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Re: [arkitectindia] Pleasantly Surprised, in Islamabad

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  • Manthan Award
    Dear Mr. Sikand, The post came as a most pleasant surprise for me too. As a lay man who hasn t visited Pakistan, it described a life quite alien to what one is
    Message 1 of 2 , Jun 11, 2008
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      Dear Mr. Sikand,
       
      The post came as a most pleasant surprise for me too. As a lay man who hasn't visited Pakistan, it described a life quite alien to what one is forced to hear and see in media. May be yours being Punjabi added to the charm of the place that much more. Nevertheless, certainly an eye opener for many like me I assume.

      with regards,
       
      Pritam Sinha
      New Delhi

       
      On 6/8/08, yogi sikand <ysikand@...> wrote:



      Pleasantly Surprised, In Islamabad

      By Yoginder Sikand

      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
      believe.

      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.

      Sukhia Sab Sansar Khaye Aur Soye
      Dukhia Das Kabir Jagey Aur Roye


      The world is 'happy', eating and sleeping
      The forlorn Kabir Das is awake and weeping


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