Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

What defines us

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Most of what we Pakistanis do screams to the world that we are upstarts. Consider: several years ago a friend while picking his son from school was introduced to the father of the boy’s classmate. On discovering that the two families lived very near each other, my friend suggested to the father that they form a car pool for the boys’ trip to school and back. The man said, ‘Why do you imagine that I cannot afford for my son to be sent to school in his own car?’

The Punjabi words: ‘Meray puttar nu gadiyan da ghata a?’ This showed not just the upstart mentality but an utterly uncultured ignorance of the need to conserve fuel not just for one’s own economy but for the environment. No surprise then that in any given school, every child, other than siblings, arrives in his/her own car clogging streets for upward of an hour morning and afternoon. Fuel burns, horns honk and tempers fray. But not one parent will consider suggesting the establishment of a car pool or school bus for fear of being taken to be unprosperous.

It is this same crass social backwardness that a person of any means feels ashamed of riding a bus or cycling to work. In 1998, a US Consulate official (a Pakistani) phoned to inform me of the chance of a freebie to USA and asked me to see him immediately. I made the fatal mistake of cycling to the Queens Road place. It being August, my shirt was wet with perspiration when I walked into the man’s office. Hearing that I had cycled, the man asked if I didn’t have a car. I lied that I did not and from his look of disdain I immediately knew I was not getting the freebie.

On a rare occasion that I was recognised, I was in a city bus in Lahore. The man’s shocked reaction, ‘Sir, you in a bus?’ I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to convince him, one, that I was not rich and, two, that people of means happily ride buses all over the world – even in India. But no self-respecting Pakistani who can afford (or ill-afford) a car will ever be found cycling or commuting by bus.

Our ancestors from the great cities of the Indus Civilisation were smart. They lived in houses made from baked bricks and they paved their courtyards, streets and alleys with the same bricks. Clay bricks, fired in ovens have a thing about them: the slightest sprinkling of water immediately cools them even after the hottest summer afternoon thereby bringing the ambient temperature down.

Today there is not even a three-marla house that does not have marble facing and the ‘drive’ not paved either with synthetic tiles or marble. Chilled in winters, these two paving materials do not lose temperature when doused with water. Since we now live in tiny cheek by jowl blockhouses, these paving materials make a not insignificant contribution in raising the ambient temperature of our cities.

But we are a people who will scoff the notion of using bricks on the drive. Why, everyone will think us poor that we could not afford synthetic tiles or, better yet, marble. And so, mindlessly the entire nation stands enamoured of these materials that either make us uncomfortable or raise our cooling bills. (My drive is brick-paved.)

Conservation of natural gas was our last priority in the past. If we try to save it now, it is only because of its high price. I know families who kept a flame burning low in the kitchen throughout the day in order to conserve on matches! That was until about 25 years ago when gas was foolishly under-priced. Thankfully, this practice seems to have been killed by rising gas prices.

Tell anyone to save water and you’ll get a patent, ‘Water is god’s gift to humankind, how can it ever run out?’ I have heard this more times than I care to remember. If you see fools washing their driveways and even the section of tarmac road outside their homes, it is useless to attempt putting any sense in their heads. For them water is an infinite resource gifted by divinity.

And perish the thought of getting car owners or drivers to use a bucket rather than the garden hose to clean the car. Talk to an illiterate driver or an engineer/doctor/business manager owner about the wasteful misuse of water and you will see a glazed look in their eyes.

My house cannot be seen from outside because of the vegetation all around. There are four large trees and creepers everywhere around the house. The result is a house so cool in summers that first time visitors never fail to ask where we have installed our air cooler. But when I suggest a similar practice to others, the response, if I get one instead of the glazed look, is: ‘We spend so much money on building our house and you want it to be hidden for others not to see it?’

The fundamental problem with Pakistanis is the exhibitionist syndrome: we need to show off our affluence. The irony is we show off even when we are not affluent. Marble driveways, individual cars, avoiding buses and bicycles are some of our ways of exhibiting our riches. This is an attitudinal disease. Secondly, the ignorant among us are also apparently brain dead — and this is the vast majority.

Speak a word of sense to a stranger and you will receive a response that will be a masterpiece of illogic and stupidity. Pakistanis simply do not wish to be shown any light whatsoever. And let no man contest this statement with me for I have tried it on dozens of people, both acquaintances and strangers.

There was something called Public Service Obligation that state-owned PTV once honoured by showing public service messages. But this fell by the wayside when TV channels sprouted like vermin in Return of the Mummy. Without sense being drilled into us several times a day every day, I see no hope of any change in attitudes and our wayward lifestyle that squanders our natural resources, makes for an uncomfortable living and also puts us under economic pressure.


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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:00,


At 3 August 2014 at 07:36, Anonymous Tariq Malik said...

صدا بصحرا
چاروں سمت اندھیرا گھپ ہےاور گھٹا گھنگھور
وہ کہتی ہےکون
میں کہتا ہوں میں
مجھ کو اندر آنے دو
اس کے بعد اک لمبی چپ اور تیز ہوا کا شور

At 3 August 2014 at 08:02, Anonymous Tariq Malik said...

صدا بصحرا
چاروں سمت اندھیرا گھپ ہےاور گھٹا گھنگھور
وہ کہتی ہےکون
میں کہتا ہوں میں
مجھ کو اندر آنے دو
اس کے بعد اک لمبی چپ اور تیز ہوا کا شور

At 3 August 2014 at 14:05, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Well said, Tariq Malik, sir!

At 7 August 2014 at 18:21, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Exhibitionism is a common trait across the subcontinent.

At 9 August 2014 at 08:29, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

You are right, Amardeep. But I think in India exhibitionism has spurted suddenly over the past 15 or so years. Some Indian friends agree with this.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days