Photo: ix4svs / Flickr
Photo: ix4svs / Flickr

O reader, read this couplet

Inscriptions on Pakistani trucks offer a key to understanding the popular worldview on the ground, and it is different from what the world hears about Pakistan.

Seven years ago, an archaeologist named Jonathan Mark Kenoyer imported a decorated truck from Karachi into the United States. He recalled recently, "It landed in LA, and then we had to drive it across four time zones to Washington, DC, for the 2002 Smithsonian Folk Life Festival." Such an undertaking only underscores the growing scholarly interest in Pakistani trucks, in particular the well-known artwork and the lesser-known inscriptions that nearly all carry. However, the inscriptions that adorn these trucks have been less noticed. Today, Pakistanis, normally indifferent to the richness and diversity of their own country, have begun to take notice of these inscriptions. And indeed, there is much to be learned from exploring them further.

Out of all the trucks in Pakistan plying 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. Inevitably, these offer fascinating windows into the worldview of the cross-section of population represented by the drivers, painters and truck owners. This worldview is not typically understood by the media, scholars and urban intelligentsia. Could it be that common Pakistanis have not actually succumbed to the militant version of Islam that has drenched parts of the country in violence? And could these truck inscriptions offer glimpses into aspects of Pakistani culture on which a tolerant, easygoing nation could be built, as the current bout of violence runs out. These, at least, were some of the questions in the mind of this writer when he began to drive the roads of Pakistan, letting his gaze linger a bit longer at this at times mesmerising form of art.

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Himal Southasian