Once it used to be London, a journey to which led to envious remarks in Indian society. Today, phoren travel has become an unexciting middle-class habit, but a journey to Pakistan still evokes universal interest that cuts across class. I can only ascribe it to the curiosity of any Indian to know how his slightly demented brother is doing, after he left home some years ago in a huff one night. The plane is half empty (or full), so the delegation of six has window seats to peer at the land below, to see when it stops being ours. Lahore airport looks much like Coimbatore or Kozhikode and is a bedlam with tired passengers delayed by fog. Our plane to Islamabad is delayed until 9.30 pm, when the fog has worsened. The pilot is unable to find his way to the head of the runway without a pilot jeep, but having got there, takes off in conditions that would have closed Delhi airport. So I take seriously my friend Fasahat's remark that 'our pilots are good'.
Islamabad is, of course, a new city—the creation of Ayub Khan who apparently spied a suitable flattish-looking expanse as close as he could to his native Hazara and then imperiously shifted his capital out of Karachi. There have been other capitals in the post-colonial subcontinent: Chandigarh, Bhubaneshwar and Gandhinagar, but Islamabad's government complex is the best. Spring is about eight weeks behind Delhi, so their maalis are just digging flower beds—wheat and mustard are as yet unplanted and there is no birdsong. I am only an amateur birdwatcher but the Indian embassy's deputy chief of mission, Sudhir Vyas, is today probably the country's most well-known ornithologist. He confirms my suspicion that the birds have migrated south to avoid the cold and are expected back in about three weeks, after the bitter cold of the night has lifted. But the same dry cold that is such a nuisance is what puts the colour and sweetness in the Chaman grapes and Kandahari anars being sold in the market.
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