CHILDREN do not get to pick the cities they are brought up in. They arrive as strangers and are responsible for making themselves at home. But what makes a city home? In the late 1980s, my family returned to Lahore, Pakistan, from Saudi Arabia and our status changed from that of tourists simply looking forward to activities planned by relatives. Now we were residents.
As tourists, we’d visit Main Market for freshly squeezed juices. As residents, we walked down dusty stairs to purchase school uniforms from a poky little shop that could rival any in Harry Potter’s world. Instead of driving past Pioneer General Store as tourists, we now entered the single-aisle grocery with a long list in hand. I learned how to stand in front of open-air vegetable stalls and haggle in my broken Urdu with vendors who’d toss a few free green chillies or paper lemons into my bag.
Long drives to landmarks are a tourist staple and every summer we would be taken to Mall Road, tree-lined, built during the British Empire and wide enough for horse-drawn carriages. The British had named it after The Mall in London. As tourists, we’d either whizz past places like the High Court (to me, just one more British red-brick building) or stop at the Lahore Zoo, begun in the 1860s and one of the oldest in the world.
However, once we started living in Lahore, our Mall was just a road we took to get to Anarkali Bazaar or Ferozsons Bookstore or Data Darbar, a Sufi saint’s shrine. A city becomes home when you stop sightseeing and take others around instead.
The city also becomes home to Alys Binat, the protagonist in my novel Unmarriageable: Pride And Prejudice In Pakistan, which I wrote because Pakistani society resembles Regency England’s in its emotional make-up, morals, manners and attention to social hierarchy. In Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, the Bennets live in the village of Meryton and so I created the fictitious small town of Dilipabad. Like me, my Binat sisters are also third-culture children who have spent their formative years in Saudi Arabia and are returning to Lahore.
Alys Binat, my Elizabeth Bennet, has a difficult time adjusting to the move, though she eventually finds her way around town. She also realises that to be at home in a place is to have peopled its buildings and, during a drive on Mall Road, makes a mental note of all the associations she’s grown to have with the brick and mortar surrounding her. So it is with memory and places: you move but they live in you.
When I left Lahore for college in the US, I did not know I would never be back permanently. Lahore, for me, is nostalgia and deep roots, even though I had no address of my own. What makes a city home? Memories, surely.
Unmarriageable: Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan (Allison & Busby), is out now