tracing footprints of rapid unplanned urbanization. The city is still a collection of spatially unjust colonies stuffed next to each other meanwhile harboring magnificent architectural wonders adding more to its cultural glory. But there is something unfamiliar, something strange about the city nowadays.

Photo by Mehreen Mustafa

The hustle and bustle of the metropolitan has surrendered in front of Covid-19 paranoia. It is only the “hungry and poor”, who actually happen to be unemployed daily wagers, laborers and the other economically marginalized people of the city, who dare disturb the surrender in selected times and places of the city. It seems like the city has morphed its appearance in the blink on an eye from extrovert to introvert. Just like the concepts themselves (of extrovert and introvert) the life of Lahore is intact, just the medium in which it unfolds in the palimpsest of time has changed. From the streets and bazars to living-rooms and roofs, life in Lahore now resides and thrives within the walls. The people that were being poured out on streets and roads are now sucked in, leaving the streets and roads baffled. Even more baffled are the stray dogs and cats of my city that can now rest and roam without the fear of being harassed and kicked. The virus for them is a bliss. They can finally relax and hear the exhausted city life breathing some fresh air rather than swearing and unwanted loud noises.

'The sound of vendors selling fruits and the hymns of faqeer chanting the praise of Allah in the streets has never been so clear and melodious.'

Once known as the 'City of Gardens', Lahore has lost a lot in order to follow the itinerary of becoming an urban jungle. Birds, trees, flowers, clean air and water, all the salient features of a garden city are rare to find in Lahore. However the disguised virus has for sure used its magic band as the rare blessing of clean air to breathe in and songs of birds are now audible. Never in my life have I heard such a clear sound of birds chirping throughout the day. Maybe they were always there but their songs were lost in the honks and noise of vehicles. The sound of vendors selling fruits and the hymns of faqeer chanting the praise of Allah (God) in the streets has never been so clear and melodious. Their marginalized voices must have been buried under the powerful chatter of more important businesses. Even the spring in Lahore is celebrating and blossoming like never before. The virus has also surprisingly added more to its glory. The flowers and birds are singing and thanks to this bliss in disguise known as Covid-19, their songs can be heard louder than ever. Thanks to bliss in disguise, it seems like nature is finally and successfully reclaiming its due space in the Lahore’s urbanscape .

Photo by Mehreen Mustafa

Why wouldn’t you call Covid-19 a bliss in disguise for the city of Lahore? On the one hand, Covid-19 has further aggravated the economical polarity in my city; induced another form of paranoia in a city already hit hard by the paranoiac effects of the US War on terrorism. In my city, eating three meals per day was already a luxury for majority and thus staying home is a novel privilege. For the unprivileged ones the disguise-virus has put forward a tough choice, its either food or virus. However, on the other hand, no hand asking for help or food is now being turned down. People are too afraid and empathetic to let the unprivileged starve due to lock down. Groups of citizen based organizations and independent citizens are working day and night to provide relief to economically marginalized sections of the city. It is bliss that everyone around me is concerned whether everyone in the city has had a meal today. It wasn’t anyone’s concern before the Covid-19 virus walked into the city uninvited.

Covid-19 has revealed an ugly side of our daily business which is exploitative and insensitive to marginalized people, marginalized species and nature. Although my city is witnessing that even the virus treats the privileged differently from the unprivileged, yet no one remains unaffected by its sprawl. As written by countless scholars, the virus is but a 'portal', a threshold to the world ready to be sculpted by us. Who it is that holds the power to decide what post Covid-19 worlds could be, is not very ambiguous. However I believe we as Lahoris can also build and reflect what kind of city we want, what kind of response we would give to humans and nature and what kind of environmental, economic and social changes in the society we would like to create once this pandemic will be over. But that can happen only if we recognize the bliss hidden in the guise of the virus. The bliss is in the form of a rare opportunity. An opportunity to change for the collective good or dump the chance and wait for another pandemic.

This story was shared by Mehreen Mustafa, who is an architect, academic and researcher based in Lahore, Pakistan.

How do you experience living in your city under Coronavirus? Share your story and join us to Spread stories, not the virus.

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