Paradise without the politics

The truth was, the civil war seemed a million miles away and the most urgent situation "on the groun

Even though Sri Lanka has the ideal combination of elements - beautiful beaches, no visa requirements for Pakistani citizens, and a short plane ride from Karachi - I'd never been there prior to attending the Galle Literary Festival. Everything was beautiful - the fort within which the festival venues were located, the coastline, the sumptuous hotel rooms (mine was larger than my flat in London). The only glitch was the ending of the ceasefire between the government and the Tamil Tigers the day before the event started.

One festival-goer asked me if I'd considered cancelling my trip. "What, and stay in the safe haven that is Karachi instead?" I asked. The truth was the civil war seemed a million miles away and the most urgent situation "on the ground" was Gore Vidal's lost luggage. After three days of panel discussions about prejudice and conflict - which barely mentioned the end of the ceasefire - the silence around the politics started to pierce holes through the beauty and magic of the festival.

From Galle, it was onward to Jaipur. The line-up at that festival included Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt, Manil Suri, Christopher Hampton, Indra Sinha, John Berendt, and the Bollywood superstar, Amir Khan. But the participant for whom the festival received most interview requests was Fatima Bhutto, Benazir's beautiful and articulate niece.

The excitement around Fatima extends to the UK press it seems, since at least two newspapers have run interviews with her in the past few weeks, and within hours of Benazir's death I heard a senior BBC correspondent talking about his great desire to meet her. In Pakistan, she is not made a fuss of. Given the cries of outrage about dynastic politics with which the world's press greeted the naming of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari as the head of the PPP, it's more than a little hypocritical to see all the furore around a young woman who has no political role whatsoever and has yet to translate promise into accomplishment. She's only 25. Stop crowding around her, and let's see what she can become without the word "heir" weighing her down.

Strange new facts

I had been to India several times before but this was the first visit I made with a "reporting visa". This required me to report in with officialdom within 24 hours of arrival and departure from each city (this is the most common form of visa - the non-reporting ones are harder to come by). In Delhi, the process of reporting in took just a couple of minutes, but in Jaipur I had to answer a series of questions so detailed that an old friend who accompanied me to the station said he'd learned things about me he never knew.

Given the patriarchy that runs through the subcontinent, I spent almost as much time answering questions about my father as I did about myself. Even more irritating is the fact that India and Pakistan give each other's citizen's visas for specific cities rather than for the whole nation. So I've been to Delhi three times now, yet have never had the necessary visa to drive out a couple of hours to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. On the brighter side, everyone I met, other than a surly immigration official on the way out, was extremely friendly. The man who drove me from Delhi to Jaipur announced expansively: "Pakistani or Indian, Hindu or Muslim, what difference does it make? Really there are only three kinds of people in the world: men, women and the third sex."

Ghostly memories

Back in Karachi, it's still hard to believe there are elections scheduled in three weeks. There are almost no signs of campaigning other than posters and banners strung around the city. Even those function primarily as ghostly reminders since most of them have been in place since the run-up to the 8 January elections, which were postponed after Benazir's assassination.

So it's impossible for me to drive out from my house without seeing posters of Benazir waving down at me or reading banners that proclaim "The Return of Benazir is the Return of Hope". There is a sense of limbo, a lull. No one really seems to know what will happen next.

Kamila Shamsie's most recent novel is "Broken Verses" (Bloomsbury, £11.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God