There was a time when the average Lahori would prefer going to the park with family, enjoy breezy summer evenings, and not to forget the raw winter sun at noon that warmed your otherwise frozen skin. Kids frolicked around as their parents unwound without a care in the world.
Talk to any middle class family today, and they’ll tell you how they would rather go to a shopping mall than a park — for outing.
Here, you have smartly clad, walkie-talkie wielding staff responding immediately to the first sign of trouble; shiny golf carts to whizz you around in case you got tired walking through the climate-controlled, squeaky clean hallways. These are the new go-to destinations for families in Lahore.
Forget about a bunch of properly dressed security guards, with mean-looking guns frisking everyone; the walkthrough gates and scanners you must slip even your emergency medicine box under — for this is the norm.
Restaurants, joyrides, theatre halls, and shops of all kinds that sell everything from designer lawn to lawn-mowers, are all to be found under one giant dome built to honour free market. All major credit cards accepted here, of course. Grocery is the new picnic.
How did this shift from parks to malls come about? Mind you, I am talking basically in terms of an excursion, not serious and targetted shopping sprees. First came the drug addicts (in the 1980s) that used the nooks and crannies of public spaces for their fix. Eve-teasers spoiled the fun for the women crowds, became brazen because the state and its functionaries lost credibility and rule of law weakened. Newspaper headlines like “Man shot dead, passer-by injured by an eve-teaser” were common back then. It would turn into a ‘group sport’ on Chaand Raats and 14th August.
Slowly but surely, public spaces became inaccessible to family visitors. And then came the proverbial ‘last nail in the coffin:’ whole family crowds were wiped out in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park blast of 2016.
There is no shortage of parks in Lahore which still holds the (now disputed?) title of the ‘City of Gardens.’ Many public parks were developed by the Mughals in the 16th century India, or in the colonial era, like Hazuri Bagh, Shalamar Gardens, Bagh-e-Jinnah. Those that came up after independence include Jallo Park, Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, Jillani (formerly, Racecourse) Park, and Model Town Park.
There have been a few additions to the list in recent years but newer parks and golf courses all owe their existence to the affluent elite for their own consumption, or with exclusive rights to entry.
Public parks are frequented mostly by visitors from neighbouring areas — these are lower middle class people, young men looking to play cricket and/or ogling at random ladies. The policemen, on the other hand, left over from VIP security details, nap in the shade as the macabre show goes on. The situation got so bad that the Lahore Zoo was recently forced to shut its doors to stags, in order to make the place more family-friendly. Some public parks followed suit. Just how far does this go to help the situation, only time will tell.