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Pleasantly Surprised, In Islamabad

By Yoginder Sikand

10 June, 2008

Islamabad is surely the most well-organised,
picturesque and endearing city in all of South Asia.
Few Indians would, however, know this, or, if they
did, would admit it. After all, the Indian media never
highlights anything positive about Pakistan, because
for it only 'bad' news about the country appears to be
considered 'newsworthy'. That realization hit me as a
rude shock the moment I stepped out of the plane and
entered Islamabad's plush International Airport,
easily far more efficient, modern and better
maintained than any of its counterparts in India. And
right through my week-long stay in the city, I could
not help comparing Islamabad favourably with every
other South Asian city that I have visited.

That week in Islamabad consisted essentially of a long
string of pleasant surprises, for I had expected
Islamabad to be everything that the Indian media so
uncharitably and erroneously depicts Pakistan as. The
immigration counter was staffed by a smart young
woman, whose endearing cheerfulness was a refreshing
contrast to the grave, somber and unwelcoming looks
that one is generally met with at immigration counters
across the world that make visitors to a new country
feel instantly unwelcome. Outside the airport, Nadeem,
a driver sent to pick me up, gave me a warm handshake,
and when, shortly after, he learnt that my grandfather
was born in his own native Abbotabad, a town not far
from the Afghan frontier, he pressed on me a hearty,
sweaty hug.

'Bhai Sahib, This is the land of your ancestors!',
Nadeem beamed. He insisted that I travel with him to
Abbotabad and stay with him in his home and try and
search for the house where my grandfather had lived
before the Partition. I seriously wished I could, I
told him, but the vexing visa regime between India and
Pakistan strictly forbids citizens of both countries
from stepping out of the cities for which they have
been granted permission to visit.

No sooner has the visitor stepped off the plane in
Islamabad and drives into the city than he is forced
to realize that whatever the Indian media says about
Pakistan and its people is basically bogus. No,
Pakistan is not a 'fundamentalist' country, teetering
on the verge of a take-over by 'religious radicals'.
No, Pakistan is not a 'prison-house of Muslim women',
who are allegedly forced into wearing tent-like
burkhas. No, Pakistan is not a 'failed state' that
produces nothing. Flowing beards and skull-caps are
conspicuous by their rarity in Islamabad as are
burkhas. Women drive and shop and work in government
and private offices. Most basic consumer items are
produced within the country. And, as in India, despite
government ineptitude and convoluted elite politics,
the country survives and is not on the verge of total
collapse, contrary to what Indians are made to

The Islamabad Club, where the organizers of the
conference I had come to attend had put me up, seems
like a relic from colonial times, only that it was
built much after the British departed. It is the
favourite haunt of Islamabad-based bureaucrats, army
officers and landlords, heavily subsidized for their
benefit, as in the case of similarly stuffy elite
watering holes in India. I would have actually
preferred to stay in much more austere
surroundings-after all our conference was all about
democracy and social justice in South Asia-but I
comforted myself with the thought that a bit of luxury
for just a few days would not do me major harm.

Islamabad, in some senses, is like Chandigarh: a new,
planned, modern city, set up on decidedly Western
lines. It was founded in the 1960s when the capital of
Pakistan was shifted from Karachi. It straddles the
foothills of the Margalla range, which leads on to
Kashmir in the north-east and the North-West Frontier
Province, near Afghanistan, in the west. It is divided
into numerous zones, each having its own markets,
schools and other such institutions. The city's roads
are fantastically smooth and wide and enclosed by
broad grassy banks. Carefully manicured gardens and
thickly wooded parks stretch for miles. Cobbled paths
lead up to trekking trails in the nearby mountains and
enormous bungalows enclosed in private gardens line
the streets. The air is remarkably clean and crisp,
traffic jams are rare, and one can reach one end of
the city from the other within just half an hour.

Since Islamabad is a new city, it boasts no historical
monuments worth seeing. Yet, the city has its own
share of attractions for the visitor. The massive
Pakistan National Monument atop a hill that commands a
majestic view of Islamabad is an architectural marvel,
and so is the massive Faisal Mosque, one of the
largest mosques in Asia, so expansive that it
accommodates an entire university in its basement.
Equally bold and striking are the Pakistan National
Assembly, the President's House, the Prime Minister's
Secretariat, the Supreme Court and a host of other
swank buildings housing government offices that line
the main Constitution Avenue. The Rawal lake on the
outskirts of the town extends far into the distance
till it meets the horizon, and, like the rest of
Islamabad, it is clean to the point of appearing
thoroughly sanitized, at least to the Indian eye. On
the banks of the lake are a number of welcoming
restaurants, and a small, whitewashed temple, a
testimony to the times when, before the Partition,
there was a sizeable Hindu community in the area.
Nestled on the other side of the lake is the glamorous
Daman-e Koh or 'The Lap of the Mountains', a thickly
forested valley, and the best way to spend an evening
in Islamabad is to drive up there for the icy breeze,
a dinner of biryani and an assortment of kababs, a
live band singing melancholic Hindi film numbers from
the 1960s and a panoramic view of the city below.

The suave and gracious Kamran Lashari, head of the
Capital Development Authority (CDA), the body
entrusted with developing Islamabad, was our host one
night, having invited us to a sumptuous dinner at the
fabulous Lake View Park, a large expanse of green
located on the banks of a placid lake at the edge of
town. I tell him, and I hope he knows I am serious,
that Islamabad is the best city I have ever seen in
South Asia and remark on how well-managed it is. And
so do the other Indians who have also been invited
that evening, fellow participants in the conference.

Lashari tells us, and he has every right to beam with
pride at this, that till he took over his present
position some four years ago, the annual budget of the
CDA was a billion rupees, with some eight-tenths of
this being funded by the Government and the remainder
being self-generated. Today, the CDA's budget has
increased twenty-five fold, and the ratios for
government and self-generated funds have been
reversed. He talks excitedly of his future plans, of
the many new architects, designers and construction
companies that have come up in Pakistan in recent
years and about how he hopes to work with some of them
for projects that he has conceived.

For fellow Punjabis like myself, Islamabad feels just
like home. Most of the city's inhabitants, as indeed
most Pakistanis, are Punjabis, and are essentially no
different from fellow Punjabis across the border in
India, although, I personally feel, perhaps a shade
better looking! And, as an employee of the Indian High
Commission in Pakistan, who travelled in the same
plane as myself on my return, also a fellow Punjabi,
quite rightly remarked, 'If you want to learn
etiquette, learn it from the Islamabadis'.

But then, Islamabad is as representative or otherwise
of Pakistan as posh South Delhi or any other similar
elite-inhabited part of any other Indian city is of
India as a whole. Islamabad is decidedly elitist, the
poor, mainly people who work in the homes of the rich
and for the CDA, being confined to a few anonymous
working class localities in the city or commuting
everyday from neighbouring Rawalpindi. As Zaman Khan,
a burly, friendly worker in a posh restaurant quipped
when we got down to talking about mounting inflation
and rapidly expanding socio-economic inequalities in
India and Pakistan, 'There's hardly any difference
between our two countries. I am sure you have fancy
quarters in cities in India that are reserved just for
the rich, just as Islamabad has. What difference does
it make if the houses and localities of the rich are
so beautiful and comfortable? The rich here and in
India as well must be equally indifferent to poor
people like us.'

True enough, and yet another thing of the many things
that India and Pakistan have in common. But
notwithstanding Zaman Khan's astute observation,
Islamabad, I must admit, excited me in a special way,
and I long to return soon.


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