Holiday Postmortem | Robin Nakai
Why go to Pakistan for a holiday?
Well, the immediate reason was the presence of some family there—my nephew Sanjay Bhalla is the Indian naval attaché in Islamabad, and it was his daughter Aditi’s birthday on 18 February. But there’s also an older connection: My great-grandfather was a thanedaar in the town of Mudke, in the Kasur area, and a relative, Sardar Asif Nakai, was at one time chief minister of Pakistani Punjab.
What were the formalities for the trip?
We needed visas, just as for other countries. Only, we needed to specify the cities we would be visiting. And we couldn’t get permission to visit Kasur.
But, I believe you ran into some trouble at Wagah?
That’s right. We had set off by road from Chandigarh at 4am and stopped at Kartarpur for breakfast. We were at Wagah by 9.45am, with the idea of crossing the border on foot. However, we discovered there’s a law that allows only people over the age of 65 to walk across the border; others have to take a bus from Amritsar! Fortunately, a few calls from the embassy did the trick and we were allowed to cross over. From Wagah to Lahore, we took a taxi that my nephew had organized, and from Lahore, we went on a Daewoo bus to Islamabad on a superhighway. The countryside seemed quite bleak and dry, dotted by huge kinnow orchards. The bus ride itself was great fun: All the co-passengers were Pakistani and made out immediately that we were not, and there was much conversation. Pakistani Punjabi is more mellifluous and Urdu-oriented than Indian Punjabi but we had no trouble at all understanding it.
Vir, Robin, Aditi, Sanjay and Priya at Shah Faisal Mosque. ( Photograph by Robin Nakai)
But the high of the journey, for me, was crossing the five rivers—the panj abs—within a span of 8 hours. First the Sutlej and Beas in India, and then, progressively, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum. Though they’re not a patch on their old selves, their riverbeds indicate just how mighty they must have been.
What were your impressions of Islamabad?
Nice, quiet, clean and quite eerie really, for there’s very little sign of life. Of course, Islamabad is a super-rich city, but there were no street dogs, no kids playing on the sprawling lawns. It was like a very posh ghost town. And the city is criss-crossed by a fantastic network of roads.
Did you do any sightseeing around the city?
Oh yes, we went everywhere, from the Sunday Bazaar, where you get everything from burkas to G-strings, to the Shah Faisal Mosque. It’s located against the backdrop of the picturesque Margalla Hills and is really an architectural marvel—even though I thought the minarets resembled rockets! It was paid for by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and is dedicated to his memory. The main hall was closed to visitors but the ISI security personnel assigned to my nephew had it opened, and it really is a sight worth seeing.
I also visited Saidpur, a village nearby that predates Islamabad. It is now promoted as a heritage site and is probably one of the few spots where one can get a glimpse of the typical Punjabi village, complete with adobe mud huts and rural lifestyles. We also did the rounds of a few art galleries: Pakistani artists are really very good, and we specially liked the work of Raja Changez Sultan.
But, perhaps, one of the most eye-catching sights that we saw was a bathroom in the Canadian military attache’s house! Heather, his wife, is a connoisseur of local culture and has a fantastic collection of Afghani and Pakistani art. The bathroom in question is done up entirely using Pakistani truck art—it was fabulous.
Did the elections affect your holiday at all?
Only in so far as 18 February, Monday—the day of the elections—and the next day were holidays. The 18th was also Aditi’s 13th birthday, and I even got interviewed on local television as an outsider on the significance of the elections! Later, we heard the elections had been conducted peacefully.
Did you make any trips out of Islamabad?
We went on a day trip to the Murree hills, two hours away from Islamabad by car.
Open roads: The superhighway connecting Lahore to Islamabad. ( Photograph by Robin Nakai)
The road passes through some arid areas and there’s hardly any greenery, but over a distance of 60km, you climb 6,500ft and the weather turns from warm to really cold. Murree is beautiful—not a patch on Shimla though, but possibly better maintained because there are fewer people around. We also dropped in at the Lawrence College, the sister school to Sanawar—my wife is an Old Sanawarian—and the headmaster was very welcoming and even presented my nephew and me with a tie each.
What was your biggest takeaway from the holiday?
Well, apart from the warmth of the family and a carpet we bought for our house back in Chandigarh, it was the feeling of how stupid we were to have divided the country! We are the same people and our feelings and cultures are so similar. In the markets in Islamabad, we heard people talking Punjabi and it was weird to understand every word they were saying in a foreign country. The so-called hatred between Indians and Pakistanis is only skin-deep and I really think the people could have sorted out the division issue much better than politicians ever did. I never expected to enjoy myself so much in Pakistan and I’m going back for sure—and this time, I will visit Kasur.
The Delhi Transport Corp. operates buses three times a week between Delhi and Lahore. One-way adult fare is Rs1,250. Alternatively, fly to Islamabad with a West Asian carrier, with a stopover at their hub. Two-way fares on Emirates, with a halt at Dubai, will be around Rs40,000.
Businessman Robin Nakai, 55, travelled with wife Amrita to Pakistan for a nine-day holiday in February. The elections, held bang in the middle of their visit, did little to upset their plans
(As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at firstname.lastname@example.org )