A few months back I was sitting in Ali auditorium with a friend listening to Adeel Hashmi and Mira Hashmi reading letters of Faiz and Alys. They were written in times Faiz Ahmed Faiz had to endure prison. With a piano playing in the background, Adeel Hashmi’s narration put me in the trance a literature junkie always craves for. In some of the letters, Faiz had written about Lahore, its beautiful mornings and rusted streets. Rummaging through his mundane jail life, he talked about scented air lingering around Jinnah garden. Every now and then he narrated how he missed forlorn winter evening walks around streets of Lahore. This wasn’t new to me. I’ve read Bapsi Sidhwa’s commentary on Lahore’s transformations from an ancient whore to courtesan of Mughal emperors. I’ve read Mohsin Hamid’s description of this city’s nights where tales of forbidden romance echoes through ancient windows. I’ve walked through gates of Lahore museum, climbed up the zam zamah opposite to its front wall with Kim in Rudyard Kipling’s imagination. Now, I was being accompanied by Faiz into strolling through winds of Lahore laden with the scent of lemon trees but the first thing that I whispered in my friend’s ear at that moment was “I’ve never experienced Lahore like this”. She agreed and smirked at our lack of appreciation for the beauty around us.

I felt ashamed for a moment. I have lived in this city for past fifteen years without giving it the due appreciation. I’ve walked in its streets since teenage yet there was always some hurry that never allowed me to fully sink into my surroundings. Recently I found out the culprit: paranoia. Being a woman living in a country where headlines rarely go eventless and harassment has become a norm of women’s life, paranoia has become a part of my blood. The need to always stay ahead of ourselves in terms of safety has grown up with us. The fear of getting harassed or the anticipation of something bad happening sleeps with us every night and gets up in the morning to accompany us while walking towards our workplaces.

Every time we take a rickshaw alone or close the door of Uber, that paranoia sits beside us. We text our friends when we reach home. We fake phone calls to intimidate Uber captains and rickshaw drivers. We spend our whole rides trying to ignore them leering us through back view mirrors. We try to shut down the noise of music studded with vulgar lyrics with our own thoughts. The setting sun is a ticking clock that schedules our outings and dictates our daily moves. The hurry of getting things done and rush back before it gets dark strips the experience that those writers have scribbled in their books. The attempt to ensure safety every second surpasses the meditation in the beauty of our surroundings. Self-preservation occupies us so much that we seldom get a chance to listen to stories this city’s walls tell with every breath. It has become our only reality. Walking around alone only for the sake of dwelling in the life of a city like Lahore is a concept alien to us.

This thought process hasn’t sprouted from my sense of victimhood. It dawned on me as a reality when a few days back I was standing in a fairly crowded neighborhood with my cousin, waiting for my brother to pick us up. It was 7:30 in the evening and we were standing under a tree so, lights were dim. I cannot forget the fear that gripped me every time a motorbike passed by or a car slowed down while crossing us. My breath stifled and we finally moved on to a brighter area in front of collection center of medical laboratories to get some peace of mind.

This reality hit me when a few weeks back I was coming back home on a rickshaw and I saw the most amazing sunset on canal road. Through the sideways trees, the sky looked as it had been engulfed by huge orange fire. I saw it so intently sitting on the edge of my seat that rickshaw driver thought I was upset about the possibility of him taking me off to the wrong road. It was hilarious when I had to explain to him that I was fine and totally aware of this alternative way.This realization descends on me every time I remember few years back when I was going through some hard time and used to go for evening walk in Racecourse Park for some peace of mind, my friends strictly forbade me not to do it alone because it was extremely unsafe.I don’t know a lot of low-end, economical eating out places despite my immense socializing in past five years, not because I’m a classist but because those places never were welcoming for women.

I can write a book on this but my question is when will we get rid of this feeling of paranoia? When will it happen that while walking on a road alone, women won’t have to hurry because it was getting darker? Is it so much to ask that men don’t leer us like a piece of flesh but treat like just another human? Will it ever happen that our streets will be safe for us to run errands let alone walk aimlessly and enjoy the city life? Will I ever be able to contemplate this city the way I have grown up reading it in novels? I’ll wait for it. And trust me when I say it, that I’m not alone in this.