A point of view on Islamabad, from an elevated viewpoint.
From the top of the Margalla hills, you see the whole of Islamabad, the creamy white minarets of Faisal mosque, the sprawling Rawal lake and the few high rises that the city has. The rest is almost covered with trees. The hills are in the national park and form part of the Himalayan foothills. It’s a bit like having the Sahyadris in your backyard. A couple of hours and you are on the topmost point, and you can walk down at a gentle pace even if the climb was steep in parts. There is a nice mist hanging over the hills and the rocks can come off sometimes, giving you a scare.
I later read that the government was planning a tunnel through the hills to connect to a new city in Abbottabad just behind. So it’s not only in India where we have roads running through National Parks but here too, if this project sees the light of day. Even outside the national park you can see a lot birds and droves of kites. It is not only the wide roads and the manicured lawns on the pavement but also the incredibly small distances that can freak out a person used to Mumbai’s congested traffic and the long haul from point A to B.
But going off into the touristy Saidpur village with its fancy eateries and a small temple and gurudwara gives you a different picture. A young man plays haunting tunes on the rabab every evening and he's been appointed by the Capital Development Authority for this sole purpose.
The people of Saidpur live in their old houses untended at best and can only dream of entering the Polo Lounge. In the temple-gurudwara precinct, an exhibition of old black and white photos of Islamabad gives you an idea of how the city was made from scratch. Chou en Lai planted the first tree and even Nehru looks on keenly as the plans for the new city are laid out before him. Every tree was carefully chosen and planted and the lush avenues and large green areas did not come about naturally.
The hills though were always there, with the bare rock showing in some parts but lush and green for the rest. Islamabad coexists with its less beautiful portions around it. Here the extended city resembles Mumbai with its poor sanitation, lack of water and shoddy housing. Public transport is poor and consists of sharing jeeps or large cabs which if running on CNG face a bleak time getting it. But the air is fresh and clear though one keeps reading of pollen allergies.
Attending the Jamat ud Dawa(JUD)’s rally one evening I was hoisted onto a Maersk container in a small box attached to a crane, to join scores of TV cameras and journalists, two of whom fell into the space between the two containers arranged together like a platform. One of them was knocked out hitting his head on a camera stand. From the top one gets a clear view of the crowd which seemed endless, waving the black and white JUD flags. They were strangely quiet and orderly only shouting at times in support of the speakers’ statements which were mostly against India. The only women were journalists and that too, three of us. All the young bearded men wore black t- shirts and leggings caught up at the shins with elastic.
The main stage had three container trucks with red patterned carpets over them with a similar makeshift lift to bring the speakers up and down. It’s no wonder Imran Khan fell off and broke his ribs, the whole thing was highly precarious to say the least.
Islamabad has a thriving media community and one of things being debated now is the Freedom of Information act, a draft of which was recently approved. The newspapers don’t have full or even half page ads and there is a lot to read everyday. Television too is full of talk shows and endless debates on the many issues.
The city has neat orderly sectors each with a market apart from large thrice-a-week bazaars which sell everything under the sun. But the best are the giant peaches from Swat and the sweetest apples apart from cantaloupes. There is an organic farmers market every week too!
Unlike Karachi where the violence has spiraled beyond control, Islamabad is quite modest on the crime front, though the police keep picking up arms consignments and terrorists from time to time. It is not as innocuous as it looks, in the last one month there has been an attempted suicide bomb attack, a huge cache of arms unearthed and more recently a raid on Kashmiris. On a milder note, some of the lanes are blocked with large cement barriers and this is apparently to deter car thieves in residential areas. And yes unlike in Mumbai here you would walk past the Anti Terrorism Court and not notice it. The day I went a young man in oversized floaters, with his head covered was produced after being arrested in connection with a huge cache of arms and ammunition. The Mumbai terror strike case is languishing in this court now. With the delay in the visit of the judicial commission that seems stuck for a while.