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Let W-11 take you for a ride


A team of Karachi vehicle decorators have transformed a Melbourne tram to bring the experience of a journey on a W-11 Karachi mini-bus to the streets of Melbourne.

Let the Melbourne “W-11” tram take you for a ride with its passionate displays of vibrant dancing colour in hand-cut sticker collage, sparkling reflection of sculpted stainless steel panels and dazzling flashing lights. The tram is complete with conductors from Karachi & Melbourne, the music that you would hear on the Karachi W-11, and a special edition of collectable tickets that feature popular Urdu poetry seen on the side of buses and trucks in Karachi.

In an increasingly homogenising and homogenised world, the W-11 is a claim for the human spirit to not be overlooked. A spirit of generosity and lust for life is transported by the W-11 as it temporarily encircles the city of Melbourne with its sides emblazoned in Urdu and English “ pyar zindagi hai’ / “love is life”, as if to radiate an aura of honour and goodwill outward and onward. The Karachi decorators have built a vehicle reminding us of our simple human capacity to move, and be moved.

Travellers in Karachi, Melbourne and anywhere between can read and contribute stories of how the ride on W-11 moves you by visiting a special interactive blog section of this website in the "passengers talk" section. Click your chosen ticket and lets go!

WHEN: every 50minutes, 10am to 9pm daily on the City Circle route, Wed 15 March to Sunday 26 March

WHERE: The City Circle route Melbourne (Flinders st, Spring st, Latrobe st & Harbour Esplanade)

Love is Life / piyar zindagi hai: W-11 Moving the Human Spirit

A journey via W-11 stakes a claim for the human spirit to not be overlooked in an increasingly homogenising and homogenised world, say co-ordinators of the public art project Mick Douglas & Durriya Kazi.

It is the first time that Nusrat Iqbal and his team of vehicle decorators have moved outside Pakistan. They are more likely to be found in a workshop at one end of the longest mini-bus route that traverses the city of Karachi, from the Port in the south-west to New Karachi in the north-east. The large fleet of buses that ply this route are known beyond the city for their passionate and decorative displays, often featuring the image of a peacock amongst a vibrant dance of colour, sparkling reflection and flashing light. The name of the route appears differently in stylised letters on the front windscreen of each privately owned W-11 bus.

In the contemporary connected metropolis, the advertising industry knows very well that road vehicles have a profitable capacity to attract public attention. The globally affected consumer may expect to see the branding of well-known corporations and products clad to the sides of the vehicles that shuttle our urban landscapes. Thankfully, the decorated vehicles plying the W-11 route are a contemporary anomaly. Words on the side of one W-11 mini-bus without logo or brand, translated from Urdu, read: “love is life”.

Iqbal’s small workshop is itself without decoration. It holds only a few hand tools and is scattered with cuttings of multi-coloured self-adhesive vinyl. A couple of loose photographic prints are stuck to one wall. Iqbal and his workshop partner are pictured on folding chairs on a Karachi beach, cooling their feet in the shallows of the Arabian Sea, facing southward.

“This will be the greatest tram ever seen”, beams Iqbal, imagining the transformation of a tram that will circle the city of Melbourne in March 2006. It is a strange turn. Trams have not been seen in Karachi since the 1970s, when the diesel engine-driven trams were laid to rest. Tramways systems were spawned throughout cities of the British Empire at the turn of the 19th century, including in Karachi, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. Tramways were then a symbolic display, for better or worse, of what the Empire could bring to its colonies. Initially horse-drawn, some systems then went to elaborate underground cable-driven systems, and later moved to electrified systems – as in the case of Melbourne’s trams; or from horse-drawn to engine-driven – as in the case of Karachi. Melbourne is one of the few cities of the Commonwealth to have retained and expanded the tramways system, along with Calcutta. In spite of the worldwide closures of tramways in the 1960s and 70s, this mode of public transport now enjoys a worldwide return, with numerous new systems having been built in the last decade.

Decorating transport is an ancient practice in many cultures, including the Indus valley. Camels, ox carts, river-boats and horses have long been personalised with decorative devices. Modern transport in Pakistan remained unadorned until the 1960s when ownership moved away from the elite to the working classes. The services of court painters who migrated from Kutch Bhuj in the Gujarat were then sought to adorn motorised vehicles. There are also influences from domestic traditions of decorating what is valued, from shrines to brides, which has come to be transferred to modern possessions like ghetto blasters. As new materials have arrived in the market – radium colours, reflective tape, LCD light displays, and even the woodcarving and inlay crafts of Kashmir – they have found their way into truck décor. Even poetry, the pastime of Pakistani people, has been incorporated to reflect personal philosophies. The exterior and interior of the trucks have became moving palaces for the new “kings of the road”; an ongoing competitive spirit of embellishment developing into what is now a sophisticated art form.

A new style of vehicle decorating came about in the 1970s with the advent of city buses able to service flexible routes to meet the needs of fast growing urban centres. Unlike other countries where vehicles are decorated mostly by spray-painting images on the surface, the structures of Pakistani trucks and now buses are actually designed with decoration in mind. Trucks originally had larger panels made of wood, and so were suited to decoration with painted images, while buses of steel with more contours prompted the development of a decorative style of repousse stainless steel, coloured acrylic plastic and reflective tape filigree with its own distinctive language.

Owners of the W-11 route buses, mostly Muhajirs, Punjabis or migrants from India at Partition, spend an enormous amount on decoration, motivated in part by rivalry with one another, and by the love of colour, splendour and display. Yet vehicle decoration has no economic benefit. A key to understanding why so much effort and expense goes into decoration, in spite of the obvious poverty faced by these very people, may lie in the aesthetics of shrines and the role of superstition in the spiritual temperament of Pakistani people. A commonly held belief is that unless the source of one’s livelihood is properly honoured, it will not prosper. Amongst profane imagery and poetry, the decoration of the buses incorporates prayers, cloths from shrines tied to rails and every bus has a child’s shoe hidden in its decoration for good luck! The presence of these spectacularly decorated buses in otherwise seemingly drab and messy roads is indeed a charming enigma.

The exuberant display of the vehicle, the energy of the conductor and the beat of resonating music all conspire to move people aboard the W-11. Perhaps it is a claim for the human spirit to not be overlooked in an increasingly homogenising and homogenised world. A spirit of generosity and lust for life is transported by the W-11 as it temporarily encircles the city of Melbourne, as if to radiate an aura of honour and goodwill outward and onward. The Karachi decorators have built a vehicle reminding us of our simple human capacity to move, and be moved.

Mick Douglas & Durriya Kazi, 2006

Experiencing W-11 in Witty Karachi Style

Travelling in W-11 requires technique and skill, says Ibrahim M.Khalil in his hilarious article "Mass Transit" published on South Asian writing and issues site CHOWK. Take the skill of 'Getting Out Looking The Same When Getting In', for after travelling on W-11 your clothes tell quite a story when Ibrahim is writing it! For a witty tarade of insights into the Karachi mini-bus experience, read an extract below.

"Mass Transit"
by Ibrahim M.Khalil
(an extract from

He faces left so that the traffic is now arriving from his back and going forward. He turns his head backward looking at the arriving vehicle. It seem as he is measuring the distance and velocity of the vehicle to derive the ETA where he is standing. It is the W-11 bus. He raises his right hand indicating that he wishes to board it. Then he takes the stick from his left hand into his right. His grip on the stick becomes firmer. All of a sudden, he has regained his youthfulness. The lines on his face slowly diminish. It was as if he had stored away some energy, like camels store water for traveling in desert. He bends his knees a little like getting ready for a jump or sprint. The bus suddenly swerves from the fast lane to the slow lane and the driver presses the brakes, though not completely, just enough to reduce the speed to 20mph. The old man looks as if he had just drunk water from the fountain of youth. He is looking 15 years younger somewhere around 50 to 55. As the bus moves past him at 20mph, he suddenly takes two steps forward to match the acceleration of the bus and jumps on the door of the moving bus. As soon as he sets his foot firmly inside the bus, he has again become an old man of 65-70 years. It is reminiscent of the clock striking 12 in the Cinderella story that took all the magic away.

This is W-11; a bus service that for a few moments makes you younger taking away 10 to 15 years off your face.

Well there is more to the minibuses than just the beautification work. However, W-11 is the best in class when it comes to chamak patti works. It is said that the cost of beautification in W-11 is more than the cost of chassis and engine. There are also 10 to 20 thin flexible sticks springing on the head of the body giving the impression of the crown of a peacock. If you see three of four buses coming from a particular side, the one appearing the most beautiful and with best crown is definitely W-11. The owners and operators are fond of beautifying their minibus. But their fondness is restricted only to beautification and maintenance. The engines of all the minibuses are old Mazda T3200 of late 1960s. These buses are banned in Punjab due to high emission; however they are the masters of the road in Karachi. W-11 even has a monopoly on its route and their operators carry a lot of clout. Whereas coaches are plying on all other routes in Karachi, W-11 people have not allowed a single coach route permit to be issued on their route.

W-11 travels on the jugular vein of Karachi. Its efficient running is vital for a day to start in Karachi. It transports majority of the working class to their offices and back. It is the most well known bus service and in order to make their strikes successful; the political elements (mostly MQM) used to burn one or two W-11 vehicles the night before. The operators didn’t dare take out their vehicles on the strike day translating into a successful strike because quarter of the working population could not reach their workplaces.

A distinguishing feature of W-11 is its maintenance. It is the only well kept minibus on the road. The railings and rods used for holding on while standing in the bus are rust free. The floor is kept well greased sometimes even over greased. When it starts or stops with a jerk, many people slip but this happens occasionally. The seats are unbroken and covered. The height of the roof is just right. In contrast, other minibuses plying on the road are rusty. Just the use the railing to get on the bus will leave rust on your hands which will spoil your shirt or trouser near the pocket. Near the pocket? Well, you’d have to put your hand in the pocket for taking out a tissue Duh! In these minibuses (barring W-11), usually the seats are broken or sometimes very close. This requires you to use a special technique for sitting. First, you stand at the leg space (or foot space as it is too small). Then swiftly placing your butt on the chair, simultaneously lift your knees. The legs will come to rest at a 60degree angle as the leg space provided is so small that you cannot keep your legs horizontal. Your knees will be fixed against the back of the head rest of the front guy. This is know as the `N` position which is quite obvious. As the height of these buses is small, you stand in ‘f’ position that is you bend your head to face the feet in order to stand. At least, in W-11, you are saved from this ordeal.

W-11 is not just a bus service, it is an institution. Even as a peace loving and a docile citizen you acquire number of skills, which you will not need unless you are a spy or a terrorist. You learn how to jump on a fast moving bus, a technique that might come in handy in your escapes, for jumping on fast moving trains and trucks. The learning curve, however, can be divided into two levels. Level one is easier one. Here you realize from a distance that the bus is not going to stop for picking you up. You start sprinting slowly beforehand like in a relay race. As the bus accelerates pass you, you grab on to the railing and jump on it. While it might appear easy on paper, it is quite difficult to pull off in reality.

Level two, is very difficult technique to master and I have seen very few people accomplish it successfully or even try it. This happens when you decide to get on a bus as it is whizzing past you. This requires split second calculations regarding velocity of the bus, its direction, wind speed, direction of the wind and where you are standing in relation to the moving bus. As the bus speeds past you, you jump on it at a particular angle and speed. This task requires enormous skill and experience. A small miscalculation and you might hurt yourself. If you jump too early, you might hit the side the bus which as you know is beautified by metal strips, injuring yourself like having been attacked by a pack of wolves. However, jumping right on to the door but at a wrong angle or velocity will give you shock that will shift the bones - making you hunch and leave your eyes in a permanent squint. The most perilous consequences are of jumping too late; you will not only miss the bus, but land just behind it into the discharging smoke. Not only your face and clothes be blackened by the billowing smoke, your lungs will be filled with smog and lead, and you might even get struck by a car trailing the bus at a fast speed.

Level 3 while not officially recognized is very precarious, as I have seen nobody use it except myself. It was not easy to master. I had my share of shocks and temporary eye disorientations rather I still get them sometimes when I can’t pull it off rightly. What I do is as the bus moves past me, I turn at my feet quickly trying to match the speed of the bus by standing at the same place. Then I grab on to the railing and jump aboard. This technique is very hazardous and till now I have not seen any one do it. A small miscalculation and your arm may get pulled off from the shoulder joint. I have had very close shaves twice.

Value added service is not a new concept for W-11. It has been there since early eighties. W-11 has not restricted itself to core activity of transportation. Rather it also known for its service - entertainment. People don’t travel on W-11 just for transportation, they have various cheaper alternatives. They also get on it for entertainment. Rarely is there W-11 bus where the cassette player is not running the latest Indian songs and during holy days (Ramadan, Muharram) qawwalis. For short distances, traveling on W-11 is uneconomical because it charges a flat rate, which is exorbitant for very small distances. However, a few of my friends who don’t live on its route use it when they are in its vicinity, for extremely short distances. Once my friend and I had to go from Jama Cloth to Nishat Cinema hardly fifteen minute walk. He jumped on to W-11 and beckoned me to do so. I said to him that the distance is very short so why is he taking the bus, and even if he has to take the bus why this one. We had many cheaper buses plying on this route. He said to me and I am not lying, “It is easily available to you rather you use it everyday so you don’t know its worth. Ask those who are not blessed with homes on the route of W-11. We have to travel daily on boring buses. I want this trip, short it may be, to be real entertaining”.

The success of W-11 also established another industry. A recording label took out Indian song cassettes substituting film dialogues between songs with slapstick comedy. These labels were called FM-W11 and the humor mostly consisted of parodies of call-in on FM channels. 7 or 8 volumes came out and then the fad died out.

Traveling in W-11, like getting on it, requires technique and skill. It took some time and skill to develop software that deliver WYSIWYG. Similarly certain amount of skill is required for GOLTSWGI (Getting Out Looking The Same When Getting In) in W-11. If you are an amateur, you might embark on for attending a wedding reception in a suit but when you disembark it would appear as you went there as a mechanic for looking after the diesel generator in case the light goes out. Defying all traffic and safety rules W-11 is packed to the door with no place to move in the bus. In the aisle, hardly one man can stand, but usually two men are standing with their butts touching rather pressed against each other and their penises pushed against shoulders of the sitting passengers. In this jammed space, believe me, the bus-conductor makes his way from the front to back collecting payments and then back again. It is a good thing that trousers have two legs otherwise if it were like a skirt, by the time your reach destination, the zipper of the trouser would have been covering your butt. In earlier days, when I reached the office my colleagues used to play a guessing game to determine the characteristics of my fellow travelers. One day upon my reaching the office, my colleague said to me, “You were traveling in a packed bus. First you sat at the aisle seat and then moved on to the Window seat or vice versa. When you were at the aisle seat there was a gentleman sitting on your right and at left of you a laborer was standing in the aisle with his erect penis (I have a fair complexion) just touching your shoulder. Prior to that, when you were standing a mechanic was standing to your right. While getting on or off your tie got stuck in some tool or something.” He was 100% correct. I asked him how he knew. Was he traveling in the same bus? “No”, he said laughing. “It can’t be a guess”, I said. “Well, believe it or not, it is”, was his reply. “How did you get it so right?” asked I. “It is easy. Your clothes tell the story. The movement from the aisle seat to window seat is explained by the marks on the knees of your trouser caused by the rub of the knees against the front seat. The gentleman was sitting at your right is explained by a faint scent coming just from your right shoulder and arms. The penis of labor was touching is explained by a dim stripe on your shoulder about half inch high and one and one half inches long and giving a very faint smell of sweat, cement and urine. Had it been a leg or body touching your shoulder than it would have been a large blot of 2 to 3 inches radius and the smell of urine would be absent. I can guess the mechanic was standing right of you as your elbows are having a faint mark and smell of oil and grease caused by rubbing of elbows when both of you were holding on to the rod to keep the balance. Your tie got stuck on something is explained by two things. It seems a bit elongated from the middle i.e., it is out of shape. And there are strangulation marks on your neck caused by pull of tie.” He was right cent per cent. “Don’t worry. You will learn to avoid this with the passage of time”. And I did, though it took a long very frustrating time. Now I GOLTSWGI and make educated guesses about the fellow travelers of other colleagues of mine who haven’t mastered the skill yet.

Usually there is a quote attributed to an Australian pilot (or at least that’s what I heard) that when the plane had landed, the pilot announced to the deplaning passengers, “The safest part of your journey is over. Now starts the most dangerous part. Drive safely”. In Pakistan, commuting is very dangerous, as everybody disregards traffic rules. The major reason is motorcyclists. However, they are danger mostly to themselves. The reason being that if you hit the motorcycle or the motor cycle hits you, 76% of the time, the greater of the injuries will be sustained by the motorcyclist and there is an 83% chance that these will not be minor injuries. However, W-11 is even more dangerous. It’s not only a danger to the vehicles plying on the road; rather the pedestrians are also not safe from its wrath. Newspapers used to be full of the stories of their precariousness:

KARACHI, November 10, by our staff reporter: Today W-11 set a new record by running over 11 pedestrians while picking up only 7 between the Liaquatabad No. 10 bus top and Teen Hatti Bridge. Details are that W-11 (Bus no. 8179) driven by Darya Khan s/o Samandar Khan had a scuffle with his conductor just before the fateful stop of Liaquatabad Number 10 where this gory episode begin. The conductor was reprimanding the driver that he is not driving properly so as to pick up greater number of passengers. The bus was half empty. The driver in the fit of rage, from that point onward drove in the fast lane swerving suddenly left to pick up passengers. This required most of the passengers to use Level 2 strategies to get on the bus. However, people being mostly used to Level 1, could not get aboard and were run over by it. In this way he picked only 7 while running over 11. As per terrified eye witnesses, 10 of them used Level 1 strategy when it definitely required Level 2. However, one unfateful prospective (late) passenger did something unusual. He was turning circles and then suddenly grabbed on to the railing of the bus (he was trying Level 3). The bus tore off his arm and he died of excessive bleeding. After venting his rage, the bus came to stop at Teen Hatti bridge as the passengers became hysterical and the traffic police motorcyclist without caring for his own life brought his motorcycle in front of the bus (he was stopping it for taking a bribe and was unaware of the whole episode but alls well that ends well). The driver was apprehended and handed over to the Crime Wing. (he will get off in 4 or 5 weeks when the people’s anger has cooled down). This is a new record. The previous record was held by Garam Khan s/o Ghussa Khan as he overran 9 passengers while picking only 8 when he went into a rage between Saddar and Jama Cloth in October last year. (Parenthesis are mine).

To an outsider, W-11 and other minibuses of this kind might represent a culture of Karachi, a fabric in our tapestry but for the Karachiites they are a real pain in you know what like a contaminated yarn in an exported cloth that finally results in its rejection. (The metaphor does not fit here but I had spent quite a few hours (okay minutes) thinking it up so I am going to use it anyway).

For the full original article published on CHOWK