What better time than the present to discover that the best things in life are free
I am social distancing in Islamabad. Out of context, that said would possibly evoke a snide response, something like but of course. Islamabad is still referred to in casual conversations as the city that sleeps by 8pm. The city where you don’t see anyone out on the roads in the evening, where it is that dead quiet. The city that has no soul. Regardless of whether all this is correct or not, Islamabad has grown up on these accusations.
Islamabad is still strange to me. I moved here last year after getting married, and my husband identifies himself as a ‘first-generation’ Islamabad person. The city’s lack of identity is further driven home in a conversation with a casual stranger, who asks me “where are you from?” I’m originally from Lahore I say, but my husband is very much from Islamabad. “No-one is from Islamabad,” the seventy-something lady retorts sharply. My husband agrees with her, and says that his parents moved here from Karachi when the Capital was shifted. So rests the case.
Nowadays, we are all social distancing, indeed. There is nothing politically correct or incorrect about that. You say that no matter which part of the world you are in. Or you say I am self-isolating. But I have been self-isolating ever since I moved to this city. I have no friends here, nor family. So when self-isolating is coined in Covid 19 context, I embrace the thought wholeheartedly. When friends ask, “how is it going?” referring to one’s state of disconnect – from people, from reality – I divulge that the present state isn’t all that much different from the way I have spent the last many months.
But I digress.
The state of disconnect is given a dystopian twist by my husband in a conversation with my mother over the phone one evening, when he tells her, “it seems we are the only two people left in the world,” referring to himself and me, the two people who make up our home. And so, what do we do? The restaurants in this city shut down just the week after we sat in Kohsar Market on a beautifully sunny spring morning having tea. And so did everything else. The jokes being shared about which outfit to wear to take the trash out took a few more days to come home to roost in one’s mindfulness. The world was sliding away, quietly, slipping out of grasp. Hour by hour.
But spring was still in the air. And beyond my tiny fourth-floor terrace world-view, it beckoned. Come rainy days or sunny-cloudy ones. This was the spring, after all, that I had waited for through the city’s seemingly never-ending winter. Now it was time. But Alice had gone down through the rabbit hole. So what, though. Time to make the most of that rabbit hole (thank you, Lewis Carroll for that analogy to 2020).
This was the spring, after all, that I had waited for through Islamabad’s seemingly never-ending winter. Now it was time. But Alice had gone down through the rabbit hole. So what, though. Time to make the most of that rabbit hole.
My first plan for perfectly harmless weekend social distancing took us into the heart of Taxila. It was a perfectly straightforward plan – we get in the car and drive off down the main road on towards Taxila, where you just happen to come across the signboard for the Sirkap site right on the road, and you turn into the parking lot and wander off into the ether. So I told my husband. I’d been there, done that. Except that, that was then and this is now. I whizzed on down the ‘main road’, memory clearly failing me between my last trip some years ago and now. At some point, we decided to ask for directions to the Taxila Museum and headed off in that direction. The Museum was closed, of course; and there was no Sirkap signboard in sight. I drove on. After a bit, the road opened up into what I was looking for – glorious green fields right and left. Silence, empty spaces, barely a soul in sight. And it seemed all was really very well with the world. I parked the car to one side, and went and sat on the wild grass. Sirkap could well be relegated to another day then.
There are many weekends that come and go while humans are practicing anti-human traits. By which I mean social distancing and self-isolation. Or social isolation and self-distancing. Islamabad is anything if not the most beautiful setting in which to practice all the above. There is the road that goes up to Shah Allah Ditta (with its Buddhist caves) and up and onwards with many little restaurants dotting it. There’s the one that takes you beyond Monal into similarly rolling beautiful hilly area, and there is the evergreen Murree Road too. I’m sure there are many others that I will discover, sooner or later. You can choose any road for the day and drive off down it. As long as you aren’t looking for anything in particular; like you know, in the lines of the song that says “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
There’s the Sunday that I take the wheel again. Yes, my husband is a willing accomplice… This time, down Margalla Road we go. There is a stretch here that reminds me of Hampstead Heath in North London. Especially at night, when the inky blackness envelopes and the suspension of reality is as possible as the suspension of a gazillion miles that separate. But it is broad daylight, and to my left whizz by trees laden with perfectly pomegranate pink and white tinged blossoms, delicate as a butterfly’s wing. I admit, I do seem like a bit of a road hazard at times when I spot something that is oh-so delightful. Down the road, past the Islamabad landmarks of Trail 3 and Trail 5, there are more trees to admire, bearing cheery yellow flowers and white ones and lurid pink and purple, on and on till as far as you can see. Till where you turn on to Ataturk Avenue, and there are those trees with pale sunset orange blossoms lining the road to one side and the ones with lacy white flowers here and there on the other. My vocabulary of botany (or is it gardening?) falls woefully short in Islamabad as I grapple with visual and verbal imagery.
It is a pleasure to see that I’m not the only one indulging in tree-spotting as a social distancing pastime. There are cyclists, alone and in groups (is it possible to go cycling as a group perfectly spaced out at 6 feet apart?), there are those out for a serious walk, and some jogging too. There are a lot of folks out there on the roads practising healthy self-isolation. Which makes it seem strange when the policeman at the juncture where I turn towards Ataturk Avenue asks me from behind his mask about where I am headed. It is a free country and there is no prohibition on two people sitting in a car driving around. I explain to him that I will just drive down to the end of the road, take a U-turn and then head back home. “Oh achcha, aap tafreeh ke liye nikli hui hain madam,” he responds with a smile. Indeed yes, it feels great to still be able to do that. I am glad these pleasures are still mine and haven’t been taken away.