The cost of living in a city is concrete. I suppose it isn’t fair to wish for expanses of green and flowers all the time when you live in a big, busy city—the purpose of which is to be a place where people work and live and keep up with fashion and buy televisions that are two cogs short of being cyborgs. Here is the but though. Somehow Lahore was never that city. It isn’t the capital. It hasn’t got a port or mineral deposits or any of the things that make cities economic or political centres. What it has got is a significant number of ancient monuments, trees, Chaman ice-cream and an intermittent canal of brown, cool water bisecting it. These elements distract one from the fact that Lahore is indeed a proper city, with a proper provincial government that is convinced date palms are ideal shade-providing, cooling additions to our city’s landscape. After all, they have them in the desert.

The first time the city as I knew it changed for the worse was when the Railway Golf Club was bought up by a private company that turned the leafy, sleepy club of my childhood into a huge glass and marble establishment, complete with torches of fire suspended above a fountain at the entrance. Gone was the long, narrow dirt path that cut across a golf course—a little tin sign used to warn people to watch out for stray golf balls, and we would all shiver with delicious nervousness, recalling the urban legend of the one ball that had allegedly crashed through someone’s car window and killed Someone Inside. Gone was the huge pool, filled with icy cold water straight from a tubewell. The shallow part would sometimes have a frog or two sitting at the bottom, and as you swam the endless length towards the deep part, the water would begin to change colour and the noise of everyone in the shallows would begin to fade. By the time you were almost at the end, near the diving board, the water was a softly lapping, bottomless green and you were the only person in the entire world, on the edge of an ocean.

There were other times too. When the underpasses on the canal were built, the LDA (or whoever it was responsible for cutting the trees down), marked them with tarred numbers. It was cold and chilling, trees numbered and waiting to die to make room for more concrete, more cars, more people angrily honking and trying to race to destinations as if once they got there they were actually going to work. It was infuriating and maddening, but I remember them as discrete events. I can mark my memory by them. What I can’t remember is where the first naaka, or checkpost, was in Lahore. That frightens and saddens me more than the loss of trees or a beloved swimming pool ever could. I don’t remember when my basic freedoms began to be curtailed.

Maybe it’s because we’ve become so used to it. We coast down Sherpao bridge and resign ourselves to being bullied by the twerp who races ahead of the line, only to hit the barrier and then weasel in from the side. We feel nervous when two men on a motorcycle park too close at a red light. Everyone we know has been mugged, and we hold our breaths and back up our phone data and cross our fingers. The day that explosion happened in Liberty Market we knew how Karachi felt, and it was the beginning of the end. My children have never known a Lahore without faujis peering into our car. A friend’s three year old heard a loud bang at a party and burst into tears, terrified it was a bomb. The fact that our children’s vocabularies include words like ‘bomb’ and ‘exploded’ makes my heart break for them. Our ‘exploded’ was what a Frost juice box did when you inflated it and then jumped on it. Their Lahore is suspicious, their Lahore is the one where two armed guards rummage through the boot and peer under the car with a mirror on a stick just to allow them into a shopping mall. My siblings and I used to cycle all over our neighbourhood, unsupervised and footloose, but my girls won’t ever cycle down the road to get an ice-cream because whether it is or isn’t, I won’t feel like it’s safe for them. My city is no longer the place of my childhood. It’s a place that is familiar and beloved and yet unpredictable and menacing in a way one can’t pinpoint. And yet we carry on. We build houses, we do the school run, we host dinner parties. We make connections with our city and hope that it will stop one day, that we will someday, somehow get back to a time when you could fly a kite all day and spend all evening running the streets of your neighbourhood, vying with all the other lootairay for booty drifting down from the sky. No lootaira was going to flash a gun at you, and nobody was going to smack you around and take your wallet away. My kids can holler, but they have never hollered bo-kaata. Instead, they wave at faujis when we pass through check-posts—like that iconic photograph of hippies putting flowers into gun barrels, this is their way of engaging with the city. And maybe because this is Lahore, maybe because we are all Pakistanis and in this mess together, most of them wave back.

The writer runs The Sirajuddin Foundation and the lives of her three daughters, which is why she has no Twitter account and a long-defunct blog.

Email:m.malikhussain@gmail.com