The commute between Rawalpindi and Islamabad has been a constant factor in my life as far back as memory goes. While several roads have opened up now, in previous years one could only use Murree Road to get to Islamabad. I have many memories of sitting in the back of the old corolla as a kid, and counting the cars going by, or making fun of the antics of different drivers on the road. The traffic on Pakistan’s roads operates much like a symphony – onlookers can often be amazed at how everything manages to hold together. I always wondered why Murree Road never had anything in common with Murree (a British-era hill station in the Margallah Hills a few hours drive from Islamabad). Murree road was chaotic, choked with traffic, dusty, and noisy. Though it has improved since then, making it through the road used to take some perseverance in those years.
The most important reason for the congestion and clamour was the fact that the Road was lined with shops. Several kilometres of shops of all types – furniture, appliances, hardware, jewellery, restaurants, newspapers, halwais, cinemas, pharmacies – selling everything and anything. Shoppers thronged these stores from morning till midnight. Hawkers would yell out advertisements, people would jump off wagons as they would skid to a halt, and cars would suddenly swerve to the left-hand-side to let yet more shoppers out. The little hatchback suzuki mehrans and FXs were the worst, you could never predict their behaviour with certainty. As we would weave through the traffic, my father’s patience often being tested, I remember usually feeling appalled by how congested everything was. Most of the shops were built into the facade of old residential buildings, many from pre-partition days. Where ‘modernization’ and ‘progress’ hadn’t spoiled them already, beautiful facades containing old-style stone and woodwork would be visible. Most of these residential buildings were built closely together, not designed for vehicles to pass through. I remember wondering how in the world people managed to live that close, and how cumbersome it must be. In later years I found out that my father’s own family had started off living in one such housing housing colony, called ‘mohallah‘ in urdu along Murree Road. Perhaps it was these experiences that first fired in me a drive to observe and address the socioeconomic conditions that characterized the lives of most residents of cities like Rawalpindi.
Once one made it through the honking, yelling, and general shor sharaba (clamour) and got close to Kashmir Highway, Muree Road improved. Shop density decreased, and gave way to the Federal Agricultural University. Looking to the left as one approached Kashmir Highway (which led to Islamabad) one could see the University’s ground beyond its boundary wall. And before its boundary wall, as sure as the sun rises, sat Bashir fruitvala (Bashir the fruit-seller). At this point, my father would often say “I think we should get some fruit,” and wonder aloud whether good old Bashir had the season’s fresh stock in store. Depending upon how much time there was to go before we were due at our destination, the idea would elicit agreement or protest from my mother, seated firmly beside him on the passenger seat.
Bashir was not really a big believer in advertising. In fact, if you didnt already know he was there, you would probably pass by without noticing what was being sold! Which raises the question (a good one), of how we came to know about Bashir in the first place. Who knows. His fruit setup was simple. There was a dusty, tattered tent-cloth propped up on wooden sticks, about 25 yards in length. All along it, from the floor up, were set up wooden fruit cartons. These special fruit cartons are called petis, and they’re made out of thin strips of wood. Bashir would greet my father, and then walk him around, offering samples of different fruits along the way in case he was interested in browsing, or taking him straight to it in case he was interested in something specific. The selection process was rigorous. It depended upon a combination of colour, smell, taste of the sample, suppleness, and importantly, the part of Pakistan it had come from. Different combinations for different fruits. Nahin bhai, yeh tau kachha hay (this one isn’t ripe yet), one would hear my father say. With lavish criticism and careful praise, the process would go on, until the fruit was selected. Then came the price arguments. I never understood what the real value of any of the fruit was, or how one came to distinguish between a good and bad price for say, pomegranates. However, I could usually tell by my father’s expression who had won the battle of prices that day.
Off we would go then, with the fruit. If it wasn’t being taken for someone we were going to see, then I would have the immense joy of later ripping the wooden boards of the peti to reveal the day’s loot – cherries, guavas, pomegranates, mangoes, apples, pears, and apricots (depending upon the season) – carefully wrapped in old urdu newspapers.