I was at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, organizing a writing workshop, when the call came in.
“Oh no,” whispered my colleague. ”That’s bad. That’s terrible.”
She turned to me. “Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated. We want you to go home right now.”
She called for Zabair, the toughest and most experienced driver in the pool. He led me outside to a reinforced pickup truck, made sure I was belted in, and pulled out into the worst traffic in the world.
Nobody knew what to expect. Riots? Invasion by the Taliban, by India, by the U.S.? Everyone in Karachi, a city of nearly 20 million, had a single thought: get home.
Outside the university walls, the traffic wasn’t just bumper-to-bumper—it was door-to-door and elbow-to-elbow. A three-lane road had five lanes of traffic, a four-lane road had seven: small family cars, vast trucks painted with bright designs and verses from the Koran, taxis (some so battered they were literally shapeless, held together by fiberglass patching), scores of motorbikes and mopeds swarming the sidewalks and threading the gaps between car bumpers.
Traffic in Pakistan tends to be an open-faced sandwich anyway, with very little hidden or enclosed, and tonight this was even more true. Hand-carts, donkey-carts, a boy on a bicycle carrying two large wooden crates, two boys on a moped carrying an extension ladder and metal piping, a family of five squeezed into the bed of a tiny pickup along with what looked like a giant refrigerator. Another family of five on a motorbike. The brightly-painted buses had twenty or more people on the roof. Everyone looked like a refugee.
People swarmed the sidewalks, flooded into the roads. Scores of mopeds and small motorbikes raced up the sidewalks or picked their way between the larger vehicles, sometime perpendicular to the stream, sometimes in the opposite direction. It’s a wonder we didn’t see crushed pelvises on every corner.
Twice our pickup flipped the wing-mirror of a bus. Once we crunched a woman’s car as she crowded in front of our bumper. “Well, go on then!” Zabair shouted in Urdu, and she pulled into the tiny space that had opened ahead.
Night fell. The whole scene was becoming surreal. The shops had closed early, in self-protection. Tail lights and brake lights shone dimly through dust and exhaust. The traffic got steadily worse. Gas was running out: motorbikes were being pushed, cars abandoned. Eventually we reached a two-lane on-ramp to an overpass and it became clear that nothing would go any farther. People swarmed out of their cars or climbed on their roofs.
Nobody was in charge. When I’d arrived in Karachi, just five hours previously, every road had a soldier lounging at the corner or on a bridge. Now there was no sign of them, nor of police to help sort out the traffic.
Yet, astonishingly, there was no sense of threat. It was only later in the evening that a feeling of grievance would emerge here and there, tires would be burned, shots will be fired (mostly into the air), campaign billboards would be pulled down and torched, the belief in Pakistan being that everything comes down to politics, and all politics is corrupt. For now, people were standing around watching, talking, even joking. One boy of maybe nine grinned as he helped his father push their car.
In the end, Zabair backed up, bumped across a construction site under the overpass and found a detour, then another, and finally we got to my host’s home, the 25-minute journey taking more than three hours. Indoors, we stared at the TV. Still, nobody knew what would happen, but I felt I’d been granted a vision of how the world will end: not with a bang but with a final apocalypse of traffic.—Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes’ latest book is Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment.