At a recent dinner, my wife asked an inscrutable Pakistani diplomat who had done two stints in the Indian capital if he ever missed Delhi. He took a bite of pulao, thought for a long while and said something to the effect that he liked Delhi but did not miss it.
When I leave Islamabad, if anyone were to ask me a similar question, I will have no qualms in saying that I will miss the city. Immensely.
Islamabad has been described as a purpose built capital, a city that has nothing to offer on the same scale as Lahore or Karachi – bustling, colourful metropolises that are closer to their cousins on the other side of the Wagah.
But even before you realise it, Islamabad grows on you. The calm atmosphere, the unhurried pace of life that often reminds me how my hometown of Shillong in northeast India used to be in the good old days, the well laid-out roads and avenues, orderly residential sectors and public utilities that actually deliver.
When an employee of the Capital Development Authority refused to collect my garbage while performing the same duties for my British neighbours, a message left on the CDA’s website sorted out things within two days – just an email message, no phone calls, no sifarish (try doing that in Delhi).
The taxi drivers are unfailingly courteous and helpful, and I have had my misplaced phone returned by cabbies on three occasions (only once did I have to hint that I knew the cabbie’s number and could take up the matter with authorities). What are the odds of that happening in any Indian city?
And I only have to tune into one of Islamabad’s many FM channels to get my daily fix of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one of my favourite voices of all time. (In fact, I am listening to him on the radio as I write this).
A trek along the many trails in the Margalla Hills is great for rejuvenating the spirit and communing with nature. The vistas from the hill-tops are picture-perfect, and even the cheerful trekkers who greet you with a whispered “As-salam-alaikum” seem to be aware that they shouldn’t intrude too deeply into your thoughts.
Do I worry at times about security issues? I do, especially since the Talibs and their compadres moved closer to Islamabad with their attacks but not to the extent as some of our friends from other countries, who hardly ever stir out of their homes except for a night out at the staid and boring Islamabad Club or a dinner at someone’s home.
Not that everything is perfect about Islamabad. My wife began nagging me one evening to take her out “somewhere, anywhere” because she was bored out of her mind and had nothing to do. Just then a diplomat friend from the Indian mission phoned me. As we chatted, I told him about my wife’s plans.
My friend, who was known for his laconic ways, drawled: “Kahan jaoge? Super? Jinnah Super? Daman-e-Koh ya Pir Sohawa (two viewpoints overlooking Islamabad)?"
Well, my wife and I never went out that evening after my chat with my oh-so-eloquent friend. Not for nothing is there an urban legend that an American diplomat once claimed that Islamabad was half the size of Arlington cemetery (a huge military graveyard in Washington) and twice as dead.