Lahore: My fear was palpable as I entered this graceful and cultured Pakistani city that was quite high on my "I cannot ever go there" list because of its projection as a home to violent Islamist fundamentalism.
But the moment I stepped in, a lot of misconceptions -- driven mostly by the media about this country of 200 million people -- were shattered, brick by brick. Lahore is not about terror attacks, growing religious fundamentalism, gender segregation or Taliban militants with flowing beards -- stereotypes derived from a minuscule population and applied to the entire nation.
The city of monuments, which has a history that stretches even to the times of the epic Ramayana (11th century), is high on food, fashion and fiesta.
And as the world goes to sleep, Lahore wakes up with its nightlife.
Across the border, approximately a kilometre from the last Indian point, a wide canal guides your way to the capital of Pakistan's Punjab province.
On entering the city in the afternoon, after travelling for about an hour from the Wagah border between India and Pakistan, the hustle and bustle starts -- and never ends. The markets and roads remain crowded throughout the night. Men and women hang out, and eat out, until late into the night. Locals say this is quite normal. And fear is nowhere to be seen.
"Hamara shehar 24 ghantey chamakta hai jee (This city is alive round the clock)," a cabby tells me, bragging about Lahore's nightlife, sensing that I had come from across the border with pre-conceived notions.
There are coffee shops -- elegantly set up that offer spaces to read, discuss and hang out. There were boys and girls chatting, laughing and hi-fiving without appearing gender conscious. "Does a 'terror hub' offer such spaces," I ask myself.
A student sitting next to me perhaps read my perplexity. "We are not a bad people. We are only being portrayed so. We also live freely as one lives outside Pakistan," Aarif Kareem said, asking me about Pakistan's common image in India.
The Hollywood and Bollywood presence at such places is widespread. The place I was sitting constantly played "Gerua" from the Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol starrer "Dilwale". There were black and white posters of some vintage Hollywood actors adorning the walls.
Religious extremism is growing in some parts of Pakistan, but certainly not in Lahore, which has battled and emerged bravely after deadly terror attacks in the past, including the one in 2009 on the Sri Lankan cricket team.
"We often come over to this place for the barbecue. We never feel insecure or scared," Rehana Khan, a businesswoman, told IANS while sharing a plate of lip-smacking lamb kebabs at a food stall outside the Qaddafi stadium - where the Sri Lankan team was attacked.
Of course, there were women in veils. But there were those in western style attire too. There were fashionistas wearing long dresses and draped in wide chadors. Apart from the Hindi and the Western cinemas, Pakistani popular film industry, called Lollywood and based in Lahore, also has been instrumental in driving the fashion industry.
Women could be seen everywhere, including in businesses. Women drivers are not rare. Evidently, a good number of women are also in administrative jobs. "For women, it is safe to walk around in the markets during the night, as well," Khan said, rather teasing me if I could say the same about "your Delhi".
Lahore looks glorious because it has retained its past in Mughal architecture, engulfing its peripheries.
Lahore fort, Badshahi mosque, and Shalimar Gardens bring the city more charm. A visit to Minar-e-Pakistan, the historic tower on which the Lahore resolution is engraved, completed the trip. The city also has an enchanting orchard along its canal. The heavenly flora mesmerise one and offer a sight which is surely a treat for the eyes -- and the heart.
(Ruwa Shah, the writer was in Lahore at the invitation of Pakistan Fashion and Design Council.)