Inscriptions on trucks offer a key to understanding the popular view on the ground and give a glimpse into several aspects of Pakistani culture.
Out of all the trucks in Pakistan using the country’s nearly 247,000 km of roads, the vast majority have inscriptions written on them in any one (or more) of several languages – Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Balochi, Brahvi, Sindhi, Punjabi and others.
These truck inscriptions offer glimpses into aspects of Pakistani culture. There are inscriptions that pertain to the driver’s life, one of perpetual travelling, of not having a fixed home, and of the pride that he takes in his profession; for instance, the Urdu Driver ki zindagi maut ka khel hai/ bach gaya to central jel hai (‘The driver’s life is a game of death/even if he survives there is the central jail’).
A particularly large category of the inscriptions is fatalism, dealing with the idea that there is a fixed, unalterable destiny; for instance, the Urdu Nasib apna apna (‘To each his/her own destiny’). On what could be the flip side of that category is goodness, general goodwill and good wishes for all; for instance, the Urdu Khair ho ap ki (‘Bless you’).
Then, there is the significant subset on Islam, including sayings from the Quran, references to mystic Sufis, pictures of sacred places, and religious formulas; an obvious inclusion, from Arabic, is simply Bismillah (‘In the name of Allah’).
There are numerous inscriptions on trucks devoted to the idea of mother, pertaining to devotion, love and respect for her. In Punjabi: Man di dua jannat di hawa (‘Mother’s blessings are like the breeze of paradise’).
Nationalism – for instance the very common Urdu, Pakistan zindabad (‘Long live Pakistan’) – is categorised separately from patriotism, which includes one’s own locale; for instance, the Urdu, Khushab mera shaher hai (‘Khushab is my city’).
The very large category of romance deals with all matters of romantic love, flirtation, desire, aesthetic appreciation of (female) beauty and, sometimes, the mildly erotic; for instance, the Urdu, Rat bhar ma’shuq ko paehlu mein bitha kar/ jo kuch nahin karte kamal karte haen (‘Those who spend the whole night with the beloved next to them/and still do nothing, verily perform a miracle’!). And finally there are those inscriptions that hail the truck itself.
The explicitly religious symbols, images and inscriptions are nearly always found on the top of the truck at the very front. Others will also appear on the front but farther down, either on the bumper or on the engine itself. However, it is the forward-leaning overhang, the part of the truck that precedes the rest, which carries the name of the sacred, and always in Arabic.
While this placement is indeed an act of homage, it is not necessarily one reflecting deep commitment. This is quite consistent with Muslim culture everywhere, insofar as most activities – business, education, eating, drinking, marriages, deaths, births, and festivities – begin with religious rituals and formulaic Arabic utterances. Likewise, these inscriptions are ritualistic utterances that are commonly used among Pakistani Muslims in daily life; they are considered auspicious and are spontaneous cultural habits. The back of the truck is reserved for inscriptions that are meant to be read, as the slow-moving truck exposes it to the gaze of travellers and pedestrians.
Most romantic inscriptions draw on the conventions of the ghazal, a poetic form with rhyming couplets and a refrain, the themes of which have always centred on unrequited love, the appreciation of female beauty, the fickleness of life and general fatalism.
Two of the most frequently occurring inscriptions on romantic themes are from unknown poets: Ae sher parhne wale zara chehre se zulfen hata ke parhna/Gharib ne ro kar likha hai zara muskura ke parhna (‘O reader, read this couplet after removing the tresses of hair from your face/the poor man has wept as he writes this, so please smile while reading’) and Anmol daam dunga ik bar muskura do (‘I will give you incomputable wealth if only you smile but once’). Another of the most common is, Dekh magar pyar se (‘Look at me, but with love’).
Although most of these romantic outpourings are in Urdu, none come from the language’s large corpus of amorous poetry. However, the worldview of the ghazal – the poet supplicating an indifferent and fickle beauty for favours – remains ubiquitous.
Fatalism is also very much a part of Pakistani folk belief. In Islamic philosophy, it is called masala-e jabr-o-qadr, loosely translated as ‘predestination and free will’. At least in its more extreme forms, the fatalistic inscription completely denies free will. Among ordinary people, however, the denial of free will goes along with a notably pragmatic valuation of the place of common sense, self-interest and effort in life. Inscriptions about belief in some form of fatalism are thus found on trucks from all the regions of Pakistan, and particularly in the region of Gilgit and Azad Kashmir.
The language that is used is as interesting as what is being said in these inscriptions. Beyond Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, and Brahvi, English is also used, mostly when giving registration information, and sometimes for the name of the company or phrases such as ‘Good Luck’. This writer has been particularly interested by the local languages that are deployed. Who decides which language to use, and on what basis? Most drivers and painters reported that they jointly decide on the matter, with an eye primarily to intelligibility. The language, they said, had to be intelligible both to them and to the common people on the roads and highways. Some workshops offer diaries or scrapbooks with couplets, from which the driver can choose.
The majority of inscriptions on trucks in Pakistan today are in Urdu. A significant proportion, though, are in Pashto, even in Rawalpindi, which is otherwise a Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking city. This was explained by painters as being due to the large number of Pashtun truck drivers throughout Pakistan.
In the end, inscriptions on Pakistani trucks today suggest the conclusion that the worldview of those involved in plying the country’s roads has not shifted towards radical or militant Islam, but instead remains rooted in popular culture.