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uivaLiterary festivals have become quite a South Asian phenomenon in recent years.  In India they have taken off in Jaipur, Chandigarh, Delhi, Kochi, Pune, Goa and a host of other locations.  In Pakistan they have been taking place in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad for the last five years or so.  The Islamabad Literary Festival 2017 took place at the Margala Hotel over the Easter weekend.

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I have been attending the Lahore Literary Festival since it began, but this was my first time at its Islamabad equivalent.  I find these events really heartening: it is undeniably encouraging to see thousands and thousands of people giving up their weekend to pack out a hotel in the centre of the city and listen to people giving lectures on the history of Pakistani literature in English, on Urdu poetry, or discussing recurrent themes in contemporary Pakistani literature.

Foreign observers have thankfully stopped finding this bizarre.  In the early days of the Lahore Literary Festival correspondents from the UK and the US covered the event in tones of mild bemusement, employing gratuitously sensational phrases describing Lahorites dodging bombs to attend the festival.  The festivals have been running for long enough now that they have become part of the social landscape, and foreigners air-dropped in to observe the event at the behest of some desk-bound editor no longer find them surprising.  The sight of thousands of Pakistani people coming together to talk about books is no longer weird, as if it ever should have been.

These festivals, after all, provide an opportunity for Pakistani’s “liberal elite” to enjoy a day in the sun.  I do not use that term negatively.  Why should it be negative?  The liberal elite of Pakistan have significant influence on society and use that influence positively and constructively.  They come in their thousands to talk about poetry and novels, as well as less obviously literary topics such as Pakistan’s looming water crisis, and they clearly care.  They do not come up with solutions to Pakistan’s problems – how could they, in a three-day event? – but the fact that discussions are ongoing, and passionately, is a positive start in itself.

The narrative about Pakistan is overwhelmingly negative.  It is good to be able to report that thousands of people were willing to come out, discuss poems, buy novels, drink tea, and chat politely with anyone they could find.  Clearly, it’s not all bad news.

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In recent years the Pakistani rail network has become a byword for mismanagement and neglect.  Rolling stock is old, trains are frequently delayed, and stations have not been improved since the days of the Raj.  However, in May 2015 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the “Green Line Express”, marking the first major investment in the railways for some time.

The Green Line runs from the Margalla Station in the capital, Islamabad, all the way to Karachi, stopping at place such as Rawalpindi, Lahore, Bahawalpur, and Hyderabad, among others.  I recently took the Green Line from Islamabad to Lahore with my son and father.  The train itself is shiny and new, with a Chinese locomotive and locally-made carriages.  The driver was happy to show us into the engine, much to my son’s delight, and was clearly proud of being involved with such a modern project.

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Seating was comfortable, in 6-berth sleeper compartments, consisting of three bunks on either side of the carriage.  Refreshments are frequently served – sandwiches and the ubiquitous Pakistani chai – and I understand that a full cooked meal is served to those continuing all the way to Karachi, though as we were only going to Lahore we were not able to partake.  Amenity kits, consisting of a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a shoe mitt and soap were handed out.  Each compartment has six pillows and thick fleecy blankets, as well as a flatscreen TV.  WiFi was supposed to be offered but it never worked for us!

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We left on time and arrived in Lahore on time.  On our return journey the train arrived fifteen minutes late – not bad, considering it had travelled something like 1300km through unseasonably heavy rain and localised flooding!  We enjoyed chatting to the many friendly Pakistani people on the train who were all hospitable, kind, and eager to share their food with us.

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Prices are slightly more expensive than regular trains or buses – but the Green Line is immeasurably more comfortable and a much better way of meeting Pakistani people.  I would recommend it without reservation – but be sure to book tickets in good time as the service is very popular.

Slightly over a year ago construction work started in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.  Construction work is nothing new around here – Pakistan’s population is growing rapidly and houses are constantly being enlarged, with office blocks and malls mushrooming in similar profusion.  But this construction work was on a different scale.  Some of the most important roads in Rawalpindi and Islamabad – Murree Road, 9th Avenue, the Kashmir Highway, Jinnah Avenue – were torn up, more or less at once.  That’s perhaps half of the most significant roads in the capital of Pakistan rendered unusable overnight.

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Predictably, chaos ensued.  Real, genuine chaos.  Journeys that would previously have taken twenty minutes took an hour or more.  Dust clouds erupted from the construction sites.  When It rained – and last winter it rained a lot – the dust turned to mud, and cars slipped and slid across the cities.  I remember one on particular evening travelling from southern Rawalpindi to central Islamabad, and spending nearly two hours in a clunky, smelly taxi, stuck in traffic, surrounded by thick clouds of choking dust and the constant blaring of horns.  If Dante added more circles to his vision of hell, that would have to be a prime candidate.

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Now, though, all is forgiven.  The metro bus is here!

If you’re wondering what a metro bus is, here is an explanation: it is a transport network, with a single dedicated roadway and stations along the way.  Only metro buses can use it, meaning that there is never any traffic.  Thus the journey from southern Rawalpindi to the centre of Islamabad is reduced from an hour or more to a mere 30 minutes.

And that’s not all.  That journey of an hour or more would have been spent jammed into an uncomfortable, crammed minibus, with no air conditioning, no comfort, and no space for luggage.  These minibuses are incredibly unsafe, badly driven, and hellishly uncomfortable.  In their place we have brand new Turkish buses, spotlessly clean, with air conditioning and automatic doors.  They leave every minute – miss one, and you only have to wait for sixty seconds for the next.

And even THAT’S not all.  The stations are fully automatic: you simply beep your token or card against the terminal and you can walk straight through.  A ticket for any single trip costs 20 rupees (roughly $0.20).  No queues, no bother, no stress.  Even the stations are wifi-equipped.

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The metro bus is now my preferred form of transportation.  It is completely effortless and utterly wonderful.  Complaints have been raised about its cost – and to be honest it cost an absolute bundle, perhaps $400 million, with the usual accusations of corruption and nepotism (to give an example, the contract for providing the stations with flowers and trees was given to a company run by the brother of a government minister) – but these seem churlish in light of the fact that the capital of Pakistan now possesses a public transport system that, honestly, would not be out of place in any city in the world.

It’s an odd feeling, in a country where so much is neglected, poorly-maintained, shoddy, broken, or generally worn down, to use a publicly-funded amenity which is genuinely world-class.  God bless you, Metro bus, and may you bring joy and ease to many millions of Pakistanis.