Bronwyn Curran, writing for The National
On Pakistan’s dishevelled motorways, the nation’s under-played poetic soul is on display – on the back of lorries.
The riot of coloured patterns, feathery chains and gaudy portraits adorning the heavy movers have made the popular old Bedfords a national icon.
Miniatures of the six-wheeler frescoes-in-motion sell in souvenir shops. Less famous are the Urdu couplets scrawled above the rear bumper bars. Some are witty, many are lovelorn, most are slightly self-parodying and all bring relief from the headaches of long-distance travel in a troubled land.
Lyrics on the road are an old tradition in this former crossroads for merchants plying Central Asia’s bountiful bazaars. Such places as the winding Qisa Khawani bazaar (Street of Storytellers) in the north-west frontier city of Peshawar, a resting place in past centuries for caravans travelling between China, Persia, India, Samarkand and beyond, bear testament to the popularity of oral tale-telling among weary travellers.
Today’s lorry drivers have taken the tradition of poems-for-a-penny out of the Silk Route-era caravan and put them on to the tailplanes of their belching Bedfords.
On the Great Trunk Road, linking Kabul with Kolkata and immortalised by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the verses of Sufi poets and scholars in elegant Urdu script reach out to drivers.
At a workshop for lorry painting near Rawalpindi, one lorry received a 25,000 rupee (Dh1,100) decorative makeover. A full art makeover with elaborate ornamentation and painted verse can cost up to one million rupees.
“Every lorry should have poetry,” said Ashgar, who earns US$50 (Dh185) a month keeping the exterior panels polished, the engine in order and his driver-boss happy. “Whoever reads it will become happy. When we see a good verse in front of us, it makes us push our lorry harder.”
The couplets are delicate and often subtle, in line with the tradition of Urdu, Punjabi and Seraiki poetry. Their placement above bumper bars, where many vehicles in the West display stickers with crude messages, is a testament to the pop-culture embrace Pakistanis give to Sufi verse and classical Urdu couplets.
It showcases the romantic dispositions beneath culturally imposed repression, permeating pop music, political slogans, school classes and village chatter. Beneath the carnival of colour, the cacophony of jingling chains and the craziness of cat-and-mouse motorway navigation, a quiet couplet can calm a driver’s rising blood pressure.
Bulleh Shah’s poetry, which frequently takes aim at religious orthodoxy, is alive and well in contemporary Pakistani culture. His anti-violence stance, at a time of strife between Muslims and Sikhs in southern Punjab and Sindh, pitted him against the fundamentalists of his time. That is one of the reasons he is so popular today.
His words are sung by several subcontinental rock stars, including the world-acclaimed Pakistani band Junoon and invoked in the lawyers’ protests of the past 18 months. “When I acquired the knowledge of love, I dreaded the mosque/ I fled to my Lord’s dwelling, where a thousand sounds reverberate,” is another homage to Bulleh Shah.
The verse etched on the rears of lorries is only occasionally original. Some drivers simply ask the artists who paint their lorries to make up a couplet mentioning their home village.
More often it is a variation of the work of Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s late national poet, the 19th century ghazal composer Mirza Ghalib or Bulleh Shah.
Their couplets are generally expressions of Sufism, the liberal artistic Islamic tradition that informs the sensibilities of most Pakistanis, yet is frequently drowned out by headline-grabbing militants.
Urdu evolved from a Mughal-era martial tongue (blending Turkic, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit it suited the multi-ethnic Mughal armies) to the language of literary courts under Indian nabobs, flourishing in such northern cities as Lucknow and Delhi and becoming Pakistan’s official language after partition in 1947.
Considered one of the most sophisticated languages of the subcontinent, Urdu has been the choice of many of the region’s otherwise Persian-orientated poets and writers.
The British-made Bedford lorries flooded the Pakistani market in the 1960s. Forty years on they are still the most prestigious of the 800,000 lorries on the country’s roads. Much of the 228,000km motorway network is potholed and cracked. Ascents up mountains are narrow and skirt hair-raising cliffs. Accidents frequently claim upwards of 40 lives at a time.
The lorry drivers also must contend with reckless passenger vans driving at breakneck speed. They are at the mercy of predatory police who see them as easy targets for extortion, and their nomadic wanderings make them one of the country’s highest-risk groups for HIV infection. A sense of fatalism pervades the bumper-bar verse: “The life of a driver is a strange game. If you don’t die on the road, you end up in jail.”
“A truck driver’s life is truly miserable,” said Haji Javed Butt, head of the All Pakistan Lorry Drivers’ Union. “They drive long, lonely highways without water. Sometimes they drink from drains. When you’re driving under scorching sun for days and weeks with little rest, you can easily go mad. The drivers write poetry because it relaxes their nerves.
“When the drivers stop to sleep on the side of the road, exhausted, and they look up and see the colourfulness of their trucks and the verses on their bumpers, it revives them.”
*Picture: A full art makeover of a Bedford lorry can cost up to one million rupees (Dh 75, 000) Warrick Page for The National