Driving in Lahore

A. M. Homes & John Freeman

This week in the recently relaunched Granta blog, we hear from editor John Freeman as he tours with the new issue in Lahore.

I arrived here this morning at 9 on a dry Pakistani Airlines flight.

Pepsi proudly brought to seats in cans. Lyrics of the Koran read out before the flight took off. Good to know other people pray as the plane takes off. Strange to wake up at daybreak and peer down through the window on to mile after mile of Afghanistan. Brown mountains and rippling, cratered peaks, and dried out lake beds. And then nothing.

Nothing for a long time.

I’m staying at Aitchison, which is apparently the Eton of Lahore. Wooded and lush, founded in 1880-something for the sons of the various princes.

Welcome to the nineteenth century, the principal’s wife said to me over a breakfast of toast and flunkily refilled coffee. Mohsin Hamid went here and Ali Sethi, too, and the principal took me for a whirl of the 163-acre grounds, pointing out the cricket pitch and the new buildings, the fantastic lower-form computer lab, where they have nicer machines than the ones we make Granta on, including even a giant plasma monitor touch screen which allows you to cut and paste and edit with your whole hand… The kids, dressed in grey short trousers and white shirts, all stood up as we entered the room and told us about their lessons.

There are 2,000 students or so here, all boys, age 5 to 19. The principal talked like an auctioneer, wheeling me around in this tiny white Toyota Corolla, honking, nudging lanes open, rustling up statistics and figures – we have 192 boys studying Chinese, the field is big enough for five simultaneous field-hockey matches – stopping students and scolding them for not wearing their winter uniforms or having their ties undone. These are clearly not Aitchison boys, he said, when we passed a group with complicated hairstyles. There are 85 soldiers on campus, as well, all armed, and they saluted each time we drove up or even passed. Other men were raking the pavement with big wet tree branches.

Our event will be held here in about 35 minutes, in the lower form school, followed by high-tea. The British Council has stopped by to give me the security briefing, and gone through the event format. And told me not to go anywhere alone. It’s a shame because I won’t see the Mughal gardens or the old city and its fabulous mosque, and its hilarious proximity to a red light district and other souks, unless Declan Walsh, who is here, finds a way to work it in after the event.

I did however just go over to a university journalism class run by Mohsin Hamid’s sister, Neesa, and talk for an hour about the magazine and what we do and how hard it was, at least for me, to ever get a start writing. They were a tuned-in bunch, from all backgrounds, both young women and young men. Each semester they make a magazine, and right now they’re making their own Pakistan issue.

On the way back, Mohsin’s sister offered me her driver so I stopped by two of the English-language bookshops. First, The Last Word, which is inside the defunct Pakistani cricket stadium and above a funky mango lassie/ice-cream/coffee shop that could be in Berkeley, California. The issue was on the front counter, and Nobel John, his actual name, told me it’s been selling very well. They are nearly out. They had also scotch-tapped the poster to their window so you see it as you walk into the cafe.

Then across town to Readings, which is a big used-and-new-shop, which will get their copies tomorrow (they came from the UK). Abid Rao, whom I talked to, was very pleased it was nearly there. They had all the Pakistani and Indian editions of our authors in the shop, from Mohsin (who actually has a Pakistan based publisher), to Nadeem and Kamila and Mohammed and others. Basharat Peer. I browsed for a while. Very big selection of all books in English. A lot of Latin American writers. Made me wonder if Pakistani writers can relate to what they were writing against. I didn’t find any Intizar Hussain. Meanwhile the driver waited outside, standing by the backdoor of the car.

Part 2 of this piece will be published next week. In the meantime, read last week’s post: Ollie Brock on translated fiction and the Paris Magazine.

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Newest online: ‘Six Snapshots of Partition’, in which author and poet John Siddique looks at the rift that Partition caused in his family, and grasps at the few memories he has of this father.


See also… ‘Road to Chitral’ – Azhar Abidi’s travelogue and meditation on Pakistan’s cycle of violence; or interviews on Urdu literature, past and present, with two of our contributors. Other web exclusives include an animation based on the issue’s artwork. For our podcasts, which include episodes with Nadeem Aslam and Sarfraz Manzoor, go
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Interview: Daniyal Mueenuddin
Six Snapshots of Partition