Character on wheels

December 8, 2013

Character on wheels

There is a lot you can tell about a people by observing the way they move -- in an open field, on a city street and on a highway.

Germans are the fastest on the road. They also walk and talk fast. Gulf Arabs are reckless drivers. They are also reckless with money and imported labour. Singaporean pedestrians wait for the green signal before crossing an empty road at dawn. They are also law abiding citizens in everything else they do, at all hours. African Americans walk with a spring in their step. They also have buoyancy in their music and dance.

Pakistanis walk leisurely. They also think and act leisurely. Never in a hurry to get anywhere, they frequently slow down or take a detour or sit down under a tree to enjoy or shield from the weather, light a cigarette, or to have a good look at the woman in a tight burqa. If they run into an acquaintance or even a friendly stranger they are always willing to engage in gupshup here and offer unsolicited advice there. They give in to every distraction they come across on the way. Nothing is too ordinary to be passed up and no business is too private for them to leave it alone. So they’ll forget where they were going and why when they come across a wedding or funeral party, an argument between a shopkeeper and his customer, a roadside recruitment drive for jihad, or rival groups of khawaja saraas hurling graphic obscenities and sharp stones at each other.

“It’s only when the military establishment decides not to pick up people and release those in their custody, will we see a difference.”

When the same Pakistani jumps into the driving seat and hits the road, sharing it with dead and alive animals, pedestrians, bicycles, and interesting and noisy motorised contraptions, the interaction offers a complete and true picture of who Pakistanis are. Any busy road anywhere in the country is the DNA map of the character and lifestyle of an average Pakistani. Here are some of the Pakistani traits gleaned from rush hour traffic of Islamabad -- a city with fast and flashy cars; wide carpeted roads; and no rickshaw but where traffic moves just as frustratingly as on Shahrah-e-Faisal in Karachi, Upper Mall in Lahore and University Road in Peshawer:

Slow and steady: Unlike the rest of the world we do not have a problem with over speeding. On the contrary, drivers here need minimum speed warnings to keep going. They are thoughtful, careful drivers. They think about the promises they made with their kids in the morning and how they can wriggle out of them now, they think about what Kareena Kapoor saw in Saif Ali Khan, they wonder if Canada is a better place to emigrate or Australia … while driving along at 40 kph on a four-lane dual carriageway. They care for their cars too much to push the engine any harder, no matter if that slows down every one behind them, for miles.

Self-respect: They may be slow but they have enough honour in them to always drive in the fast lane and never to stand in a queue. When they reach a red light and see both lanes occupied, they find it beneath them to stand behind in either. Instead, they find an opening to get in front and form a third and a fourth lane. That does create a bottleneck that holds back everyone but that’s a small price to pay for one’s honour.

Belief in God: They are not dying to be martyrs and neither are they in a hurry (as has been established above) but the pedestrian won’t look right or left before stepping on to the road and the motorist won’t turn his head to clear the road before turning on to it. Why worry about yours or others’ life when it is in God’s hand?

Ghareebaadmi syndrome: The beat up car, the taxi, the office vehicle, and the motorcycle. They have the liberty to do what they like, when they like, where they like. If they get involved in an accident they promptly present their poverty as an alibi and that is that. No one can do a thing about it; not you, not the policeman, not even the magistrate. It is advisable to avoid them like plague.

Freedom of movement: They float between right and left margins of the road more than they drive straight. They could be on the phone, or drunk, or may even have a faulty steering, whatever it is it stays with them whether they are driving on unpaved path or one of the few roads that have proper lane markings. Everyone who overtakes them, does so with several honkings just to make sure they don’t drift in and hit broadside.

The mad rush: This is the smallest minority on the road, and they are neither mad nor in a rush. They just get so frustrated with the above mentioned categories that they step on petrol and close their eyes. Who can blame them?

Character on wheels