Several prominent Indian journalists and writers have visited Pakistan in recent years for the first time in their lives. I am sharing with my readers selected excerpts of the reports from Mahanth Joishy (USIndiaMonitor.com), Panakaj Mishra (Bloomberg), Hindol Sengupta (The Hindu), Madhulika Sikka (NPR) and Yoginder Sikand (Countercurrents) of what they saw and how they felt in the neighbor's home. My hope is that their stories will help foster close ties between the two estranged South Asian nations.
Many of us travel for business or leisure. But few ever take a trip that dramatically shatters their entire worldview of a country and a people in one fell swoop. I was lucky enough to have returned from just such a trip: a week-long sojourn in Pakistan.
It was a true eye-opener, and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. Many of the assumptions and feelings I had held toward the country for nearly 30 years were challenged and exposed as wrong and even ignorant outright.
The Western and Indian media feed us a steady diet of stories about bomb blasts, gunfights, kidnappings, torture, subjugation of women, dysfunctional government, and scary madrassa schools that are training the next generation of jihadist terrorists. And yes, to many Westerners and especially Indians, Pakistan is the enemy, embodying all that is wrong in the world. Incidents such as the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl, 26/11 and the Osama Bin Laden raid in Abottobad have not helped the cause either. Numerous international relations analysts proclaim that Pakistan is “the most dangerous place in the world” and the border with India is “the most dangerous border in the world.”
(Upon arrival in Karachi) two uniformed bodyguards with rifles who were exceedingly friendly and welcoming climbed onto the pickup truck bed as we started on a 45-minute drive. I was impressed by the massive, well-maintained parks and gardens surrounding the airport. I was also impressed by the general cleanliness, the orderliness of the traffic, the quality of the roads, and the greenery. Coming from a city government background, I was surprised at how organized Karachi was throughout the ride. I also didn’t see many beggars the entire way. I had just spent significant amounts of time in two major Indian cities, Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as several second-tier cities like Mangalore, and none would compare favorably on maintenance and city planning, especially when it came to potholes and waste management. This was the first surprise; I was expecting that piles of garbage and dirt would line the roads and beggars would overflow onto the streets. Surely there is dirt and poverty in Karachi, but far less than I was expecting. Karachi was also less dense and crowded than India’s cities.
My second pleasant surprise was to see numerous large development projects under way. I had read about Pakistan’s sluggish GDP growth and corruption in public works and foreign aid disbursement. This may be true, but construction was going on all over the place: new movie theaters, new malls, new skyscrapers, new roads, and entire new neighborhoods being built from scratch. In this regard it was similar to India and every other part of Asia I had seen recently: new development and rapid change continues apace, something we are seeing less of in the West.
We were also able to do some things which may sound more familiar to Americans: bowling at Karachi’s first bowling alley, intense games of pickup basketball with some local teenagers at a large public park (these kids could really play), or passing through massive and well-appointed malls filled with thousands of happy people of all ages walking around, shopping, or eating at the food court. We even attended a grand launch party for Magnum ice cream bars, featuring many of Pakistan’s A-list actors, models, and businesspeople. A friend who is involved in producing musicals directed an excellent performance at the party, complete with live band, singing, and dancing. This troupe, Made for Stage has also produced shows such as the Broadway musical Chicago to critical acclaim with an all-Pakistani cast for the first time in history.
Even the poor areas we visited, such as the neighborhoods around the Mazar, were filled with families coming out for a picnic or a stroll, enjoying their weekend leisure time in the sun. All I could see were friendly and happy people, including children with striking features running around. At no time did I feel the least bit unsafe anywhere we went, and we definitely went through a mix of neighborhoods with varying profiles.
Lahore is more beautiful overall than Karachi or any large Indian city I’ve seen. Serious effort has gone into keeping the city green and preserving its storied history. Historians would have a field day here. In particular we saw two stunning historic mosques, the Wazir Khan and the Badshahi, both of which should be considered treasures not only for Muslims, Pakistanis, or South Asia, but for all of humanity. I felt it a crime that I’d never even heard of either one. Each of them in different ways features breath-taking architecture and intricate artwork comparable to India’s Taj Mahal. These are must-see sights for any tourist to Lahore. The best way to enjoy the vista of the Badshahi mosque is to have a meal on the rooftop of one of the many superb restaurants on Food Street next to the mosque compound. This interesting area was for hundreds of years an infamous red-light district, made up of a series of old wooden rowhouses that look like they were lifted straight out of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, strangely juxtaposed with one of the country’s holiest shrines. From the roof of Cuckoo’s Den restaurant, we could see all of the massive Badshahi complex along with the adjoining royal fortress, all while having a 5-star meal of kebabs, spicy curries in clay pots, and lassi under the stars. We were fortunate to have very pleasant whether as well. This alfresco dining experience with two good friends encompassed my favorite moments in the city.
We did much more in Lahore. We were given a tour of the renowned Aitchison College, which one of my friends attended. This boys’ private prep school is known for its difficult entrance exams, rigorous academic tradition, illustrious list of alumni since the British founded the school, and its gorgeous and impeccably maintained 200-acre campus that puts most major universities icluding my own Georgetown to shame. Aitchison has been considered one of the best prep schools on the subcontinent since 1886. However, it would have been impossible to get a tour without the alumni connection because security is very thorough.
...I also saw much in this recent visit that did not conform to the main Western narrative for South Asia -- one in which India is steadily rising and Pakistan rapidly collapsing.
Born of certain geopolitical needs and exigencies, this vision was always most useful to those who have built up India as an investment destination and a strategic counterweight to China, and who have sought to bribe and cajole Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment into the war on terrorism.
Seen through the narrow lens of the West’s security and economic interests, the great internal contradictions and tumult within these two large nation-states disappear. In the Western view, the credit-fueled consumerism among the Indian middle class appears a much bigger phenomenon than the extraordinary Maoist uprising in Central India. ------------ Traveling through Pakistan, I realized how much my own knowledge of the country -- its problems as well as prospects -- was partial, defective or simply useless. Certainly, truisms about the general state of crisis were not hard to corroborate. Criminal gangs shot rocket-propelled grenades at each other and the police in Karachi’s Lyari neighborhood. Shiite Hazaras were being assassinated in Balochistan every day. Street riots broke out in several places over severe power shortages -- indeed, the one sound that seemed to unite the country was the groan of diesel generators, helping the more affluent Pakistanis cope with early summer heat.
In this eternally air-conditioned Pakistan, meanwhile, there exist fashion shows, rock bands, literary festivals, internationally prominent writers, Oscar-winning filmmakers and the bold anchors of a lively new electronic media. This is the glamorously liberal country upheld by English-speaking Pakistanis fretting about their national image in the West (some of them might have been gratified by the runaway success of Hello magazine’s first Pakistani edition last week).
But much less conspicuous and more significant, other signs of a society in rapid socioeconomic and political transition abounded. The elected parliament is about to complete its five- year term -- a rare event in Pakistan -- and its amendments to the constitution have taken away some if not all of the near- despotic prerogatives of the president’s office.
Political parties are scrambling to take advantage of the strengthening ethno-linguistic movements for provincial autonomy in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Young men and women, poor as well as upper middle class, have suddenly buoyed the anti-corruption campaign led by Imran Khan, an ex-cricketer turned politician.
After radically increasing the size of the consumerist middle class to 30 million, Pakistan’s formal economy, which grew only 2.4 percent in 2011, currently presents a dismal picture. But the informal sector of the economy, which spreads across rural and urban areas, is creating what the architect and social scientist Arif Hasan calls Pakistan’s “unplanned revolution.” Karachi, where a mall of Dubai-grossness recently erupted near the city’s main beach, now boasts “a first world economy and sociology, but with a third world wage and political structure.”
Even in Lyari, Karachi’s diseased old heart, where young gangsters with Kalashnikovs lurked in the alleys, billboards vended quick proficiency in information technology and the English language. Everywhere, in the Salt Range in northwestern Punjab as well as the long corridor between Lahore and Islamabad, were gated housing colonies, private colleges, fast- food restaurants and other markers of Pakistan’s breakneck suburbanization....
Add this bookstore to the list of India-Pakistan rivalry. A bookstore so big that it is actually called a bank. The book store to beat all bookstores in the subcontinent, I have found books I have never seen anywhere in India at the three-storeyed Saeed Book Bank in leafy Islamabad. The collection is diverse, unique and with a special focus on foreign policy and subcontinental politics (I wonder why?), this bookstore is far more satisfying than any of the magazine-laden monstrosities I seem to keep trotting into in India. ...
Yes, that's right. The meat. There always, always seems to be meat in every meal, everywhere in Pakistan. Every where you go, everyone you know is eating meat. From India, with its profusion of vegetarian food, it seems like a glimpse of the other world. The bazaars of Lahore are full of meat of every type and form and shape and size and in Karachi, I have eaten some of the tastiest rolls ever. For a Bengali committed to his non-vegetarianism, this is paradise regained. Also, the quality of meat always seems better, fresher, fatter, more succulent, more seductive, and somehow more tantalizingly carnal in Pakistan. ....
Let me tell you that there is no better leather footwear than in Pakistan. I bought a pair of blue calf leather belt-ons from Karachi two years ago and I wear them almost everyday and not a dent or scratch! Not even the slightest tear. They are by far the best footwear I have ever bought and certainly the most comfortable. Indian leather is absolutely no match for the sheer quality and handcraftsmanship of Pakistani leather wear.
Yes. Yes, you read right. The roads. I used to live in Mumbai and now I live in Delhi and, yes, I think good roads are a great, mammoth, gargantuan luxury! Face it, when did you last see a good road in India? Like a really smooth road. Drivable, wide, nicely built and long, yawning, stretching so far that you want zip on till eternity and loosen the gears and let the car fly. A road without squeeze or bump or gaping holes that pop up like blood-dripping kitchen knives in Ramsay Brothers films. When did you last see such roads? Pakistan is full of such roads. Driving on the motorway between Islamabad and Lahore, I thought of the Indian politician who ruled a notorious —, one could almost say viciously — potholed state and spoke of turning the roads so smooth that they would resemble the cheeks of Hema Malini. They remained as dented as the face of Frankenstein's monster. And here, in Pakistan, I was travelling on roads that — well, how can one now avoid this? — were as smooth as Hema Malini's cheeks! Pakistani roads are broad and smooth and almost entirely, magically, pot hole free. How do they do it; this country that is ostensibly so far behind in economic growth compared to India? But they do and one of my most delightful experiences in Pakistan has been travelling on its fabulous roads. No wonder the country is littered with SUVs — Pakistan has the roads for such cars! Even in tiny Bajaur in the North West frontier province, hard hit by the Taliban, and a little more than a frontier post, the roads were smoother than many I know in India. Even Bajaur has a higher road density than India! If there is one thing we should learn from the Pakistanis, it is how to build roads. And oh, another thing, no one throws beer bottles or trash on the highways and motorways.
This may be hard to believe, but the first thing that crosses your mind when you drive into Islamabad is suburban Virginia — its wide roads, modern buildings, cleanliness and orderliness is a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of the ancient city of Lahore, some 220 miles east on the Grand Trunk Road.
Islamabad is laid out in a grid with numbered avenues running north to south. The streets are tree lined and flowers abound among the vast open stretches of green space.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful spots is the Margallah Hills National Park. Drive up the winding road on the northern edge of town to the scenic view points and you'll see the broad planned city stretch before you. It's a Sunday afternoon and you could be in any park in any city in the world. Families are out for a stroll and picnicking on park benches. There's a popcorn vendor and an ice cream seller. Kids are playing on a big inflatable slide. Peacocks strut their full plumage as people are busily clicking away on their cellphone cameras. Lively music permeates the air as souvenir sellers are hawking their wares. Off one of the side paths I notice a young couple lunching at a bench, a respectable distance apart from each other but clearly wanting to be alone.
So what's it like here? It's pretty much like everywhere else. On a quiet Sunday afternoon people are out with their families, relaxing and enjoying themselves, taking a break from the stresses and strains of daily life. For all of us this is an image of Pakistan worth remembering. I certainly will.
Islamabad is surely the most well-organized,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 favorably 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.