Situated on Queen’s road, Ganga Ram Hospital was a relic of the past. It boasted Victorian era architecture with a slanted red tiled rooftop supported by white marble pillars. The road itself had a history that spanned at least a thousand years. On this very road, the first Mughal Emperor Babur had marched, and let the city burn for two days before establishing his dynasty, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had paraded with his army when he was invited to rule at the mere age of 19 and the British Raj had witnessed countless protests. Many buildings present on the roadside had been built, demolished and rebuilt, losing their original purpose and appearance with each rendition. Adjacent to the hospital was the Board of Education and a municipal police station. Their architecture stood in contrast to that of the road and the hospital. They showed how Lahori architecture had slowly evolved and left its 20th century British roots to a more urbanized and modern influence.
As I took a step outside from my air-conditioned Uber, the heat assaulted my senses. The month of May was merciless. My friend, Zain and I had never been to this part of the city. Despite hearing stories of how this place was the metaphorical heart of Lahore, we never troubled ourselves to leave our suburban haven. We had seen elaborate travel vlogs, old pictures from history text-books, and heard glamourous anecdotes from others. Now, we needed our official high-school transcripts and Queen’s road was just the place.
These transcripts were the last requirement for me to get an admission in the University of Lahore. Finally, I could focus on a subject that would apply to the real world: Social Work. Zain had often questioned why I couldn’t opt for a technical field, but I would simply put down his concerns by replying that there was a huge demand for Social workers in Pakistan. I could do really well as a highly demanded Social worker as opposed to a mediocre and unemployable electrical engineer. Maybe I would develop love and attachment for the field somewhere down the line.
As soon as I laid eyes on the fabled Queen’s road, I understood how shallowly people could view the world with rose-tinted glasses. The “road” could have been easily mistaken for a wide street, or perhaps an alley, if you use those terms liberally. It had two lanes squeezed into the space of one and it was a miracle to see vehicles pass each other. In this ruckus, a motorcycle would graze a car that was passing by, and the disgruntled face of its driver would say it all. If they were gentlemen, the matter would be solved with a short burst of heated swearing. However, such civil discourse was rare to spot and you’d see their argument devolve into a fiery blame game. Surely, if there had been any lavish parades in the distant past, the soldiers would have marched in a single line. The parade elephants would definitely have been accommodated by a different route altogether. Here in this uncharted and unexplored part of Lahore, we were green suburban kids and not at all accustomed to wading through such a charged atmosphere.
We seemed to tread on thin ice as we walked towards the Board of Education. The road was packed with irritated drivers, watchful scammers, opportunists and students like us. However, among this crowd, was another crowd. This group seemed unbothered and undisturbed. The sweltering heat which seemed to melt my skin, seemed to have little effect on them. A driver could have pulled up to the curb right at that instant and spat every swear word in existence right at them only to receive a slight nod and a smirk. They sat on the footpath outside the police station. All ten of them.
I looked towards Zain. His eyes were not as wide as mine were. He looked unsurprised. Maybe, he had seen this somewhere before. He cautioned me not to look. He told me I would not like what I would see. However, my curiosity overwhelmed me and it led me to swiftly disregard his advice. My eyes darted towards this mysterious group. The more I looked, the more I wished I hadn’t.
Sitting on rags, and slumped against the weathered wall of the police station, these figures were mere husks of what they once would have been. Their eyes were dreamy, and unaware. Their undernourished arms had veins bulging out. Their body language showed that despite being physically present on the footpath, they lived in a different realm altogether. They sat huddled on their rags, unreceptive and unresponsive. Humming and murmuring under their breath, they slowly rocked back and forth. On the ground beside them, there were torn plastic packets. I knew all too well what those plastic packets were made for. My mother, in her dental clinic, had often torn the seals of the same packets to produce syringes and injected anesthesia to anxious patients. This group seemed to be under the influence of a strong drug. One that made them indifferent to their own selves.
“Heroin”, said Zain.
It’s strange how the utterance of this one word haunted the rest of my day. I nodded slowly. This tidbit of information seemed to fit in with what I was seeing. I had never seen an addict in real life, nor had I ever been in close proximity to drugs. The mere whiff of cigarette smoke from passive smoking would make me nauseate and feel alarmed at the damage it had caused to my lungs. Now, the sight of this group, which had fallen deep down in the rabbit-hole of addiction, made me shiver. What really did not sit well in my mind was the fact that this group was not slumped in a dark alleyway away from throngs of people, or some deserted and half-constructed plaza, but they sat, in broad daylight, right next to a police station. This new-age helplessness, and desperation was out on display in contrast to the historically rich buildings and culturally vibrant ambience Queen’s road had promised to offer. I felt cheated. The history books and stories had lied. Nowhere was this horrifying scene mentioned or talked about.
I diverted my attention back to our business. We entered the Board building and then the office. Even as we were engrossed in signing forms, and submitting our documents, my mind would linger off to those ten people. Who were they? Did they not have families? Why were they right outside the police station?
I had researched on how social workers operated under such circumstances. I had no real experience but, having read training manuals and watching tutorial videos, I knew how to spoon-feed hope and resilience to troubled minds. This was one of the first things I would learn for my course. Surely, I could apply some of the techniques here. Perhaps, my efforts could really help some of them.
Back on Queen’s road, I saw the group again, this time a few more people had joined them. They seemed to be in the process of injecting themselves. Right next to them, stood a policeman who noticed us staring in his general direction. He turned the other cheek, quite literally, and acted that the drug infested group did not exist at all. The techniques, that I had so zealously recalled, disappeared from my mind in an instant. Instead, my mind returned to the moral limbo it was trapped in. Just as drugs were a coping mechanism for those addicts, this blank state of mind was mine.
I signaled to Zain and pointed towards the officer. Maybe we could ask him what was happening.
“Don’t bother”, he replied. The way he said this made it clear to me that all our efforts would be in vain.
“The police don’t care about these guys. If they start arresting them, where would they put the robbers and thieves?”, he continued. “Instead, the police let them get high here, so they can watch them. When these guys are done, they leave. It’s still better than getting high in an alley, where you can hurt someone else.”
“They need help”, I said in response.
“Of course, they do.”, replied Zain. We kept walking back to our Uber. I glanced back at them again. The situation was the same and showed no signs of change.
Zain’s indifference to their plight seemed shock me. He had been always been vocal about issues in our community. He was the activist who planted trees, campaigned to preserve green belts, and pick up litter from public places. I was the lazy one, skulking in the shadows, waiting for someone to do something. Yet, now he kept his eyes straight ahead. This was surely bigger than him and me.
This was the predicament that haunted every passerby of Queen’s road. Everybody had suggestions on improving the situation. Yet, we all had our businesses to attend to. It was easier to pretend a problem didn’t exist than to try solve it. If this was the metaphorical “heart” of Lahore, it was tainted. The blood in this heart had long lost its warmth, and now you could hear the last few heartbeats, slowly diminishing into oblivion.
Queen’s road had been the cradle of culture in Lahore. It had seen days abundant with festivity, color and life but I simply seemed to have visited it in its most morbid and mundane era. Perhaps, like the buildings that were demolished and rebuilt over the years around the road, the people of this place seemed to have gone through a similar process undergoing moral degradation with each rendition.
I took a deep breath.
“I hope someone helps them”, I whispered to myself.
As we sat in the backseat of the car, I realized that my morality and my supposed “care” as a future social worker had similarly taken a backseat role as well, assuming it was ever active in the first state. How could I possibly be a social worker, if I flinched at the very sight of social degradation? Only after, I was in this safe and controlled environment, did my moral compass recalibrate and start pointing in the correct direction. Its inability when I needed it most showed to me that those addicts were not a threat to the fabric of society but only morally inept people like me were. What’s the point of a good intention if it is not followed by an action? In that moment, I felt disappointed in myself. I felt this disappointment exponentially grow when I realized that, despite this visit having a lasting impression on me, I would still always find comfort in my life of cowardice.