This article was first published in The Express Tribune on Nov 4, 2012.
I like travelling by public transportation. It’s an entirely subjective declaration for which I don’t find a lot of support. A major part of my public transport experience is based on intra- and inter-city travel in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
The public transit system here, much like everywhere else in Pakistan, is not run by the government. Rather, it’s owned and operated by private transporters.
I’ve been a commuter for almost seven years now. I still try to travel by public transport every chance I get. I have my reasons.
The most common form of public transport in the twin cities is the Toyota Hiace van. In the summer, the insides of any of these vans are mostly sweat-coloured and, every so often, ready to explode. Like the temperature of the season, the temperaments of the people travelling in the vans are often hot, causing them to be impatient.
Winters cool down their tempers but the closed windows keep out the cold, fresh air. The result is feelings of suffocation and being trapped — perhaps, an all too familiar analogy for the controls on expression in Pakistan.
Sometimes aggressive and sometimes docile, my fellow commuters and I offer a glimpse into a society almost resigned to fate on the one hand, but unpredictable, intolerant and quite unstable on the other — especially when moved by a common ‘other’; in this case, the van conductor or driver.
Commuters seem tied in a bond of mutual suffering and silence. People don’t talk to each other much during the commute (perhaps, due to the stranger effect; I haven’t met the same person twice on the same route in all these years). But when they do, a consensus is reached almost every time. Despite their diversity, they are apparently united in the problems they face as citizens.
Right here, in the public transport vehicles, I, the educated, privileged, ignorant urban resident, have found my most genuine contact with the realities of Pakistan, which I would otherwise mostly only hear or read about.
For me, public transit has become a third place like no other to try and understand my fellow citizens. But I’m sure I haven’t reached that destination yet.
That said, we, the commuters, wouldn’t mind a more efficient, less miserable transit system in our cities.