Iris

Hot wheels

Updated Oct 31, 2016 11:36pm

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Chhota Irfan flicks his hair into a John Travolta style puff, turns the key in the ignition and releases the clutch. The engine starts – vrrrrroooom – and his motorcycle lurches forward with a slight twist. The high-powered start echoes through the air with an ear-splitting noise. The motorcycle zooms ahead. His challenger, Zahid Shaibu, is already trailing. It seems certain, albeit ludicrous, that he is intentionally aiming for a second spot. A few hundred metres into the race, Shaibu suddenly picks up speed. The acceleration is brisk, hurling the motorcycle to a sudden spurt forward — perfect for the stretch of the road with no speed breakers.

A biker lies flat on his motorcycle as he glides past spectators
A biker lies flat on his motorcycle as he glides past spectators

Irfan soon morphs into a circus artist — he is lying flat, head down, on the motorcycle; his legs extended towards the number plate that reads Baba 5, his entire body weight on his wrists, which tenaciously hold on to the handlebar. With reduced wind resistance, his motorcycle is hurtling forward at 130 kilometres per hour. Shaibu employs another technique to break the wind barrier: hunching forward like a hyena on a prowl, he zigzags through the air at a very high speed. The audience, numbering a few hundred, cheers the two on.

Soon Shaibu comes parallel to Irfan, gets up from his seat and, with a quick, solid kick of his right leg, hits his opponent’s vehicle. Irfan flies off, hurling down the side of the road like a rag doll. Streams of blood run down his body; his arm is badly bruised and his skull is fractured. Shaibu, meanwhile, races past the finish line. A police official appears from nowhere but no one is bothered by him. He receives 3,000 rupees from the winning party and moves away.

Crowds gather at Do Darya for a Sunday race
Crowds gather at Do Darya for a Sunday race

A crowd collects around Irfan but nobody calls a doctor — or the police. His brother rubs some engine oil on the wounds. “We have our own remedies,” he says. When Irfan does not regain consciousness, his mentor, Baba, fires a few shots in the air as his entourage rushes the rider to a hospital. Ibla, the winning rider’s mentor, responds with a round of bullets, sprinkling the air like rose petals at a wedding reception. The firing has done the talking. The two groups will meet again next week, one to redeem itself and the other to defend its title.

In the case of injury to the rider, or even his death, no one calls the police; the two motorcycles will use the same engine power and carburettor capacity and the cheaters will be fined by a committee of arbiters selected from among the veterans of the racing circuit.

Ibla and his protégés rejoice, indifferent to whatever happens to Irfan. Shaibu is lifted onto the shoulders of his supporters and the crowd cheers as he makes his way towards his motorcycle.

With the celebrations over, everybody goes back home and the racetrack, a stretch of road at the eastern corner of Seaview beach in Karachi, assumes a normal aspect.

A biker watches as his motorcycle is upgraded at a mechanic’s shop
A biker watches as his motorcycle is upgraded at a mechanic’s shop


A mechanic’s apprentice at work in a shop near UP Morr, Karachi
A mechanic’s apprentice at work in a shop near UP Morr, Karachi

Motorcycle racing in Karachi has its own book of rules. All races take place on Thursdays and Sundays. “Friday being half day allows everyone to sleep till late [after the hectic activity of Thursday racing],” says one of Baba’s understudies. “The Sunday race happens because it is a holiday and everyone is free.” Apart from Seaview, Super Highway and Northern Bypass – both major roads leading out of Karachi – are popular venues for races.

The terms and conditions for each race can be different. Everything is written down carefully on a piece of paper, a parcha, and undersigned by all the parties involved. In the case of injury to the rider, or even his death, no one calls the police; the two motorcycles will use the same engine power and carburettor capacity and the cheaters will be fined by a committee of arbiters selected from among the veterans of the racing circuit. Everything else is fair — kicking a rival out of the way is part of this ‘freestyle’ racing.

I ask Baba if he will file a police case over injuries against Irfan. “It was an accident,” he says, as he throws up his arms in despair at my lack of understanding of the rules of the game.

Each year, approximately 10 to 20 riders lose their lives, says an insider. Many more receive serious injuries. These figures are admittedly unverifiable.


Next day, I visit mechanic shops near UP Morr in Karachi’s District Central. A freshly painted signboard greets me. Inside the shop, the walls are pale yellow with paint coming off and dirty oil marks. Graffiti is everywhere.

A motorcycle undergoing an upgrade
A motorcycle undergoing an upgrade

This is where a race starts, with the rigging of the vehicle. A petit 70 CC motorcycle loses many of its parts such as indicators, rear-view mirrors, mudguards and headlights — anything that increases its weight without being essential to its speed. In the next phase, a bigger engine – in most cases a 124 CC one – replaces the original to enable the bike to run 35 per cent faster than it would in its factory fittings. Sometimes the carburettor is also upgraded to provide the right amount of fuel and air to the new engine. Most of the motorcycles used in racing these days are Chinese-made because they are lighter than the Japanese vehicles. “Understanding the mechanics of a 70 CC motorcycle is the easiest,” says Govind, a young rider.

All these alterations are illegal under the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1965, says lawyer Zeeshan Zafar Hashmi. He, however, cites a 2013 Supreme Court judgment which emphasises that the ordinance is never implemented, sometimes with deadly consequences. “It is unfortunate that ours is a country that is replete with regulation, with little emphasis on implementation,” Hashmi quotes from the apex court verdict.

It is the quality or the technique of alteration that wins races; the rider’s skills come later. The man who oversees the alteration process – called ‘ustad’ – is usually a motor mechanic and the rider is usually his apprentice. It is the ustad who fixes a race with another ustad. They bet a certain amount of money on each race, ranging from 20,000 rupees to 100,000 rupees. Whether he wins or loses, the rider gets only 5,000 rupees per race.

A mechanic fixes the headlight of a motorcycle
A mechanic fixes the headlight of a motorcycle

A newly painted motorcycle stands at a workshop, ready for racing
A newly painted motorcycle stands at a workshop, ready for racing

Viky, a junior mechanic at UP Morr mechanic shop, replaces the original handlebar of a motorcycle with a much straighter one to give the rider an easier but firmer grip. He then fixes a number plate to the vehicle — Dada 107. After a dash of shiny silver paint, the motorcycle will be ready for racing. The number plate is an acknowledgment of the ustad’s central role in racing. Sources among riders and mechanics say Karachi has as many as 50 ustads and about 200 riders working with them (thousands of amateur riders race on their own, competing against other groups of amateurs).

Everyone agrees that the first races took place in the late 1970s near Do Darya, where the Malir River meets the sea, close to where the recently developed eastern stretch of Seaview lies.

It is almost impossible to know when these races originated. Every group of riders puts forward its own set of names as the pioneers. Bhoori Ustaad’s name, however, appears in most accounts and that of his student, Baba, who runs his mechanic shop on M A Jinnah Road. Other prominent names include Pappu of Khudadad Colony, Ibla of Landhi, Saleem Mota of North Karachi, Ali and Abbas of Mithadar and Sajan of Lyari.

Everyone agrees that the first races took place in the late 1970s near Do Darya, where the Malir River meets the sea, close to where the recently developed eastern stretch of Seaview lies.


Shehla Qureshi, an assistant superintendent of police in Karachi, cites instances where police have disrupted the races. But she acknowledges that the police usually arrest only the riders and the spectators. Ustads almost always manage to flee in time for a police raid. Even when an ustad is arrested, it is not easy to prove him guilty of anything, she says.

The racers confirm they have cancelled races due to police interference. “Some police officials must connive with us and look the other way for a race to go ahead,” says an ustad. Qureshi admits some policemen are involved in the racket but, she adds, “Whenever we come to know about such officials, strict action is taken against them.”


Govind is lying beside his motorcycle inside a narrow lane in Landhi, a working-class area in Karachi’s District East. “There is nothing right or wrong in a passion,” he says. “Racing makes me feel like I can fly. There is thrill in the race; there is thrill in winning.”

The fuel tank of a motorcycle at a mechanic’s shop near UP Morr
The fuel tank of a motorcycle at a mechanic’s shop near UP Morr

He points to a small gate nearby. This is his house but he does not invite me in. When I suggest that we should go in to talk, he reacts sharply. “No, no, Amma does not know that I do freestyle riding. We can’t talk at home.”

Govind appears far too street-smart for his education and age — he has studied up to class five and has just turned 15. A hint of moustache has begun to appear above his upper lip. At five feet and three inches, and weighing approximately 50 kilogrammes, he is small but exudes huge amounts of energy. His size, disturbingly similar to that of camel jockeys once smuggled out of Pakistan for racing in Arab sheikhdoms, makes him an ideal rider.

A year ago, much to his father’s annoyance, Govind purchased a motorcycle on lease. He, then, made the alterations under the supervision of his ustad. For next week’s challenge, Baba is betting on him and his bike.

“I am not feeling nervous. It is an honour to ride for ustad,” says Govind.

Two bikers show off their skills near Seaview, Karachi
Two bikers show off their skills near Seaview, Karachi


The two riders perch themselves atop their bikes, release the clutch in to an upward charge and surge forward with massive energy on a closed throttle, cutting through the air and pulling tightly on to the bike’s dog bone risers handlebars. The bikes’ flirtation with the wind is spectacular, the wind has cautioned many a before who have come to romance it but the connection is intense.

We stand now a week later, the bikes have entered the arena again. The challenge this time is to see who can win with their brakes removed. The burnished sky looks down at the two teenage boys – the ustads look confidently towards their altered bikes – the young enthusiasts give their engines a raise, the altered snarling motorbikes roll on to the highway. The lights dance in the distance. Another race has begun.

Text by Zehra Nawab | Photographs by Mohammad Ali, White Star


This was originally published in Herald's May 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald's print edition.