Lahore is becoming, increasingly, a place of duality. I hope many of my readers do not share this feeling, because it is one that borders on the heartbreaking largely because there is nothing anyone can do to stop it or remedy it. There is the city of one’s childhood: the neighbourhood that one cycled around with one’s siblings and neighbour friends all afternoon and evening. The water tank that was the Everest of all childhood adventures. The ground where everyone played pithoo gol garam and walked the dog, and came back when the Maghrib azaan unfurled itself into the slow dusk. I walked our dog around the streets alone, my sister would cycle down to the shops to get packets of barbecue Super Crisp and my brother would amble home by himself from a neighbour’s house after a satisfying afternoon of playing with action figures. I do not recall my parents ever telling us to be careful, don’t talk to strangers, don’t go by yourself. There didn’t seem a need for any of those sentences. Later on at college one would think nothing of walking down fairly busy streets to get some ice cream or catching a rickshaw to run errands with hostelite friends. There was no talk of taxi drivers who raped girls and while people were catcalled on roads it felt like more of a nuisance than an actual, sinister threat to one’s safety. The only reason someone wouldn’t go to school was illness, or being away on holiday. Nobody told anyone to “stay safe”.

Now it seems that staying safe is becoming one’s mantra. That thing one did, and deserves to be taken for granted is now becoming something that one has to actively work towards. There is no question now of an eight year old cycling down to the nearest shop to buy a packet of chips. Now young children can tumble through shopping mall floors to their death and there is nobody held accountable, what to speak of cycling, on a road, in traffic, unsupervised. Who knows who would take offence, who would pull your child off their bike to admonish them about their uncovered head or the fact that they aren’t home at Asr time. The city we grew up trusting implicitly is now a place of shadows and constant looking over a shoulder for something. Most of the time one doesn’t even know which boogeyman one is supposed to be watching for. Terrorists? Muggers? Sexual predators? They’re all there. They are all out there, lurking. And we don’t feel safe any more.

It would be naive to say that muggers and rapists didn’t exist twenty odd years ago. They did, but on the periphery of one’s world. It’s probably an elitist kind of concern to voice too, but I do think that this was true for most people. Motorcyclists weren’t being mugged and neither were people driving cars. There was the occasional robbery at someone’s house, but even then the thieves weren’t trigger-happy thugs that shot old people for the sake of a television and a handful of gold trinkets. Now we live in a twisted, unsafe world where religion meets economic disparity, where everyone has a mobile phone but no warm clothes to wear in the winter, where men carrying guns openly raid buses and shoot if you have the wrong kind of name on your I.D card and nobody, nobody can do anything about it. It’s like Gotham city in Batman- a free-for-all for every kind of thug to do what they please, and the government is a helpless, hand-wringing nobody. The only trouble is that we won’t ever have Batman to come and save us, and that is why we are now perpetually nervous, all the time, because we don’t know what could happen. We can’t trust anyone to keep us safe, so we have only ourselves now, and how can a bunch of people who don’t know how to shoot a gun or throw a decent punch (as most people don’t) do that?

It may be that one overreacts to things. That the city is probably the same as it always was, and the fault is in one’s altered perception. I don’t think that is the case though. I won’t take my toddler to the bazaar with me any more because if there was to be a bomb in a crowded place, I don’t know if I could protect her. I will never let my six year old cycle down the road to play with her cousin because someone might take her. If they were boys, I would still feel the same. What kind of life is this, I wonder. What kind of environment is this, that survival is what we aspire to instead of living. A life where we are thankful for each day a child comes home safe from school, a spouse safe from work. Things that should be normal, that used to be normal. We didn’t grow up like this. We didn’t jump at shadows. We lived in a city that was green and safe and made sense. Now all is chaos and lined with barbed wire and locked up. Now we weave through checkposts as if we’d been doing it our entire lives, we have guards, we stand vigils and then go home to dinner. We are all so vulnerable, and in this time of greatest need are so apart because we don’t trust anyone any more. Our sense of community has been blasted by violence, and our resulting isolation is perhaps even worse than the violence itself. But how can we reach out to each other when we have to stay safe?