Airs and Graces

What is up with the air in Lahore, asks Fayes T Kantawala

Airs and Graces
There was a thick stack of old magazines from the 1950s and ’60s at my grandmother’s house in Lahore that I was obsessed with as a child. They were fascinating time capsules in every way: full page ads for kohl, grainy monochrome pictures of fancy dinners, long flowery wedding write-ups, notices about the rise of crop tops, glamorous illustrations of PIA airhostesses dressed like Audrey Hepburn en route to Paris, the announcements of new clubs and bars in Karachi. The world in those magazines was unbearably cool. What pained me was not simply that Pakistan was no longer like that, but that the world at large wasn’t either. There were so many exotic things in those magazines that I had never seen. (Consider those full-page ads that asked you questions about yourself and even gave you a long list of suggestions for that varied from psychological to medical, all the while trying to sell you a bar of lavender soap.)

Perhaps it was that people then had more time on their hands, or maybe the ads served more purposes in those days. In any case, reading them was more evocative of the era to me than any movie could be. It showed me not only what people looked like or wore, but what they actually wanted to purchase, and why they were meant to have wanted those things in the first place. Occasionally, though, the distance of the era would make itself conspicuous, and – aside from the narrow, objectionable way in which women’s roles were defined – nowhere was this more awkward than in cigarette ads. Often over multiple pages, the ads would include a long-winded description of the joys of smoking under a beautiful illustration of thin young people puffing away, and even the occasional doctor’s note saying how they endorsed this particular brand.
The thick haze that permeates our winters stopped being romantic years ago

Despite the fact that I was consuming all this in the ’90s, when people could still smoke on planes, even I knew that wasn’t cool anymore. Cigarettes were bad for you, everyone knew. There were warning labels and TV commercials about it. You certainly couldn’t have a full-page advert without serious warnings, and to have an actual doctor’s note about the benefits of smoking anymore would be ridiculous. I think about those ads often, as a reminder to me that the popular wisdom of today is not infallible. I think about those ads when I get plastic bags at the grocery store, or see a whole bunch of one-use straws at a coffee shop.

Something inside us just knows that those will be the things our kids will probably ask us about in the future. They will probably look back with horror and interest to see that we, say, carried cell-phones. Or be shocked to hear about the ubiquity of non-degradable plastic in our lives, or our blasé attitude towards global warming in particular and environmentalism in general. Or at least I hope the world is changing in that direction.

Lahore has been engulfed with a toxic smog every winter for the last several years. It’s not a mystery as to why this happens although it still shocks everyone when it does. Some people comfort themselves with the idea that in both Pakistani and Indian Punjab the farmers are burning their fields to make way for new crops and the smoke from these fires causes the smog. This may be true, but it is certainly not the whole truth. Common sense tells us that when you cut down all the trees to make way for endless roads bad things will happen to the air. The same is true for using generators the way we have to, or driving cars, or running engines in factories or any of the many things that modern life in Pakistan necessitates. All these small things ad up over time, and most of them end up in our lungs. I prepare myself whenever I come back to Lahore for that first acrid breath of air. The thick haze that permeates our winters stopped being romantic years ago. Instead it fills me with the very real terror that my quitting smoking myself may have been in vain if I have to breath a pack of cigarettes a day anyway (especially without the associated and deeply-missed hand gestures). Indeed, from the reports of the smog this year, it feels like Lahore is going through all the ills of the industrial revolution, except without the “industrial” part or indeed the “revolution.”

Vintage cigarette ad from Pakistan - blissfully free of warnings

For the most part this, like so much else, is the fault of a negligent state. The fact is we wouldn’t have to run generators if we had reliable electricity and we wouldn’t all run cars if there was a reliable public transport system. A focus on public education over military showmanship might also go a long way in making sure people knew the long term cost to their actions (#pipedreams) but the point is not all the lack of our environmental negligence is the fault of the citizenry. Sadly, we will still pay for it because we all quite literally breathe the same air, which you don’t need a doctor in an ad to tell you isn’t a great thing right now.

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