the great escape

I look around and eye the **exit** my great escape, the red flashing sign, the word EXIT, written up, loud and clear, I eye it. And I make a run for it. The two hosts grab me before I even take a step, each with one arm locked into mine, they **crack a joke** about me, the audience laughs. They hand me a metal statuette, I hold it --the heaviest thing I’ve ever held on to-- it falls through the stage, through the wooden floor, with me holding tightly onto it, through and through. “Ladies and gentlemen we just witnessed **a great escape** for the first time in the history of this event, has the winner escaped in such a dramatic fashion, and without giving a speech either.”

Monday, August 17

A Strange Institution for a Stranger Place

Like any sprawling urban metropolis, Lahore has a rich historical tradition driven by the raids, conquests, and repossessions of many a power-broker reigning supreme over the region. Through the ebb and flow of history, the heart of Punjab has swapped several hands, and has been the jewel of many empires. My cousin who is an architect says, as a city Lahore encompasses layers and layers of history in its architecture. Indeed, if one takes a trip down from the old walled city, one is able to witness all the political-economic changes the city through its history. The Sikh domes of Ranjit Singh's capital morph into Mughal grandiose, immediately differentiable from the high-administrative aesthetic of the British Raj. Going down Mall Road, one notices how, instead of abrupt cultural contours, Lahore has been consistently assimilating nuances and cultural subtitles from whatever it has come in contact with.

One such cultural oddity is the Lahore Gymkhana Club. One out of a set of Gym-Khana institutions originally established by the British as a chain of sporting and social clubs across India, now finds itself on the peripheries of culture. What must have been a truly strange place even before the departure of the British, it seems has only become stranger since. Rather than being abolished soon after the departure of the Britishers --its raison d'etre-- the Gymkhana seems to have been co-opted by the cultural fetishes of an emerging ruling class. The institution now exists as a time warp within the cultural archeology of the city; a place where waiters still dress in British Indian atastire, and doormen sport the huge mustache and turban look. Until recently the dining room menu consisted of the strictly British bland cuisine, long abandoned for more elaborate flavors by the British themselves.

Like other institutions in the country which were inherited from the Raj, the Lahore Gymkhana has gone through many changes, while certain things remain unchanged. The club went dry when Alcohol was banned by Z.A. Bhutto, and the Zia years saw the swing nights turn into “Family Bar B Q”. The existence of the Gymkhana clearly evidences that the culture that was originally imported from the British by those who could afford it, has now gone awry and turned into an anomaly that seems to fit right into the mad mix that is Lahore. Obviously the “Dogs and Indians Not Allowed” sign had to go, but was sheepishly replaced with the “Guest Not Allow” slogan.