A new Pakistani everyman—Mehran man—is increasingly defining the country’s identityby Jason Burke / March 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Mehrans for sale: their drivers are key to understanding contemporary Pakistan
Stand on the corner of a Karachi street and the key to understanding contemporary Pakistan passes you every few seconds. It’s a small, 796cc car made by Suzuki. Once known as the Alto, the name was “localised” in 1992 to Mehran, after an ancient Persian deity and an alternative name for the nearby Indus river.
The Mehran is Pakistan’s most popular car. It costs £4,000 in a country where the average per capita income is £550. Most of those in use were bought secondhand. A trader in the northwest frontier province offered me one last year for £1,000. “A bargain,” he told me, “one careful owner.”
Mehran drivers are increasingly defining the identity and evolution of Pakistan—an important shift that has gone largely unnoticed. It is the result of urbanisation, the expansion of the lower middle class and the emergence of a new national identity as the last traces of colonial rule disappear.
In Pakistan, the hierarchy on the roads reflects that of society. If you are poor, you use the overcrowded buses or a bicycle. Small shopkeepers, rural teachers and better-off farmers are likely to have a £1,000 Chinese or Japanese-made motorbike. With mum riding sidesaddle behind dad, a kid in front and two behind, these are an effective if dangerous equivalent of a European family’s Mondeo estate or Espace.
Then come the Mehran drivers. A rank above them, in air-conditioned Toyota Corolla saloons, are the small businessmen, smaller landlords, more senior army officers and bureaucrats. Finally, there are the luxury four-wheel drives of “feudal” landowners, big businessmen, expats, drug dealers, generals, ministers and elite bureaucrats. The latter may be superior in status, power and wealth, but it is the Mehrans which, by dint of numbers, dominate the roads.
The Mehrans’ natural habitat are mega-cities like Lahore or Karachi, as well as smaller cities like Faisalabad and Hyderabad. Over a third of Pakistan’s 170m population live in towns and by 2030 the proportion is expected to be over half.
The recent economic boom has been driven by cheap credit, immigrant remittances, foreign aid and economic reforms. As elsewhere, the growth has been slowed by the economic crisis but not before a huge number of lower middle-class urbanites have got richer. At the same time, telecommunications have exploded, with satellite chains penetrating even remote villages (see “The real…