Standing under the sun, outside the Adil Hotel of Peervadhai in Rawalpindi, I was waiting for the Hiace to arrive. The waiting area was not only a dustbin for walkers and hawkers to litter but also a favorable place for stray cats to eat, play and piss. I was headed to my home—Hajira in Poonch district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK).
Here, getting the front seats is the mirroring of lottery-kind of joy; and yes, it is biased. Even if you clear the gender, class, good PR, and timing bias, the only thing that can reserve those precious seats is a prior phone call to either conductor or the driver. I ringed my chance, and it worked—I got the front seat—Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner!
Though in the times like Eid, landslides, and hartal (strike), there is a scarcity of vehicles; passengers outnumber the availability of seats in the van and the seat is offered through the universal rule: ‘first come, first serve’. There are also times when people pay double of the actual prices to get a single seat.
Mostly, female travel along with their guardians. But, if they have to travel alone, they either pay for two seats or adjust to sitting near a female passenger. In the gender ratio’s scarcity, the adjacent seat to a female is left empty as the gesture of respect.
While waiting amid indistinct noise of horns, welding machines, carpentry, human and animal—I could hear the distinct loud announcements by calinders (local slang for conductors). It rang like music in my ears, “Cheerah! Cheerah! Cheerah! Rawalakot, (Hajira is locally pronounced as Cheerah)
Chalay, chalay, chalay! (It goes to)
Cheerah, Abbaspur!,” and took a pause, only to continue, “Cheerah, Abbaspur!”
It is the signature to attract the attention of interested passengers while informing them about the departure locations of the tota (slang used for Toyota Hiace, the most common brand of local vans in PaK).
A few moments later, a conductor reached me and confirmed, “did you reserve the two seats?” I nodded in affirmation and the aftermath caught me in a joyful surprise; he, like a boss, guided me towards the seat, while instructing other passengers in the particular tune, “Lady swari! lady swari! rasta deyo jee, hato agon, lady swari , chlay chlay chlay, Cheerahhh Abbaspooor!” [Lady passenger is coming, get a side, make the way clear, a lady passenger is coming, (the van) goes to Hajira, Abbaspur!]
After getting in the brand new “Paharron ki Shehzadi” (Princess of mountains), I took the sigh of relief as against my hopes, and previous experiences, the van was neat and clean. It reminded me of a local indigenous joke based on the verses written on the local transport. It goes like: When a brand new bus comes in the market, it has “Paharron ki Shehzadi” (Princess of the mountains) written on it. When it gets a bit older, the writing becomes “Dekho magar pyar se!” (Stare at me but with love). Once the paint starts denting, it becomes, “Tu langi ja, sarri kher ae” (You can overtake, I am happy as I am). And once it gets repaired and repainted, it declares, “Waqat ne ek baar phir dulhan bana diya!” (Time has once again made me a bride).
I rested at the window seat, and placed my bags in the middle empty seat, next to the driver. Once the van was topped up, the driver came and soon he adjusted the back-view mirror, which had a mobile number written on it. I saw him in amusement, as it is commonly believed that drivers do that to steal few looks at the women on the seat back side. If, the woman is interested in ‘taking ahead’, they could easily note the number from the mirror.
Of course, this is not the case with every driver, and local female passengers, but indeed, many successful and failed love stories spring from this practice.
As it turned out, the driver was a very talkative guy. As soon as we left from Peerwadhai station, he started inquiring my whereabouts. Before I could have replied to him, he asked, “are you also a student at Islamic university?” It was obvious as there are many girls from PaK, who are studying at Islamic University, Islamabad. Most of them travel in these Hiaces. They also reserve their seats in advance through a phone call. I answered him briefly stating that, yes I am a student.
He said, “it is very good that our girls are getting education and families are sending them to Pakistan for studying, but yaro jee! (slang for a friend in an informal manner) if you ask me honestly, these zalzalas (earthquakes) also come because of our girls.” It induced my interest to get involved in the conversation and I replied to him in the same tone, “how come ustad jee?” (slang to call drivers)
He picked leftover food particles from his teeth with a matchstick via one hand and turned the steering wheel with other, as he recounted, “Look, the 2005 earthquake of Muzaffarabad (Capital of PaK) happened mainly because of girls’ beyhayai (Shamelessness).” Adding to it, he tried to explain it ‘logically’ as—how come otherwise loads of university students got killed in the earthquake?
Citing the ‘modern dresses’ and ‘western culture’, he said, “it instigates the poor men like us to look at them with bad intentions.”
In the following times, soon we reached Kahuta, and driver halted the ride at a police check-post. It was a common stoppage to check every vehicle entering and exiting PaK. The policeman came and asked a few passengers to show their ID cards, most commonly, NADRA (National Identity card frequently). After checking, he waved his hand positively and the van started heading towards PaK.
The journey after Kahuta is really scenic and quite beautiful. The weather and the picturesque landscape were embracing. The driver switched on the music system, booming the ‘local driver collection’. These songs are unique in their own way, and sort of same in every local transport. They are the signature of local transport and are remembered as vans’ song. It made my soul feel really happy and alive, as I love to listen to songs while traveling on local transport.
As the USB played, the driver forwarded it to number-11 straightaway. The song was—Idhar zindagi ka janaza uthey gah, udhar zindagi unki dulhan banaegi” [my life will meet the death when she becomes bride of someone else in her life]. This is the song I only listened in the local vans and buses since my childhood. I never heard it on TV or even radio. I remember the older days when there used to be the cassette player in the vans, but now they are replaced by the USB players. Though, the collection of the songs are still the same. The songs on Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s local transport are its lifeline, and the Indian romantic and sad songs fall among the favorites.
Soon, the conductor waved to the driver to pass the ‘shopping bags’. The driver requested me, and I took it from his side and passed it over to the conductor to help a passenger to puke. Yes, in this region, keeping shopping bags in the transport for helping nausea passengers is among few of the unwritten rules.
I wanted to resume the conversation with the driver but it seemed off topic now. I asked him to increase the volume of the music. He did so with a smile. He lighted a cigarette and started humming the songs alongside the rhyme.
I focused on the songs and indulged in the day-dreaming.
Komal Raja is a native of Hajira in Poonch, Pakistan-administered Kashmir. She is a PhD Scholar, studying Social and Cultural Anthropology in LMU, Ludwig Maximilian, University of Munich, Germany.
This is the first part story of series Life Across LoC.