Pressure Points

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At Rush Hour

There is panic on the roads. Venturing onto a main road in our beloved Karachi, one is struck with the familiar trepidation that comes with tuning into local news channels. With the first step on the road, like the first click of the TV remote, you are hit with an onslaught of frenzy. You will wonder if there is a fire – or more statistically probable, a political killing– that you are unaware of. From every possible direction the rapid stream of impatient buses, invading motorbikes and belligerent cars topple over, successfully defying every traffic rule in the book. What the lovers of the city of lights fondly called the bustle of the city has now reached a state of bedlam. Long hours of commuting sometimes make you think in analogies, and the peak hours of traffic in the city are ominous of the call of Judgment.

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If you were lucky enough to be chauffeur-driven on doomsday, and undecided over the luck of hiring one like mine, you will experience the mad rush of a devout man of God zooming towards the gates of Paradise. I have heard that on the Day of Judgment, we will all be strangers unto each other and our only concern would be shelter from the wrath of God. I’m impressed that one Ashiq Hussain, my driver, has internalised this precept already. He displays it adeptly with the rest of his fellow citizens on the roads of the metropolis. He knows the rules of war and exhibits the zealous impatience of reaching a given destination, come what may.

But you can sense the immediacy of the art of this war on tar only when you belong to the drivers’ club. Time and again, you will catch yourself changing into a different person – as in the moments of mutation from human to superheroes in cult comics – when you’re behind the steering wheel yourself. Just a couple of years on the road, and you will learn buses and trucks are not to be afeared but outwitted like the Cyclops. But never underestimate these adversaries; they are, they were and always will be the kings of the road. Their reign cannot curbed by footpaths, if as a pedestrian you thought you were safe there. If you’re a car-driver, motorbikers cannot be your buddies and vice versa. Always remain on guard. You have “push-over” written on your face and bikers – now synonymous with bandits in this city – will cut the line. Rickshaws are to cars as hobbits are to men and take on the task of getting around with steadfastness, with the same commitment they show to endorsing noise pollution. Land cruisers and luxury sports car owners show you with speed what they think you didn’t notice with their flashing wealth – that you live in the dust they leave in their wake. And diplomatic VIP motorcades – oh, you lowly citizen who presumes to call the city his own, can’t you see that time and the roads belong only to them? They are, after all, the first who must rush towards redemption were the end nigh. Patience is a virtue yet when facing a touch of the surreal; the incongruous procession of brown cows – that appear like a vision of a queen of Sheba with her ladies-in-waiting in tow – will stop traffic on the busiest highway if they decide to cross to the other side of the road.

Aside from incessant processions of protest, also gaining strength on our roads are the sluggish but significant formations of vehicles settled near CNG stations. They are as sentries who keep watch all day and night in wait for the rare commodity, as their queues extend like the lines on a subway route map.

Throw in a little suggestion of a turn in weather, a drop or two of possible rainshower, and you will have a mess on your hands. Buses, cars, motorbikes, traffic policemen, beggars, hawkers at signals, windshield wipers, hijras and cows et al plunge Karachi into a pandemonium. On the road, we seem to reflect the very core of the city we are interconnected with, struggling with an overbearing and irreverent culture of do-as-you-will and pushing forward the verge of utter chaos.

 

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