Political poetry at its best: on the back of Pakistan’s rickshaws

Poems about price hikes, political pleas and even apologies to girlfriends; for busy rickshaw drivers, the best place to get their message across is the back of their vehicle. So how did the concept of "rickshaw poetry" come about? Read more and see a few examples...


A collection of painted rickshaws in Karachi city centre. Posted on Flickr on 11 Dec. 2009 by our Observer, Raja Islam.

Poems about price hikes, political pleas and even apologies to girlfriends; for busy rickshaw drivers, the best place to get their message across is the back of their vehicle. So how did the concept of "rickshaw poetry" come about?

Poetry and politics for traffic jams

Posted on Flickr on 16 June 2007 by saaakif. "Come see me, for one last time. I didn't drink after you made me promise on your life not to. But I was at a party and my friends forced me to". 

Taken in Lahore. Photo by Awais Lodhi, posted on All Things Pakistan 2 Feb. 2007. Translation by Adil Najam. "Addressed to Honorable General Musharraf Sahib. Accept my congratulations on the passage of the women's rights bill. Now, please, also give us a bill on men's rights. We will be grateful. It is very difficult to get a drink these days."

Posted by Aqeel on Lahore Metblogs on 29 Jan. 2009. Translated on All Things Pakistan. "Don't fret, my dear. Just wish me luck." 

Sent by email to our Observer Adil Najam (location and author unknown). Posted on All Things Pakistan on 5 Nov. 2009. Translated by Rizwan Quraishi.

"So Wonders Pakistan:

No work, no occupation, widespread corruption, a bad traffic situation.

Slaves of America we have become, further shame can't possibly come,

For my fate, there is no plan. This, wonders Pakistan."

Posted by Adil Najam on All Things Pakistan on 20 July 2010. Translated by Rizwan Quraishi.

"Respected Mr. Chief Minister of Punjab*, if my life doesn't depend on it, allow me to ask, why the price of bread is Rs. 2, and the price of gas is Rs. 100. Oh servant of Punjab, please answer me."

The date of the photo is unknown but according to our Observer Rizwan Quraishi, it is somewhat outdated as the price of a piece of bread is now Rs. 6, and the price of gas is about Rs. 65 (after subsidies).

Posted on Flickr on 7 July 2009 by Tahir Wadood Malik. Translated by Tahir Imran Mian and Rizwan Quraishi.

"Gentlemen, please help those who are affected by load shedding* [power cuts], for example by donating water, hand-held fans, undergarments (ladies and gents), towels, handkerchiefs, deodorant, itch guard cream, lanterns, sleeping pills and child-care essentials. Of course... sleeping pills and false hopes are anxiously required too."

*Planned power shutdowns, resulting from the ongoing power crisis in Pakistan. In some areas, there is no electricity for up to 18 hours a day.

Posted on Flickr by "itester" on 4 May 2010. Translated by Tahir Imran Mian.

"Looks said to another look, in the form of a look,

Don't look, I swear, else you will jinx me.

Don't doubt my love, if you have to do something, trust me. Life has so many troubles, but have faith in my prayers. Life is the name of love. Life is the name of trust. Please trust my love (which is for you)."

The names Basharat and Hanifa appear at the bottom. According to blogger Jahane Rumi, these are the mentors who either "coached the driver or helped him procure the rickshaw". 

“Rickshaw poetry began during a very politically charged period in Pakistan”

Rizwan Quraishi is a management analyst and recreational photographer from Lahore.

The rickshaw came to the Indian subcontinent in the early 1930s, but it was only after the fuel crisis that followed World War Two that it became such a widespread commercial transportation solution.

Drivers started painting the back of their rickshaws in the late 1970s; not only in Pakistan but in India and Bangladesh too. The period was a very politically charged time for Pakistan. East Pakistan had just broken off (in 1971), and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the first democratically elected leader of Pakistan, was publicly hanged in 1979 after a controversial trial.

The next decade saw successive leaders come and go, and witnessed the deterioration of the social, economic and intellectual state of the country at the hands of unstable political conditions, religious extremism, corruption and mismanagement of resources. None of these wounds have healed to date, and it's not surprising that the cynicism of the middle to lower classes has come to be visible in rickshaw art and poetry.

The people who decorate the rickshaws are called ‘body makers', and they do work for buses, trucks and vans too. If the rickshaw user wants something painted, then the scripting and material charges would be around Rs. 1,000 to 1,500 [€9 - €14]. There's a sticker-based technique as well, which makes it easier to change the text, and it is cheaper too, at around Rs. 600 to 800 [€5 - €7].

Rickshaw drivers are generally worse off, financially, than taxi drivers, so their walk and talk is very different. Rickshaw drivers are less prone to getting into a conversation with you, and not just because the vehicle is way too noisy. Rickshaw drivers have far too many blues to sit and chit chat with passengers over trivial pursuits of life. But that doesn't mean they're not politically inclined, as proved by the painted messages.

I managed to talk to a rickshaw driver in Lahore a couple of years ago. He was far more politically aware than most of the citizens in here, and had very liberal, thoughtful and pragmatic views on the problems of the country.

The strangest rickshaw message I've ever seen is: 'When I grow up, I'm going to be a Rolls Royce'."