Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

No quiet place

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“There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring or the rustle of insects’ wings … The clatter only seems to insult the ears.” Thus wrote Seattle to the president of the United States in 1854. This piece of prose, all 1,900 words of it, should be the environmentalists’ bible.

Now, Seattle was chief of the Suquamish Red People of North America when the president of that new country offered to buy the Red Man’s land and put him on reservations. Now, also, the letter is somewhat of a controversy because there exist two versions of it — quite alike in essence, however. Some attribute the prose to a 1970s screenwriter instead of Chief Seattle (also spelled Seathl); others to an earlier writer in the 1930s.

But whatever the case, it is a piece of earth literature, an ode to the good earth, a celebration of its bounties that we humans have ravaged and ravaged and which it continues to give. The intense feeling for the earth and what we have done to it is moving. It brings tears to the eyes. I do not think there is a human being firmly rooted to the earth who can read the entire piece aloud without the voice cracking and the eyes misting.

But this is not about Chief Seattle’s poignant letter, much too long for my word limit. This hangs on his assertion that there is no quiet place in the cities we have built for ourselves. And Lahore, if I may venture, must be the noisiest city of its size in the whole wide world.

Until the early years of this century, the noisiest (besides the air pressure horns that are illegal but which are tolerated by the public and condoned by an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy) demons were the Vespa rickshaws. Since some moron had floated the idea that removing the original silencer made for greater fuel economy as well as more power, removal was the first done thing. In place of the original, they fitted a steel pipe that multiplied the noise.

Some years ago, the government introduced CNG rickshaws which, for some curious reason, seemed to work well with their silencers on. For the first time, the people of Punjab took a sigh of relief. But good things last the shortest in this blighted land and sooner than we knew, all hell broke loose with that accursed contraption spelled Qingqi and pronounced Chingchi.

Some moron once again asserted that in order for this 70cc machine to carry 12 grown men loaded on its heavy steel superstructure, it was necessary to replace the silencer with a steel pipe. Sooner than we could imagine, every single Qingqi that hit the streets of Punjab was devoid of the silencer. The result is a nerve-shattering ‘tunk-tunk-tunk’ that can be heard for miles in the quiet of the very early morning (when I incidentally wake for a certain reason).

And, mind, this plague afflicts only the province of Punjab. I have travelled across the four provinces, Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir. Everywhere I have seen these rickshaws hauling more bodies than they have the power to haul. Everywhere they pass you with just a breath of a ‘putt-putt-putt’. Across Pakistan, they retain their original silencers. But Punjab is the province with the curse where they must operate without.

The bright young spark, Sonia Malik of this paper’s [Express Tribune] Lahore bureau, who writes on matters of the environment with admirable feeling, tells me she has spoken in this regard with several worthies of the departments that should be concerned with environmental pollution. All of those babus tell her that they cannot banish the rickshaws fearing divine retribution for depriving poor people of their daily bread. Not one of these unworthy gentlemen has ever considered ordering silencers back on the curse that blights this unhappy land. That notion of silencers is simply alien to them.

The chief minister has threatened to turn Lahore into Paris. The Lord have mercy! It would serve him and all of us better if he were to simply turn Lahore into the city it once was. A city where one could have peace and quiet in one’s home.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

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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