Much has been written about the Eighties. Many of us in our forties now, look back to that decade with a wistful sigh. I think of it now, growing up in Islamabad, the city laid out perfectly on a grid designed by the Greek planners Doxiadis, and feel a heady mix of nostalgia and warmth flooding back for the new Federal capital built in the footsteps of the Margalla Hills, framed to the north by the undulating silhouette of the pine-covered hills.
Islamabad was a city so new, you could still smell the paint in the Eighties. Back then, no one could really say they were from Islamabad, because until 1960, the city itself didn’t exist. Today, fifty-five years since it’s conception, a generation can proudly call themselves as hailing from Islamabad. Over the decades, and with the increase in population, the city has pushed at its boundaries to become the Islamabad, as we know it today.
The Eighties was the decade that gave us the iconic video game Pac Man, the rise of the home computer Spectrum, it gave us the Pet Shop Boys and Wham, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, MTV and Madonna, Footloose and Flashdance, Michael Jackson and much more. This was the era that gave us Nazia and Zoheb Hassan and Disco Diwaneh. It also gave us a long, seemingly endless martial law under a General turned President turned Dictator whose rule was brought to a conclusive end with the case of exploding mangoes that mysteriously blew up his C-130 mid-air and paved the way for free and fair elections in 1988.
This was a time when, we had one television channel on PTV (Pakistan Television) and where the Encyclopedia Britannica reigned supreme. We eagerly awaited consignments of chilli chips from Agha’s in Karachi and enjoyed delicious ice cream doled out at Yummy 36. It was a time, when one spent hours browsing through Mr. Books and Book Nook, where dusty books vied with one another for the reader’s attention. And just round the corner, the ice cream vending machine “walaa” sold a creamy two toned ice cream at a humble three rupees. Long before deli’s and café’s dotted the city, United Bakery was the “go to” for all matters sweet.
It was a time, where we drove up the Margalla mountains to Daman – e – Koh for the endless, uninterrupted views of Islamabad and for the clear, still, fragrant mountain air. That view remains even to this day, although it has seen many new additions to its skyline over the decades.
Long before Siri, iTunes and the iPhone, there existed a world where rotary dials were the norm and not a retro object to be found in a museum of the “olden days”. In this current day and age, my calendar, my contacts, my notes are all in sync with my phone, which is in sync with my laptop, so that a change in one device will update on all. It is all seamlessly, dizzyingly interconnected and everything is stored electronically. But back then, one had the simple pleasure of maintaining a bulging Filofax, that held the key to one’s life, one’s notes, telephone numbers and addresses. The Filofax although founded in the twenties, regained huge popularity in the Eighties as the “must have accessory”. And even though, I knew all my friends numbers by heart, I would still write them down.
Cordless phones were an imported luxury and it was only by the end of the decade that mobile phones started appearing on the horizon. Crossed crackling landlines were a daily occurrence, where one encountered the lives of many unsuspecting people busily engaged in their own conversations. From besotted teenagers, to elderly aunties, a cross section of society was always entangled in one cross line or another. Dumb calls were an inextricable part of this decade where caller ID was still unheard of especially on the rotary dial phones. Many a crank call was placed only for the caller to close the phone having heard the voice of his loved one or her irate mother or, worse still, her furious brother at the other end of the line.
This was the time when music was heard on TDK cassettes and I remember my first ever portable, gleaming, red Sony Walkman. This was at least two decades before Steve Jobs would shake up the music industry and before music would be downloaded straight onto tiny, shiny, lightweight and gorgeously packaged iPods.
Home in the Eighties was a government residence in the quiet but leafy sector of F-6. House No. 7 was in a calm cul de sac, street 47, where all the neighbourhood children spent hours playing outside. It was a safe time and it was a simple time. There was no Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to compete for our attention. We lived life in the present moment and not online in a perfectly styled snapshot, waiting for the likes, the comments, the oooohs and the aaaahs to come pouring in. There was none of that. We played outside in the heat, elbows and knees grazed, mindful of only the present moment because there were no competing online worlds. Between cycling and roller skating, skipping and playing tag, there was little else that interested me between the time I came back from school till the time my mother stood on the veranda calling us in, usually, at the first sound of the Maghrib azaan floating through the air.
As the sun set, the houses and hence the street, would then be plunged into darkness, as the relatively new and unheard of phenomenon of “loadshedding” would kick in. This, we were told, was how we could avert an energy crisis, by having the supply switched off for us, at regular intervals, usually in the evening, when, naturally, one needed electricity the most. Of course, now this is commonplace, and we accept it as an uncomfortable, unfortunate and very real part of life. But in those days, of course, there were no UPS’s or better still generators and so stacks of candles and torches were all we had to go by in terms of light. I remember spending many a dusky evening with my father, taking long walks in our short drive, with him explaining everything from the Cold War to Wordsworth’s poetry. In the fading light of day, I can still see his hands clasped behind his back, pacing his steps, sharing his thoughts and his silence with me.
This was my Islamabad in 1985. It was a quiet era for me as a child, but around us, the foundations were being laid for great changes ahead. The decade long Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, would eventually be a contributing factor, but not the sole one, towards the break up of the Soviet Union. The Cold War would come to an end and the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down. The map of the world would change forever. Fifteen countries would be carved out of the Soviet Union alone. East and West Berlin would be reunited.
Fast forward to thirty years on, and the house and the street are still there. So many residents would have come and gone, each one stamping the house with their own stories, their own memories, their own references and their own preferences. Somewhere in the back garden, will be the loquat tree that bore fruit religiously, year in and year out. Maybe the garden wall is still missing a brick through which our next door neighbour’s children and my sister and I used to chat. Maybe the guava tree, apricot tree and the banana tree are all still standing. Maybe the neighbour’s mulberry tree still leans into our garden, and maybe one can still pull down a branch or two and help oneself to ripe juicy mulberries. Maybe the boundary wall is still leaning sideways or maybe it eventually collapsed and had to be replaced. Perhaps, the gate is still painted black, with fragrant honeysuckle framing it on either side. Perhaps, the garage still creaks when it is rolled up and shuttered down, morning and evening.
Perhaps, all of it is the same or perhaps all of it has changed. One will never know and perhaps I will never go back to that street. It lives in my mind’s eye, perfect and idyllic, a slice of my childhood, a slice of the Eighties and perhaps it’s best to leave it that way.
And, anyway, as my father always said, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.