Arts, Culture & Media

Truck poetry in Pakistan

One aspect of Pakistan that generally doesn't hit headlines is the traffic. If you're someone who thinks drivers in Boston or New York or Los Angeles are nuts, you haven't been to Karachi.

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Driving in Karachi's crazy traffic can be very stressful. The roads here are filled with potholes, and the air pollution is choking. Driving against the flow of traffic is so common that people casually refer to it as �doing a bit of wrong-way driving.�

But amidst the mess of it all, there is one source of pleasure for me. That is the sight of the wonderfully decorated public transport vehicles. The buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws and taxi cabs are decked out in brightly colored paint with intricate designs. Sometimes they have larger-than-life portraits or sceneries painted on them. (See examples in the slideshow below.)

The icing on the cake though are the verses of poetry that are often written on the back of the vehicles. I sometimes even find myself chasing down a rickshaw or a truck just to read the entire verse properly.

It's usually just a couplet � two lines with the same meter. Maybe the closest equivalent in the United States is the bumper sticker, as the verses on the vehicles here are often witty and humorous. But they can also be deadly serious, about painful love, a comment on society or expressing a deep philosophical idea.

At a roadside teashop I sit down to talk with auto-rickshaw driver Imran Sabir. He tells me his story of heart break.

Three years ago he fell in love with a girl but it wasn't meant to be. He says that she was just playing games and he was left heart broken. He says it drove him crazy and inspired him to write this Urdu poem:

�I am a desirer of that flower that has been cleansed by dew.
I don't pick flowers that have been trampled on.
One doesn't set their heart on anyone
Whoever finds a place in someone's heart is never called upon� -[Translated]

But Sabir didn't try to read his poem at a poetry recital, or have it printed in a magazine. The most obvious thing for him to do was to have it painted on his rickshaw for all to read.

�This is in a very real sense a public conversation which is not in books, which is not in the type of middle class milieus � it's on the street,� said Manan Ahmed, professor of Islam at the Free University of Berlin.

�The reason these things exist on public transportation is because these conversations are existing in places where the folks driving these vehicles hang out.�

Of course, the drivers aren't writing these verses in a vacuum. Poetry plays a very prominent role in popular culture here � not just as a form of art, but also as a part of everyday conversation. People use couplets to explain a situation, something like the way proverbs are used. But for the owners of public transport vehicles, it's also about defining your public identity.

�You have to assert who you are,� Ahmed said. �You have to then lay out your broken heart. And then have a political stand, on say inflation, the government, the city.�

Take for example this verse on the back of another rickshaw:

�Oh nightingale, why do you cry? Are you without a flower?
I should be the one to cry, for I have no peace in my life.� �[Translated]

�Neither the rich nor the poor have any peace in life,� Shiraz, the writer of the verse and the driver of the rickshaw explains.

�If the millionaires and billionaires don't have it then where will the poor get it from? So I wrote this on my rickshaw so that if anyone passes by they will know that I don't have peace � no one has it. Someone in America doesn't have it; someone in London doesn't have it. And the person in Pakistan absolutely has no peace.�

Another rickshaw driver, Amjad Khan, shows me the verse on the back of his rickshaw but explains that he didn't write it himself.

A friend of his was killed in a Taliban suicide attack earlier this year in the northern town of Timergara. The deceased friend had written this verse in his diary before he died:

�If the world turns when you have money
Then in poverty those special relationships break�

Khan decided to have the verse painted on his rickshaw.

�I can't go around reading this poem to everyone, but by writing it on a rickshaw, whoever passes by it can read it,� Khan said.

�Others have written better poems on their vehicles. Wherever they go in the neighbourhoods and alleyways, everyone there reads it.�

Maybe the couplets on the rickshaws and trucks aren't taken as seriously as the recognized works of classically trained poets. But, Khan argues, those who make fun of public transport poetry are just jealous. He quotes a couplet to make his point:

�Chalti Hai Gari Urhti Hai Dhool
Jalte Hein Dushman Khelte Hein Phool�

The truck gets going, kicking up dust
Enemies burn in envy, as the flowers play -[Translated]

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