The Pakistani Hello

Hanniah Tariq wonders if obnoxious honking might be something of a national sport in Pakistan

The Pakistani Hello
“Football!” stated the German, “Baseball!” offered the American, “Hockey!” declared the Canadians and; “Afternoon Napping!” said the French guy as the whole group collapsed into uncontrollable laughter. During ice-breakers with one of the most multicultural project teams I have ever seen, we had been asked to share some general information about where everyone came from. The sarcastic Austrian (one of my best friends since then) was the first to break the laughter and then turned to me in his typical dry (Austrian) humour. “What are you laughing at? Your national sports are probably bomb assembly and making sure your car’s horn is working in case you are in a hospital zone!” he stated, to more peals of laughter.

Certainly, it would seem that road-rage and associated excessive horn-honking in any location or situation is Pakistan’s national sport, not field hockey as I had been preparing to say (no it is not cricket, contrary to what half the people seem to think). “Indifference to school and hospital zones” has been reported to be a frequent practice in Pakistan. In Karachi it is just plain painful to venture into any busy road. Islamabad which used to be such a quiet town when I was a child is also becoming unbearable. It begs the question – what can be done to protect those of us sensitive to so much regular noise in a nation so oblivious to so much deafening behavior on the roads? Unquestionably more mandatory road signs – and emphasis on their importance – should be placed. When I started thinking about it, I couldn’t even remember the last time that I saw one of those signs circled in red depicting a crossed-out horn. Better training to drivers on road etiquette, improved zoning laws and regulations, enhanced monitoring mechanisms as well as better enforcement of standards would also, of course, be some of the obvious solutions to this problem.
One friend described rolling down his window at the next intersection after being audibly impaired by the car behind him, only to find that he had unloaded his entire library of curses on his father's best friend!

This piece however will not be delving into that because after starting off as a serious exercise, it gave way to sheer hilarity the more I spoke to people on our culture of honking and solutions for it. The following compilation of alternate solutions that citizens sometimes find to address an incensed honking driver is nothing short of hysterical.

I had personally seen in my childhood that being pleasant but at the same time directly confronting that behaviour can sometimes solve the problem, with both sides receiving a side order of amusement in the process. On a trip to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) region, our car had gotten stuck completely in the snow. My father tried his best to propel the two-wheel sedan that we had at the time, out of the slippery patch, but to no avail. The driver in the car behind us immediately started a long one-sided conversation comprising entirely of sharp little honks at regular intervals. When the language began to display a more long-drawn earsplitting quality, my father finally decided to enter the conversation. In the human way, as it is meant to be, he got out of the car and gently asked the driver why, if he could see that the car in front is clearly stuck, he was proceeding to honk for the better part of ten minutes. The very upset man in the car retorted “Kho, mein ab jata hoon!” (Yes, I’ll go now) in a typically Pashto-influenced accent – the kind that my friends use when poking fun at my own roots. My dad then proceeded to explain that since it appeared to be a two-person job: one to honk and one to try and get the other car out of the snow, perhaps switching roles might help. He could sit back there with the man’s giggling gaggle of kids and honk while the now red-faced honking driver could go and extricate our car. Nothing but the children’s titters followed this suggestion. And, as my dad walked back to our car, no more honks were heard, while some kind locals helped to push us out of the snow. Presumably, the fact that the irate driver himself was one of those people could be the reason why no further horns were heard during the process. So, I suppose a little humour goes a long way when faced by something like this, but it isn’t always possible to enter into an actual conversation with your tormentor. But those were different times, too. Today in Karachi, a person in his position might, for instance, get his protocol to give you a real smack or two on the head for attempting to engage them in such a way.

A sign prohibiting honking - somewhat rare in Pakistan?

Speaking of different times, some of the older generation also speaks of the more vigilante-justice culture from the ‘good old’ days. One group of uncles discussing a two-decade old trip to Naran said they once devised the best way to teach disrespectful drivers a lesson. An uncle, whilst on a narrow road being constantly honked at by the driver behind him, pulled into a gas station and waited for his friends (they were a large group in three separate SUVs). After a quick discussion, for the rest of their almost 10-day trip, they proceeded to make sure they travelled together. Whenever the car at the tail had a similar problem he would let the offending car pass and then honk three sharp busts. “This was in the time before cell phones or a text would have done,” said one of them wryly, while telling the story. The cars at the front would make sure the person couldn’t pass while the one at the very back would honk to his heart’s content. Then usually one of them took pity and the same three-honk signal would allow the car to pass through. A kind of see-what-it-feels-like, old-school lesson! Hilarious, but not recommended with the condition some of those roads are in. But “boys will be boys” or rather, “uncles will be uncles” in this case!

Payback is also a local policy of coping, it seems, but only under very special circumstances. An uncle spoke of a time there was a road problem causing traffic to pile up on one of the only roads leading to the large factory he worked at. After honking incessantly, a little blue Volkswagen Beetle driver decided he was smarter than the other two dozen motorists and took matters into his own hands. Driving his car into the muddy shoulder of the road, he sped off, jauntily waving and honking at the less cerebrally-gifted folks. By and by, as the traffic let up and cars started to move, my uncle noticed the Beetle stuck in the mud about a mile down. Lowering his window as he passed by, he also gaily waved and gave him what he describes as “a 21-gun” salute. He literally stopped and honked 21 times! The story got better an hour later when he looked out his window at work and realised that the muddy beetle had appeared in the factory parking lot. It was the recent acquisition of a junior employee whom he had not seen before. From that day till he stopped working there five years later, whenever he passed it on the way to work, he always presented it with a one-gun salute. I mean a one-horn salute, of course!

What cacophony looks like

Rolling down your window and cursing to your heart’s content seems to be a favourite solution too. However, one friend described the most unfortunate incident of rolling down his window at the next intersection after being audibly impaired by the car behind him, only to find that he had unloaded his entire library of curses on his father’s best friend.

In the latest reboot of the Star Trek TV series Discovery, the expression “The Vulcan Hello” is used by the first mate of the ship to describe how the “Vulcans” always fired the first shot when they came across a Klingon (enemy) ship. Perhaps the “Pakistani Hello” is to honk first.