Fayes T Kantawala meets Madonna in Old Lahore and is reminded of how the city appears to an outsider

It’s been a while since I’d been to Food Street in Lahore. It used to be the place to take tourists when Pakistan had tourists, and it’s not hard to see why. The row of haveli-themed rooftop restaurants in a lively Old City street boasts the most spectacular panoramic views that the city has to offer. Particularly at night, when the the domes of the Badshahi mosque, the entrance to the Lahore Fort, and the frosted lace of Ranjit Singh’s tomb are dramatically uplit, the views unfold like an ad in a travel magazine. It’s arresting enough that it takes you a moment to notice that the Minar-e-Pakistan, too, is nestled in the distance (small mercies, it’s an inexplicable structure).

“Wow,” an American lady standing at the balcony next to me said aloud while snapping pictures on her phone, “if I was one of those insta obsessives, I’d be going crazy with this veiw”. Ordinarily I sprint the other way from unsolicited conversations, but were were both there for the same wedding party which, combined with the limited square footage four stories high, made a sprint difficult.

'Life in a Bubble' - artwork by Michael Claren

“Pfft,” I replied, hiding my phone in hopes she didn’t notice the Paris filter on my own Instagram post. “Totally.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I just posted one myself. Hi, I’m Madonna.”

“Yes,” she added with practiced resignation, “Like the singer.”

“Like the Virgin?” After a pause we both laughed desperately in the way that two people who don’t know anyone else at a party have to, in order to look cool. There were a fair number of foreigners around, and after we followed each other online (the modern handshake) I found out that Madge was from L.A. but worked in Africa and was visiting Lahore for the first time for the wedding.

“How are you enjoying it?”

“It’s really beautiful,” she said, obviously choosing her words carefully.

“But…” I prodded.

“Well,” she said, “It’s just that I work in clean energy development and it’s a bit of a struggle to, you know…breathe.”

“Yes, its quite toxic this time of year.” I said airily (so to speak), as if we were talking about a passing thunderstorm in Malta.

“But the weird thing,” she continued, casting a furtive look around for eavesdroppers. “is I haven’t seen a single person wearing a mask. Not one! And every event has been held outdoors with roaring fires!”

“Masks don’t go with the outfits,” I said honestly.
Lahoris have taken to the smog like we did dengue, bombs, the death of Basant and security checkpoints before it

There was no arguing with the facts of her observations. Lahoris have taken to the smog like we did dengue, bombs, the death of Basant and security checkpoints before it.

“It’s like everyone is living in a bubble,” she finished, a pearl of wisdom she seemed proud to have farmed out of our shell.

When I got over my initial irritation at being lectured by a white Madonna who herself lived in a guarded compound in sub-Saharan Africa about living in a bubble, I tried to see it from her view. Shuffled from house to wedding tent to hotel to house to party and back again, she had seen a brief but honest view into a country where people who can try to exist in their own little worlds. This isn’t new, of course, it’s been that way for as long as I can remember, but I suppose the main difference is that breathing is the one thing all humans have in common. And the one thing all bubbles have in common, here or elsewhere, is air.

But I was determined to enjoy the night, and so I laughed and chatted and danced, and when food was served as midnight I tucked into my kababs and naans, looking out onto the view with misty - probably infected - eyes with a measure of affection I reserve for muffins. Soon enough my jet lag took over and I came back home and drifted asleep. Two hours later I woke with a stab of food poisoning so horrifying I felt like the girl from The Exorcist. It lasted a full 24 hours, complete with fever dreams, night sweats and stomach cramps, every inch of my body mutinously angry. There was a seven-hour stretch I couldn’t get off the bathroom floor, though I am slightly ashamed to admit that between wretches I posed in the mirror to see if I’d lost any real weight. I’ve been through this enough times to know to reach for the antibiotics the moment it’s feasible, and eventually found myself well enough to sit up and breath.

By then the replies to my hastily uploaded instagram stories had piled in from across the continents. So beautiful! So pretty! Look at the diffused light! OMG SO LUCKY!

But among them one message stood out. It was from Madonna:

“Hey, great meeting you last night! Quick question, do you have any recommendation for what I can take for a stomach bug here. I’m not feeling great.” I took this for code that her own digestive system looked like a Pollock painting.

“Cipro 600, three days” I texted, reaching for my pills. “Welcome to the bubble.”

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com