OP-ED: Lahore greets April —Navid Shahzad
A visit to the zoo should be the closest to what passed in the old days as a picnic, three elements qualifying as imperatives: food, company and laughter. Tragically, the last was conspicuous by its absence
Eliot says April is the cruelest month. Twain with his characteristic wit would rather say that ‘the first day of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year’. Rilke invests the season with a defiant energy, ‘…everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colours, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night’.
Lahore greets April with the jacaranda in lilac bloom, fields of day lilies on swan stalks, bougainvilleas in canopies of virgin white, magnificent magenta, unabashed rani pinks and claret. This has been a warmer month than one remembers but memory is deceptive. Each year we bemoan the rise in temperature, each year we swear it was hotter than the last and each year the seasons continue to surprise us.
The Punjab summer used to be heralded by a series of yellow dust storms that would shake the infant fruit from the mango and the jaman, striking terror into the heart of the orchard owner. At home, fans were dusted off, oiled and stood at attention ready for use on patios and in the lawns like so many militiamen on the alert. This year the motia and champa have matured early and the dew-wet lawns are sweetened by their fragrance. Not to be left napping, the raat ki rani wafts her special fragrance into the still evening air. The gardenias are bursting to wax their blossoms forth and the zinnia has begun to rear its head.
I must confess I had not been to the zoo since the children grew their permanent teeth. A trip for the first grandchild however, was obviously planned with great detail. Maids in tow, milk bottles safely couched in the kangaroo pockets of the stroller, a colourful parasol, loads of drinking water and we were off on a Sunday morning. The gaggle of visitors at the gates were encouraging as was the civilised queuing for the tickets. But once we were in, it was downhill all the way.
The first thing that we noticed (including our toddler) was the smell. All animals including human beings have their characteristic spoor — a recognition of which distinguished the better tracker or the successful hunter. This was the black smell of stagnant water with overtones of enormous quantities of urine. As a consequence, all visitors wore a perpetually puckered up expression, breathing shallowly in an attempt to keep as much of the foul odour out of their lungs as was humanly possible.
Many of the cages stood empty with remnants of old hay, fruit remains and dust as evidence of the last resident. The hump-backed camel with a matted coat, dusty and tangled, had never been washed, the elephant looked truly woebegone and the many tiers of steps were a parent’s nightmare. My sense of the gothic was tickled pink with the sight of children in their Sunday velvet best, huge eyes rimmed with kohl struggling to keep up with parents more keen to see the animals themselves.
The ‘do not feed the animals’ signs were flagrantly violated with wet nosed deer nibbling at hands holding out delectables. Wan looking water fowl skimmed water surfaces closely resembling large spills of oil while a few children clung to the fences surrounding the artificial water body.
The best(?) part however was the sound system which blared recordings of Quranic verses through out the day. The Lahore airport has a similar penchant for the same tapes: a droll and not so subtle reminder that one is embarking on what may be one’s last journey! The zoo however, is a different experience altogether. Let me assure any detractors presuming to launch a tirade at my religious leanings that each man’s religion is his personal business. Public places specially created for children are the last venue I would consider playing recordings of the Book.
In the first instance, the relevance of the awesome might of the Creator and the diversity of life on earth is completely lost on children (and Parents) trying to cope with ghararas and polyester pants; or for that matter with the more urgent business of assuaging hunger and the desire to pee. Let us face the fact that the ordinary citizen has limited access (if any) to amusement and family outings. A visit to the zoo should be the closest to what passed in the old days as a picnic, three elements qualifying as imperatives: food, company and laughter. Tragically, the last was conspicuous by its absence. It could have been a scene from a Beckett script: solemn children with self-conscious parents sucking on substandard ices, not a smile in sight and the sound of the public address system.
What the zoo requires is a drastic overhaul in terms of its vision, the cleanliness, hygiene and care of its residents, and the quality of food on offer. Dusty stalls, hot colas, cold tea, stained furniture, unwashed attendants stood testimony to the overall neglect of the eating areas while one of the popular ice cream chains charged exorbitant prices for their products which were completely inconsistent with their prices in the world beyond the zoo gates. Someone has to take a good, long look at what we have done to the place.
Having said that however, as a citizen of this city I would be among the first to resist any attempt to encroach upon the zoo premises even with the promise of an alternate land grant in view. The chief executive of the province has a number of offices in the city which could be expanded to address issues regarding security or accessibility. Re-siting the zoo’s parking area and a relocation of its gates are not the changes the citizens of Lahore would advocate. Nor would the offer of ten kanals of land carved out from the historic Jinnah Gardens to be attached to the zoo in lieu of its own land be accepted as compensation.
The good news is that the Jinnah Gardens have purchased rare varieties of plants to return the gardens to their original botanical splendour. We wish the management the very best and urge schools to introduce a mandatory ‘nature study’ programme in their syllabi. My interest in Biology and Life Sciences is a direct outcome of the foundation courses attended during school days. Those were the happiest times when the garden was the classroom and nature herself was the wisest of teachers.
The writer is currently the consultant for Beacon House National University, Lahore. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org