Timekeeping and transport: The Minute Men of Karachi

Bus drivers, conductors have a reputation of being rotten lot but their beautiful token system defies this stereotype.

A Marwat Coach idles by the KPT Interchange. The 100 drivers for this route all synchronise their driving to a punishing schedule. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

KARACHI: The drivers and conductors synchronize their digital Casio watches with the Timekeeper’s. One hundred Marwat Coach drivers and their one hundred Marwat Coach conductors are thus chronologically aligned — down to the minute. Their temporal alchemy persuades that all is never what it seems in Karachi, a city where we mistakenly believe the only order that exists is disorder.

‘Marwat Coach’ is the name given to one of the many routes on Karachi’s bus network in which others tend to be numbered, like the famed W11. This one is named after Lakki Marwat, the hometown of seth Nadir Khan Marwat who says he acquired the license for the route in 1994. Nadir, who came to Karachi three decades ago, has transport in his veins but it was only after struggling with three lines – Lucky, al Habib and Shaheen – that he managed to get the formula right with Marwat Coach. He started out with 15 buses and the service has since swelled to nearly 10 partners and over 100 vehicles.

The Marwat Coach line starts in Qayyumabad. Drivers are given 25 minutes to get to Mansehra Colony stop where a munshi will assess if they are late. It then loops to go back through the city, passes Merewether Tower and ends halfway down Mauripur Road. MAP: TALHA AHMED/EXPRESS

These Mazdas and Coaches steadily stream through the factory-lined Korangi and Landhi, connect to Shahrae Faisal, cut across to the parallel MA Jinnah Road, go past the Old City to make their way to Mauripur. Key to this route’s success is the choice of road; a seth will lose money on running buses and paying drivers if he picks ones without enough customer volume. This is why Marwat Coach abandoned its Bhens Colony exit and Tariq Road detour, once Nadir and his partners figured out the passengers wanted to go to Mereweather Tower.

Marwat Coach’s financial stability thus rests on it being an ‘awami’ or popular route that mostly people from the industrial area need. Working class women and men flag Marwat Coaches down along the Korangi-Landhi strip of pharmaceutical, textile, packaging factories. Driver Syed Rasool Shah tries to give a sense of how they cater to this clientele: “We make 365 stops or brake that many times to stop at each factory to pick someone up.” The formal bus stops are located at the roundabout chowrangis in Landhi but they are far apart; it is easier for the workers to just hail the bus in what is almost a personalized service.

By the time you reach the end of the Marwat Coach ‘up’ line that terminates in Budhni Goth, Karachi wallahs of almost every size, colour, tongue and temperament have climbed in for the ride. The interior of the bus forms a most democratic of spaces. But as Karachi defies absolutes, the superlative of ‘most democratic’ is misleading. This cannot be entirely true given the class factor: you won’t find any CEOs taking the bus to Malir.

A ride on a Marwat Coach will also challenge a romantic shibboleth coined by the people of Karachi who are fond of saying that you can keep going but the city won’t end. With one trip, your sense of the city’s time and distance will collapse. After two and a half hours on the roaring bus, you will emerge slightly disoriented off Mauripur road, as if you had taken a flight from the starting point at Qayyumabad and were spat out at the other end. You don’t understand how it happened.

Conductor Ayaz explains the intricacies of the timekeeping or token system at the Marwat Coach’s Qayyumabad adda where the service starts at 6am each day. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

This giant operation runs from 6 am on the dot to roughly 11:30 pm each day. The Marwat drivers and conductors are fond of likening it to blood flow. The city is the corpus, the route the vein. The bus adda or terminus is the chambered heart. It pumps out blood and bus at measured intervals — in Marwat’s case on average three minutes apart. The timekeeper or munshi at the adda works like a tricuspid valve, releasing buses in spurts and holding others back to maintain a constant, timely flow. And the entire system relies on square pieces of glossy white card paper called tokens.

Get in line: tokens and time

Late fines with the tokens sit on top of the munshi’s desk at the Marwat Coach end stop at Budhni Goth. Drivers will come and collect them when the pass through. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

The tokens that regulate a bus driver’s day and earnings are issued by the munshi at the adda. They yolk a driver to a schedule for each trip and this is a good thing, they grudgingly admit. The token is the paper equivalent of their Social Contract.

The word ‘adda’ best translates into ‘den’ and brings with it all the same connotations. But it would be unfair to denigrate it as this pit-stop is the nerve centre of any bus operation. Two addas at each end regulate the flow of the buses, usually with the help of the popular Nako Quartz Clock Na-613d, a matchbox-sized time machine.

The Qayyumabad Marwat Coach adda is located with those of other routes, the N, W-21, X8, Gulistan, Awan Coach, in the vast quadrant by the KPT Interchange. The rutted parking lot feels more like a leftover piece of the city. You’ll never notice the adda as you drive past because it’s hidden behind the parked buses. It’s nothing fancy, just a wooden shed on stilts covering an open kitchen (lunch is the protein-heavy daal and liver combo). A tandoor oven, lassi stand and Wazisistan paan cabin surround the desk of the all-important munshi or timekeeper.

Waziristan paan cabin is located right next to the munshi’s desk at the Qayyumabad adda. Drivers say they spend about Rs20 a day on naswar. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

At Marwat Coach’s adda, munshi  Nazeerul Islam with the dazzling white beard works the second shift from 2 pm. You’ll find him sitting behind the desk, leaning over a register, with a stack of tokens packed together by a rubber band and a drawer of dirty cash. He is a calm man, so soft-spoken that even when he shouts at the drivers to clear the way it is more like a verbal frown. But be warned: rudeness irritates him. How dare that driver flip back his collar and walk away, he mutters?

Despite these odd vexations the drivers prefer Nazeer mama to the early shift munshi. “Nazeer mama is the best munshi,” declares one driver from the back of the crowd. “He’s a fair man.”

Munshi Nazeer mama sits at the Marwat Coach start point adda in Qayyumabad. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

This sense of justice was a hard time coming. It is an emotional leaning hewn by years behind the wheel and the iron bar. Nazeer, who came from Mansehra in 1978, was working a Mazda when he killed someone in Orangi in an accident in 1985. It would be eight years of court before the dead victim’s mother would pardon him. He still remembers the name of each judge who he stood before (Rana Bhagwandas, Sajjad Ali Shah…) He eventually returned to work but his appetite for driving didn’t. Timekeeping as a munshi was a natural solution.

It starts early in the day to cater to people going to work. The Marwat Coach munshi will issue tokens two minutes apart from 7am to 9am. When the fleet thins out at the adda, he will adjust it to three minutes apart from 11am onwards and so on throughout the day.

Nazeer mama pulls one token from his deck and looks at driver Jaleel who stands expectantly at his desk. He writes down the number plate of Jaleel’s bus, the time 3:10pm to depart and 3:35pm when Jaleel is supposed to reach the Mansehra Colony stop after passing through the industrial area. This will give Jaleel 25 minutes to run the 16km route.

Driver Jaleel smokes a cigarette at Quaidabad, nearly one-third down the route. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

Jaleel takes the token, vaults across the ground and sails into his bus parked under the KPT interchange flyover. Once he’s in the driver’s seat, he wedges the white token card at eye level, under the driver’s pillar (the shaft connecting his window and the windscreen). Conductor Imran bangs the rump of the Mazda and they are off. Jaleel yanks on the wobbly gear stick and takes the bus to its first stop at Qayyumabad. As the engine idles, and the conductor scrambles around luring passengers with sharp cries of “Dawood Chowrangi! Dawood Chowrangi!” Jaleel keeps looking over his shoulder to see if there are any takers. He also relies on the tea tray-sized left mirror that gives him a perfect view of who is getting on or off. This circus of mirrors surrounding his hot-seat form a constellation of accessories that make it possible for him to safely manage the heaving ship under his command. To his credit, at least on this one trip, Jaleel never once brakes abruptly or accelerates at the wrong time.

At Mansehra Colony, conductor Imran gives the munshi their token to assess if they have reached at 3:35pm. If they are late, the munshi will write by how many minutes on the back of the token and keep it. The fine is Rs50 for each minute.

This is the crux of the logic behind this system: If a Marwat driver doesn’t make it to Mansehra Colony at the time specified on his token (such as 3:35pm), the assumption is that he was late because he was slowing down to pick up “extra” passengers along the way. “This is called haq marna,” explains conductor Muhammad Ayaz later at the adda. Eating into someone else’s right or due share. The assumption is that if Jaleel slowed down, he is picking up more than his fair share of passengers and is hence earning fare which would have otherwise gone to the driver and bus behind him. So any fine he racks up for lagging behind goes to the bus on his heels.

Jaleel’s token (late or not) will be deposited at the Mansehra Colony munshi’s desk. If Jaleel is late, the bus that comes after him will take the marked token so he can eventually extract the fine that Jaleel will deposit at the end of the line, at Budhni Goth. The token thus becomes a paper IOU.

Passengers don’t care much for the delicacies of this astoundingly democratic penalty system. They tend to curse drivers for rushing past them at a stop. What they don’t realize, however, is that usually when a driver ignores a passenger he is not doing it out of choice. He is off mark and needs to buck up. But more importantly, another bus is just a minute or two away.

Another Marwat Coach passes Jaleel on Shahrae Faisal with its conductor shouting out acknowledgement to Jaleel. All drivers recognize each other and their buses by the number plates. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

In the alienating vastness of Karachi, exiting the home means instant vulnerability which is why the intimacy on the road is surprising. These Marwat buses stream past each other, the drivers acknowledging each other, conductors leaping on to the tail of each other’s buses as they swerve in to a stop. They move like a relay race in which no one is passing the baton. They watch each other, keeping tabs. “We can even see who is two stops ahead,” explains conductor Ayaz. They can thus intuitively tell who is eating into their time. All the drivers recognize Marwat Coach buses by their number plates.

Often, more than one bus will be late and the one who was on time can take home fines collected from all of them. So if four buses are three minutes late each, the driver on time can take home an extra Rs480 (Rs40 per minute x3 minutes x4 buses). While it varies, the timekeepers generally get Rs10 from every Rs50 in late fines.

Munshi Abid fields off a fight from a driver at the Marwat Coach adda at Budhni Goth, the end of the line. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

Munshis prevent a bus from leaving the adda until a late driver coughs up the fine. At the end of the Marwat Coach line at Budhni Goth, the young munshi Abid explains that he monitors them exiting by their number plate. And they can’t leave anyway unless he gives them a token for the ‘down’ trip back to Qayyumabad. The munshis keep track in their registers of which bus owes whom in fines. The drivers take the late tokens they are owed and collect the fines through the munshi, who essentially works as a bank. He maintains a register, noting the numbers down upon receipt of a late token. This cuts out direct driver-to-driver interaction which would otherwise lead to a lot of fighting. All tokens have to be cleared within 24 hours, ensuring no debts rack up. If a driver exits without taking a token, the fine is Rs1,000. “Ye phir company ke sath bagahwat karna samjha jata he,” explains Ayaz. You are betraying the company. He is not allowed to earn on his own or renege on late fines which are entered in the register.

Freewheeling and adjusting

The token system doesn’t apply for the entire route but the initial strip on which it is easy to time the drivers. For Marwat Coach, the token will apply on the straight strip of Qayyumabad to Mansehra Colony. They are not penalized beyond this point when they take Shahrae Faisal and MA Jinnah Road because it is impossible to manage time there. The traffic congestion is just too great. Plus the cops can stop you along the way. But obviously the token system sets a pace, which translates for the rest of the trip.

The rule is that on the toke-regulated part of the trip you can’t overtake the bus in front of you. On the strip beyond the Mansehra Colony stop, though, drivers need to constantly assess how to time themselves to be able to keep the line smooth. So they all tacitly understand that it doesn’t make sense for one bus to idle at a spot to keep getting passengers; this would affect all of them. You have to keep moving with the understanding that everyone needs to be about three minutes apart. If you idle for too long the passengers start screaming as well.

This is why Jaleel knows roughly what time he needs to be at what spots along Shahrae Faisal. The 28-year-old Lakki Marwat native is the reticent responsible type with papery brown skin, stretched taut over his face. In troubled sockets are two anxious eyes. He worked as a conductor and has been driving for two and a half years now. You can sense that he is a man who doesn’t like to fight but sometimes has to.

The bus drivers usually keep a small Nako Quartz Clock Na-613d tacked on near the steering wheel. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

“Khala thora gate chor ke iss taraf ho jaen,” he sullenly says to a woman who insists on standing. It’s not clear where else he wants her to go because the women’s compartment is full. No driver likes someone standing in the doorway because that signals to potential passengers that there isn’t any space left inside.

With his finger and thumb jammed on the button for the mockery of a nursery rhyme that is his horn, Jaleel negotiates Shahrae Faisal. He is at the airport at 4pm, Drigh Road station by 4:10pm. By Baloch Colony flyover he is ready to draw on a long tall drink of sherbet that comes chilled in a watermelon-red plastic tumbler. He wipes his forehead with an oddly feminine canary yellow wash cloth. The Qayyumabad-Budhni Goth up trip will take over two hours and by the end of it you will sweat out five kilos. There is no such thing as a fat bus driver.

“Jaldi! JALDI!” curses Jaleel. “Itna hi time rehta he.” He has turned ugly as he fights down MA Jinnah Road. It is coming thick and fast at Tibet Centre by 4:45pm. As Merewether Tower hovers, you can tell Jaleel would give anything to sprout wings and climb into the air above Bunder Road.

Conductor Imran is swinging like a frenzied monkey between the bus’s two doors, his “Shabaa! Shabaa! Sh’baa!” ringing against the wall of traffic. This is the polite imperative of conductors that grows more frequent as he and Jaleel field off impossible demands from passengers to stop in the middle of traffic. “Oye, Bapu!” cries Imran at someone who is trying to get a leg up while they are still moving. In a drumming Morse code, he is constantly issuing signals to Jaleel. One thud is to stop, a double rap is to go, go, go…

Jaleel is anxious to reach the double stop at Gulbai, at the mouth of Mauripur Road where the flyover is located. The buses are numbered by the order they cross the ‘phaatak’ or railway line. Numbered tokens are issued to help the munshi even out everyone’s timings and order. The buses fall out of whack on the main chunk of the route through the city centre. Gulbai’s double stop prevents the service from clotting. So depending on when you arrive, you want to be number 3 in line to exit Gulbai rather than number 20 because it will affect your return trip from Budhni Goth.

Once Jaleel arrives at Budhni Goth, the very last stop on his ‘up’ route, he will park his bus, hand in any late tokens he is owed and the numbered Gulbai token. He will pay any of his own late fines and then disappear for a break. The number that he came at Gulbai will apply for his exit to back to Qayyumabad for the down route.

While the nodal addas at Qayyumabad and Mauripur are the key regulators, the Marwat line has desks at Quaidabad and Merewether Tower but these ‘munshis’ are there to just keep an eye on the boys. “Otherwise they’d all stop at Tower,” says Gul Akber, who is one of the partners on the Marwat line. On the way back a stop at the munshi at Merewether Tower helps a bus driver assess how the service is flowing. For Rs10, the munshi there will pass on information on when the last bus left on the down route. If it was one minute ago, then firstly you know to wait as he will have cleaned out the immediate passengers at the next few stops. Depending on when he left, you will also be able to tell if he is eating into your time given that everyone needs to be three minutes apart. If you find that he is picking up passengers who would be yours normally, you speed up and try to overtake him.

Variation on the theme

Not all bus lines use exactly this type of token system but they all have some variation on the theme to give their operation some semblance of sanity.

The N line register with the popular Nako Quartz Clock Na-613d. He whistles for the N buses to exit when their number comes. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

The N line owned by seth Sher Asad uses a custom printed register on which just the numeric order of exiting buses is written down next to their number plates. They are not bound by time but follow the numeric order set by the munshi. Munshi Abid sits in the Qayyumabad ground with a whistle to signal when they can exit. The N tokens thus don’t mention time but the number plates of the bus, the one behind it and the one before it.

The N drivers thus do not appear to be fined for delays. The absence of this system means that these drivers fight a lot more for jamming up stops in the scramble for passengers. They do have a loose self-monitoring system on breaking traffic rules. If another driver sees you doing it, you have to pay Rs500. The route is three hours long and sometimes a tired driver will try to cheat by making a U-turn mid-way.

The drivers will admit that they cut corners and the munshis will, once they let their guard down, laugh about it too. “They eat from the same plate, so they race together,” says munshi Umer of Ilyas Coach. They break bread together, they are brothers. They fight. They make up.

The adda is the space where this community lives. It is the place that provides them some respite. They park the buses, eat, sleep, rest, smoke a joint. When they are ready to leave, they get up, reach into pockets hidden near femur bones. When the hand goes into the crotch you inwardly recoil until you realize, a second later, that in between the folds of their shalwars they have been carrying around a precious package. The wads of notes, like thick school sandwiches, consist of currencies from all over Karachi. And then, like gentle men, obsequiously they approach the munshi’s desk, no different from children, to tally up the accounts.

Driven mad

Bus drivers and conductors in Karachi are a maligned bunch. Much of the reputation is well deserved but it is unfair not to acknowledge the realities of their work.

“We are donkeys," says Ilyas Coach driver Khaliq Noor. "The sergeant screams at us, the police wallah screams at us, the women passengers scream at us, the rickshaw wallah screams at us, the conductors scream, the sherbet wallah on the roadside screams at us.” Noor is sitting at the Ilyas Coach adda at Hospital Chowrangi in the heart of Landhi. It feels like a more isolated spot than Qayyumabad, this empty plot behind a petrol pump reached by a dirt track. This is one of the two addas for 70-bus strong fleet owned by Syed Mahmood Afridi, who is also the secretary general of the Karachi Transport Ittehad. Ilyas Coach operates much the same as Marwat Coach but its route is a longer, more punishing three and a half hours from Landhi to Mohajir Camp.

The Ilyas Coach route is so long that a driver needs to start it at 4:30am. They use the token system but instead of 25 minutes they get 42 to 45 minutes to get from the adda in Landhi to Korangi Crossing. Unique to the Ilyas Coach system, however, is their sense of timing. Even these drivers are all synchronized with their munshis but they all set their watches to 20 minutes ahead so that they can get people to work at 8am on time.

While even the Marwat Coach drivers are a ragged lot, there is something thinner, more wane and more desperate about the Ilyas Coach boys. They seem more malnourished. One driver works seven days a week to make ends meet and it shows on what’s left of his face. He grins when the other drivers point out how hard he works but there is a flicker of delirium in his eyes. Another is too embarrassed to sit through an interview because his shirt has been torn and someone raked their nails over his face in a fight over fares.

No matter which line you talk to, their drivers complain that the government has not set the fares right. They divide passengers into two categories: local and direct. The government has set the local fare at Rs19 for a coach and Rs14 for a Mazda for one to 10kms. The oddly named ‘direct’ passengers travel any distance over 10km. They need to pay Rs20 for a Coach and Rs17 for a Mazda.

A driver relaxes at the Qayyumabad adda. There is nothing better than lying down flat on one of the takhts after a three-hour drive. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

The problem is that passengers often refuse to pay the proper fine and will only give Rs15. “Ek do rupay ke liye nafrat rakhtay hain.” People will curse you for one rupee, says conductor Ayaz. The drivers around him nod in unison. “[Smoking hash] is the only way we can tolerate the kind of work we do,” says one driver. The screaming passengers, the heat, the madness all presses down on them. Passenger invective can be quite colourful.

At the end of the day, a driver will be able to take home about Rs300 on average. Fare earnings are directly given to the seth, not the munshi. They can vary considerably given the bleed on frequent repairs for the buses that are old models from 1997 to 2003. “We can’t wear white,” says seth Gul Akber, referring to just how frequently a driver and conductor get their hands dirty doing repairs. On a bad day your tire tube will burst and you’ll have to shell out Rs1,000. The Ilyas Coach route will level out your tires, say its drivers. “Sab barabar kar deta he.” One tire lasts only three months because the roads at Mohajir Camp are atrocious. “A patient’s stitches would burst open on those roads,” says munshi Umer.

Drivers also have to pay for the fuel which is Rs1,700 in CNG for one up-down trip. (The days there is no CNG supply, they don’t earn). “Sometimes if we haven’t made enough to even cover the CNG cost, we turn back half way,” adds Ayaz.

A portion of what a bus earns in the day is handed over the owner and the rest is split between the driver and the conductor. But a chunk of their daily wage goes into the hazri system to be offered at the addas, as if these roadside shacks were a Mughal emperor’s court itself. No wonder drivers refer to “Adday ka qanoon” or the law the adda.

Marwat Coach drivers pay Rs200 in the bara hazri at their addas in a sort of fee to use the facility. Twenty rupees goes in chota hazri at the smaller stops and an extra Rs10 if they want the munshi to cough up timing and information. Ilyas Coach munshi Umer claims that they have a lower bara hazri of Rs150 which the drivers can pay if they like, but one look at the drivers’ faces indicates that volunteerism isn't part of this picture.

The competition of buses and routes adds to the squeeze on how much a driver earns. “There is no limit [to how many buses you can have on a route] which is why we make so little,” says conductor Ayaz. To add to this, other bus services will overlap on yours. There is a D11 that emerges from Quaidabad and also heads to Merewether Tower like the Marwat Coach. “Manzil ek he, lar jatay hain,” says Ayaz. We have one destination which is why we sometimes fight.

Even though there is no limit to how many buses a seth can put on a route, Marwat Coach and others can only afford so many because of economies of scale. But despite this many routes have disappeared over the years. Karachi thus appears to be short on public transport so there should technically be plenty of room for more bus lines. According to one theory, though, it’s just that the existing financial model doesn’t make sense. Volume of passenger doesn’t make up for the low fare. How can it make sense to pay Rs20 to go from Qayyumabad to Merewether Tower? The problem is that people can’t afford any more and the government hasn’t subsidized the route. On successful routes, though, drivers say you can earn up to Rs1,000 a day.

Consistency is key because a driver and conductor are essentially daily wagers. If you fall sick then you make nothing. At Budhni Goth, conductor Haroon looks like he just came under the tires of a bus. “I have a hole in my kidney,” he speculates. “I lose Rs500 a day if I don’t go to work.” Driver Jaleel chimes in: “Hamari hawai rozi he.” Your earnings are as fickle as the breeze. There is no such thing as health insurance and all a driver can pray for is a seth who has a kind heart and big pocket. But even a seth can’t act as life insurance.

They all remember the case of Marwat Coach’s Saleem and his brother who worked as his conductor for the PE3712. At Sharafi Goth about two and a half years ago, Saleem tried to swerve to avoid a motorcycle coming the wrong way. The bus turned-turtle, his brother slipped and came under. Today another brother has replaced him. Life goes on, sort of.

If a driver doesn’t work, he doesn’t earn. On average days they can take home about Rs400. Two exhausted drivers sit in an empty coach at the end of the line. PHOTO: MAHIM MAHER/EXPRESS

Many owners do not care enough for the welfare of their drivers and conductors. This is a shame as these men brave bad working conditions (partly their own fault). But the owners have some gems to thank for establishing their business. Each line tends to have one or two buses which have become the ‘mascots’. For the Marwat Coach it is the 3600 that emerges from Qayyumabad and the 4422 that leaves from Budhni Goth. Their drivers made the route famous by persistently making these buses visible to attract passengers. “You’d see 3600 at 2am on the route in the early days,” says conductor Ayaz. That is why it is given the honour of being the first one to leave the adda each day. It was run by Ashraf from Muzaffarabad and now his son Arshad, 24, drives it. “Ashraf was punctual about it leaving at 6am,” explains seth Gul Akber. “That kind of discipline is hard to maintain day after day. He’d drive it in freezing winter, sometimes totally empty.” In Ilyas Coach’s case the mascot is the PE9972 that solidified this route’s reputation by being punctual, regular and exceptionally hard working, leaving Landhi at 4:30am and doing three up-down trips instead of two.

One becomes a driver after working as a conductor for at least two years. (The men use the word kellender for conductor as a bastardised version of collector). If you are lucky, an older driver will teach you in the parking ground. Seth Gul Akber prefers to work with men who come through the reference of other drivers. He is well qualified to talk as he joined the family business after running away from home in Lakki Marwat after his Matric. He still loves to drive but the family wants him to manage the fleet and the men. “I’ll only take on a driver who I’ve seen drive in front of me,” he says. “I need to know where he lives, where his home is.”

They are playful men, these drivers and conductors. “Jungle me har qissm ka parinda hota he,” says driver Ustad Ikram who is putting down installments to buy his own bus some day. There are all kinds of animals in a jungle. They joust, inescapably bonded by an impossibly complex system of timekeeping. They will lunge at each other’s throats over a second lost at Nursery, their bodies pressed up against each other, faces breathing into faces, and they will fall back just as quickly after the crowd swells in to pull them apart. Their bodies are grimy but their faces glow. The best of them are the roughest. The roughest of them are the gentlest. Sometimes when you are in traffic, you will experience a silent exchange. If you are behind a bus, you’ll see a hand appear out of the driver’s side. It motions back and forth. Go ahead, it says, gently. Pass me by, pass me by. I am giving you right of way. At other times you will catch a fleeting invitation from a conductor: “T’WAAR! T’Waar! T’waar!” to war to war, to war, towar, tawer, tower…Tower.

With thanks to reporters Sohail Khattak and Zia ur Rehman. The line using ‘order and disorder’ draws on the title of Laurent Gayer’s forthcoming book, ‘Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City’

A shorter version of this article was published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2014.


Norman Bartlett | 8 years ago | Reply

A very fine piece of journalism. Well written to give a great feeling of the atmosphere of Karachi streets.

Well researched too with almost the whole picture of the ramshackle bus system explained. Almost - for I'm not sure what a hazri is. Nor how a seth gets to operate a bus route in the first place. Does he buy a licence from the city? Nor is it clear the difference between a Coach bus and a Mazda bus.

But a brilliant piece for all that.


Ahsan J. | 8 years ago | Reply

Nice article, I've always wondered how this token system works.

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