We were sitting in our bedroom on Sunday afternoon when the rain came. It came suddenly, without warning – from sunny skies to a torrential downpour in two seconds, as though God had flicked a switch and opened the heavens. In an instant the sky turned dark as black clouds hovered menacingly overhead. Sheets of water cascaded from the sky, and screams of delight echoed around our neighbourhood.
In the UK people complain about rain. However, in Pakistan, especially during the sweltering summer months, it is deeply loved. The intolerable heat and humidity vanish in an instant as the clouds break: a cool breeze blows through the houses and people feel, for the first time in days, that they are able to breathe again. Rain is wonderful, a gift, an occasion for rejoicing.
I dashed downstairs with the children. Giggling loudly, they ran into the street, jumping up and down for joy. Our landlord, normally a sober and respected doctor, took off his shirt and danced in the street. His son and my son jumped on their bikes and went careering up the road, steering through immense puddles and overflowing gutters. Our neighbours were out as well, playing in the puddles with their sons and daughters. One even brought out his hosepipe and sprayed our kids as they ran past, laughing wildly. We were drenched, all of us, instantly and completely, as though we had just walked through a waterfall.
We got to know our neighbours: the man from two houses up who was playing with his daughter, the respected old man from across the road who smiled indulgently at my daughter kicking water from a puddle, the teenaged girl from a few houses down who walked silently up and down the street with her iPod plugged into her ears, smiling quietly as the rain poured down her face. Later our landlord’s wife brought out a plate of fresh pakoras and another of doughnuts which the children rapidly devoured before running back into the street. Everyone was smiling, the habitual hassles of Pakistani life dissolving in the rain.
One of the great strengths of Pakistan is its communities. Though largely lost in the West as we become ever more individualistic, community still exists here. The social network is strong: neighbours advise us to put hats on our kids during the winter, recommend good schools or doctors, share festivals together. We say “salaam-aleikum” to everyone we meet, and they do the same to us. It would be strange not to. In the UK we look largely to the government to provide a social net for us: advice, healthcare, money, security. In Pakistan these roles are done by the community, and there is a beauty and strength in this that the West has mostly lost. We share joys, sorrows, food, advice.