Minutes after midnight, when traffic noise has died down and soft yellow lights start to mingle with the cool breeze to enact a rare outdoor calm, an Albayrak truck jingles down the main boulevard of Gulberg. Its mechanical brooms, with plastic bristles that look like porcupine quills, insistently scrub the black tarmac and bring out the glow of yellow road markings. The truck follows the damp water trail left by an earlier vehicle that emptied its tank to arrest the flying grains of dust. On well-carpeted roads like this one, cruising four-wheelers fan the powdery dirt away from the middle until it accumulates on the margins, making the job of the cleaners easier. This nightly cleaning exercise ensures that flying smut won’t blow in the face of pedestrians and commuters the next day. The Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC) has outsourced this activity to two Turkish companies, OzPak and Albayrak. Other than waste collection and disposal, the company prides itself in ‘mechanical cleaning’ of the city. Not every neighbourhood of Lahore gets this blessed service though. Artists have learned to give form to everything in the urban South Asian context, from coal soot emanating from dhabas to the grime layers on ancient buildings. But somehow, the illustrations of dust eludes them. This trend is carried into animated movies like 3 Bahadur LWMC measures its success in terms of the number of kilometres cleaned by these vehicles. One consequence of this quantitative performance review is that the output figures are always big. They are bound to be big. And yes, they make for great newspaper headlines and add enormous weight to executive summaries. But what these numbers don’t show is that LWMC’s service fails to touch the lives of the suffering majority. In the congested north of the city, where—to quote Frantz Fanon— “people live on top of each other”, LWMC cleaners are seldom seen. But then, why should they? The chief minister’s motorcade hardly ever has the need to use the Walled City circular road. The visits of foreign heads of states to historical Badshahi Mosque happen only once in a blue moon. And most of the foreign dignitaries who land at Allam Iqbal airport have little need to go beyond the upper section of Mall Road. In defence of LWMC, though, they seem to be following an eco-friendly policy: conserve water, instead of wasting it on washing the streets of the great unwashed. And so the northerners breathe. Absorbing dirt in every pore of their skin; sucking it down their lungs, gathering layers on their scalp, getting their nostrils choked and eyes ruined. And they do it silently, without complaint, without protest. Forsaken by the administration, they have two options: look to the heavens for a fulfilling downpour that would clear dirt clouds and settle the ground swirls, or engage in the time-honoured ritual of sprinkling water for momentary solace. The details of this ritual performance are about the same everywhere in the city. You hold the bucket with two hands— one hand clutching the opening and the other giving support to the base—tilt it slightly toward the ground and give it a sharp downward jerk by stopping the arc halfway. Do this, and watch the bouncy water globules settle like an unfolding carpet, with sprinkles dancing their way to cover maximum distance until they’re assimilated by the earth. It’s like watching a sea of ping-pong balls accidentally fall off a truck and cover every inch of the space. But beyond this temporary protection against dust, why do so many people take this condition as a given? In the art galleries of Lahore, from drawings covering medieval era to the ones making a statement on urban migration, one finds a nagging absence of different forms of dust. Even ultra-realist sketches that seek to depict life in rural areas or messy urban neighbourhoods fail to illustrate the unsettling effects of dust. Artists have learned to give form to everything in the urban South Asian context, from the coal soot emanating from dhabas to the grime layers on ancient building. But somehow, the illustration of dust eludes them. This trend is carried into animated movies like ‘3 Bahadur’ which, on other accounts, are intricate enough to show paan stains on the wall, vehicular emissions and fire smoke. Dust is a characteristic of this land. Along with other features of the environment, it colours everything from clothing choice to habits of hygiene. And yet it remains missing from our art forms, policy debates, political discourse and even working class activism. The writer is a staffer at Daily Times. He can be reached at [email protected] Published in Daily Times, August 7th 2017.