Blogs > Cliopatria > The Tire Walla

Dec 23, 2004 12:00 am

The Tire Walla

By the curbside, across from my grandparent's house, under a neem tree in Lahore Cantt., sat Uncle Billo -- the tirewalla. Legend had it that he was the proud father of 14 boys, though we never saw them all at the same time. His wife had died, in childbirth, a few years back and he lived alone with his mother and his sons in the shanty housing on the outskirts of Lahore Cantonment. His"shop" was a piece of tarp strung across the tree branches providing him bare shelter from the sun and the monsoon rains. Arrayed against the paved street were the tools of his trade: a chest filled with tire patches, tire nozzles, glues, spoke-tighteners; a heat-press for vulcanizing the patch; an assortment of air-pumps; a shallow bowl of water; and a small stool on which he sat. And there was the radio hung on the tree-branch, tuned to Door Darshan- the Indian state radio playing bollywood songs - i.e. if there wasn't a cricket match going on somewhere in the world.

The bicyclists would stop every minute or so to refill the waning air in their tires - at no charge. Every so often, the paying customers arrived as well, dragging or riding the flat tire. His eldest two sons worked with him. They were the fastest and most efficient tire-changers I had ever seen. In less than two minutes, they would unmount the tire, take out the tube, inflate it, submerge it sectionally into the water bowl to locate the leak, deflate the tube, apply the plastic adhesive on the leak, put it in the heat-press, re-inflate the tube and mount the tire back up. 2-5 rupees [5 cents] plus the occasional tip.

Also sharing the shade of the neem tree was the Moochi- the shoe cobbler. He would offer polishing, patching services to the waiting clients who would more often than not take him up on his offer. The Moochi was also the errand runner for a host of elderly women living in the housing complex. They would summon him via a child and ask him to go to the butcher or the tailor or whatnot. The Moochi could do these things because he was roughly 90 years old - at least to my young eye.

After a few years, Uncle Billa's business boomed enough that he opened a satellite tire-repair station a mile or so down the road and posted his eldest sons there. Two of the younger sons took their place in the central branch. They migrated out as well in another year or so. In five years, Uncle Billa's tire repair empire stretched the length of Ghazi Road from Sadr Bazaar to Barki Hadyara - some 8 miles. The other branches were not as successful in our view. Yes, they got lots of clients but none had the type of regular clientele that Uncle Billa had.

In a typical day stretching from 4:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening, most of the inhabitants of the neighborhood would stop by Uncle Billa - bicycle or not. Someone would drag out the days newspaper and read aloud the entertainment and sports section to the gatherings. A discussion on the latest Punjabi or Hindi film or the cricket match or the fortune of a starlet occupied the hanger-ons and passer-bys for most of the day. Sometimes, us kids would hang out listening with delicious horror the"bad" language and the risqué topics. Sometimes, I would have to step in as the newspaper reader. No one wanted to hear politics or, god forbid, religious news. Once I remember starting a news item about a religious party's upcoming strike and Uncle Billa wearily remarked,"what's new?" followed by a chorus of colorful language about the leaders of the party. I do remember the utter sorrow on the day that Pakistan lost in the World Cup semi-final to Australia in Lahore. Uncle Billa refused to turn the radio on for a month.

I was in the US when he died a few years ago. On my next visit, I hung out at the tire shop with his eldest son who came back to take over the central branch. The gathering was still there but the vitality of Uncle Billa was missing. He always had a quip, an offering of pa'an for everyone who stopped by with a punctured tire. He knew all the gossip of the neighborhood, who was cheating on whom, who was stealing from whom, who was jealous of whom but I never saw him share anything with anyone outside of his closest friends. He never charged me for fixing my innumerable punctures and even taught me how to repair the punctures.

I hadn't thought of Uncle Billa in a long while. Jonathan Reynolds' excellent post on Nigerian tire repair shops brought back all these memories to me. It also made me wonder about the role played by the tire-wallas, chai-wallas and roadside restaurants as public spheres for the illiterate majority. More on that later, I hope.

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More Comments:

Amardeep Singh - 12/23/2004

I'm enjoying this spurt of tire nostalgia on Cliopatria.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 12/23/2004


That is just beautiful. It makes me homesick for Pakistan, and I haven't even been there. Not yet, anyway.