By James Parchman for The New York Times
MURIDKE, Pakistan — Here on the historic Grand Trunk Road, some 40 miles north of Lahore and a few hours south of the former bin Laden hideout of Abbottabad, a mosque’s call to Friday afternoon prayers was overwhelmed by Pakistani pop music spilling from open-air markets. The barks of bus conductors calling out destinations added to the din.
The passing parade of motorized rickshaws, farm tractors, buses and highway cargo trucks looked as if a re-enactment of ’60s peaceniks making the pilgrimage to Woodstock might be under way. A panorama of red, yellow and green, mixed with plastic whirligigs, polished mahogany doors and gleaming stainless steel cover plates, was a magical sight for a visitor with a love for anything on wheels.
It was not only the variety of vehicles — all are common across South Asia — that elicited this reaction, or even their Partridge-Family-meets-Ken-Kesey color schemes. Rather, it was the fascinating quantity and surrealistic detail of their decoration, unlike anything I’d seen in my travels around the world.
A deeper understanding of the origins and meanings of the decoration craft was gained over days of mingling with the truck drivers and the owners of decorating shops in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar.
Karachi, situated on the Arabian Sea, is Pakistan’s major seaport. It is also the cargo hub of the country, and with 13 million people has a great many local and intercity buses. As such, the city supports a considerable customizing industry: When Saudi Aramco World magazine published an article about the trade in 2005, more than 50,000 people in Karachi were said to be employed decorating buses and trucks.
What I found at the Pakistani workshops was a pride of design and a willingness to answer questions — and to show off their creations to a former long-haul trucker.
Sparing no expense
At a driver’s cafe near Karachi’s 3-mile-long International Truck Yard (where I turned down an offer of boiled camel meat and cow-leg soup) workers took me by the hand to the shop of Masallah the truck decorator. My Dockers and Rockports were as out of place as their long-shirted, working-class shalwar kameez outfits and leather sandals, called chappals, would have been in one of New York City’s outer boroughs.
But my full beard may have helped in gaining their confidence and a look inside their truck cabs. Government safety agencies equivalent to OSHA were nowhere to be seen in the truck yards, and workers, many of whom were children of the owners, were being showered with sparks from their grinders and cutting torches.
Many of the trucks being outfitted at Masallah’s carried identification plates from Balochistan province. Their owners were prospering thanks to a steady demand for hauling loaded sea containers from Karachi’s port to landlocked Afghanistan. Their cargo, typically including supplies for U.S. and NATO military operations, make a trip of 500 miles by the southern route to Kandahar or 1,200 miles by a northern route to Kabul.
Pakistani truck owners can easily spend more on their trucks than on their homes. One driver from the Gwadar area of Balochistan told me he had just bought a Hino truck chassis for the equivalent of $35,000 and brought it straight to Masallah’s workshop. There he might spend another $25,000 for its body, paint and decoration. During the several weeks required to complete the work, he would sleep inside or under the truck, on his bedroll.
Adding decorative touches like ribbons, spinners, flags and polished steel cutouts in the shape of animals to a small bus costs an owner at least $800. This is considered an advertising expense; a highly decorated bus is usually the first choice of customers when there are several options.
Nissan and Hino tandem-axle trucks of the flat-front cabover design, many assembled in Pakistan, are the popular choices for cargo-haulers today, replacing the revered Vauxhall Bedford, a British model with a traditional cab. The Bedford was the mainstay of Pakistan’s cargo network since the early days of Pakistan’s independence.
The Bedford is still prized for its sturdy chassis and ability to continuously haul outsize loads. Many have bodywork with a high-crowned front prow, which lends itself to decoration and gives the truck the look of a sailing ship.
As is the case in the United States, offering a sharply decorated truck can be a powerful incentive for recruiting drivers. Pakistani bus and truck owners usually allow their drivers, whose average wages are about $75 a month, to work out their own designs in conjunction with the owner of the decoration shop.
Predictably, mass production has changed the business over the years. Adornments are no longer exclusively handmade.
“Pakistani buses were originally decorated using carved woodwork and individual paintings,” said Kurram Awan, the owner of a small shop of truck-decorating supplies in Lahore.
“Now, my shop sells over 1,000 different items, including braids, reflectors, flashing lights and antennas,” he said.
He added that the Pashtun drivers (Pashto speakers from the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan) spent the most on decorations.
Durriya Kazi, an artist and teacher in Karachi, has long been a proponent of Pakistan’s folk art. She sees bus and truck decorating as an integral part of that tradition, noting the importance of distinguishing between sculpture as defined by the art gallery and the rich activity of actually making things that exists all over Pakistan.
In 2006, Kazi was instrumental in a program intended to spread Pakistan’s bus decoration skills to Melbourne, Australia, where a tram was transformed into a replica of a minibus used on Karachi’s W-11 route, resplendent in all its finery.
Another Pakistani with expertise in the subject is Jamal Elias of the University of Pennsylvania, a professor and the author of “On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan” (Oneworld, 2011). His book explores the tradition of Pakistani truck decoration, and looks deeper into the “nature of response to religious imagery in popular Islamic culture.”
In an e-mail, Elias said that the creative inputs of decorators included several major themes, which could be combined across the cab and body of the truck or bus. These include Islamic religious images like the horse of Muhammad and depictions of the mosques at Mecca.
Other possibilities include images of a fish, representing good fortune, or the elegant eyes of a woman, representing beauty.