Most of my journeys begin from the hinterland and on foot with very little provisions on back. But this one began on the train. This time suitcases were packed instead of backpack days in advance and phone calls were put through to friends and relatives en route to alert them to our arrival.
My starting point, the Lahore Railway Station, fourteenth gateway of Lahore, is sturdy and imposing. It is an interesting place to hang around in any time of day or night. At the Station there are bookstores stocked with spiritual tracts, Internet guides, archetypal books of love poetry and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Other shops sell everything from souvenir (crude) clay ware to artificial jewellery, not to mention a fast food chain outlet and countless tea shops.
The platform is always clogged with goods going and coming to and from up and down the country. There is a grumble of departing passengers’ trains and the maddeningly frequent station announcements and attacks of red shirt porters (called cullies) and cab drivers on every passenger.
Every porter has per trip rate written on the shirt but none charges that. Every one asks for more. In all this, behind one barricade of luggage on the floor of the station slept a family with their belonging tucked under their heads. This is because the utility of waiting rooms has been excessively marginalized over the years. In the holy month of Ramadan, the station becomes a huge eating joins. Every tea stall is shrouded in curtains. And, if you have seen one railway station, you have seen all.
My train left Lahore right on time. Yes, I am talking of Karakoram Express. Some one interrupted the recitation from Holly Qura’an that was going on and started making announcements and issuing instructions in Urdu as well as English on public address system installed in the train. No pun intended but the announcement was a first shocker. Not only the subject of instructions and the contents of announcement need to be changed but it should be made by some one who is qualified to do that. Or at least a pre-recorded audio tape can do the job. It seemed that some one is talking to himself and not to the passengers. Later, the system started broadcasting songs of Noor Jehan and Jawad Ahmad.
Hurtling through a countryside that had remained unchanged for most part, the train blasted imperiously through the smaller stations without stopping. It has only four stops in the way: Khanewal (20 minutes), Rohri (20 minutes), and Hyderabad (5 minutes). The old engine that has been repainted to go with the train colour and some of the administrative staff go straight from Lahore to Karachi and comes back next day. No changing in the way.
The train clattered on culverts, bridges, and mud-hut villages chiselled from the landscape. Over two hours of the day light that I had before dusk, I saw through the window the buffaloes lounging in village ponds, tiny houses decorated with drying cowpats, the immense sky bruised black with the smoke rising from factories, Pattoki nurseries, deserted station Tabrooq and other very familiar cinematic scenery in the expanses of Punjab. In the irrigated tracts, I rode through endless stretch of waving crops of different shades of colour. Too frequently one sees long queues of road transport standing on either side of railway crossings waiting passionately for train to pass. The train track in most places is lined with extinguishing species of trees like Okkan and Salvadora (called Van). After the harvest all will change.
Dark outside, I moved up and down the train. The passengers, kaleidoscopic mix, seemed oblivious. Some were sleeping, some eating food they had brought from home. Only a few people ordered food from the accompanied Dinning Car though the staff presented mutilated menu cards to every one and purser came to ask if every one has had a complimentary evening tea. Some passengers pored over documents or books and some glanced hopefully at their mobile phones to see if there was a signal, which of course there was not. Mobile phone only covers a part of the journey mainly around main cities. So the high-tech train glided onward through a no-tech but beautiful and living landscape, silent except for a muffled symphony of snores and burps emanating from its curtained-off berths, and the soft beeps of passengers playing “Snake” on their otherwise useless phone sets. A group was busy playing “teen-patti.” I was invited to join in and at the end we exchanged contact cards. And some others were travelling with feet tapping to a catching beat of the songs.
Moving while sleeping, I have had some restless moments, spent some time gazing at stars. It was not always easy to find the least uncomfortable arrangement of my bones on upper berth of the train that was too high to climb and too near the roof of the compartment. The pillow and bed sheets provided by the train staff were not enough for me.
Moreover, the train gave rough jolts whenever the brakes were applied. But wait a second. Could sleeping while moving — if I may exploit the metaphor — be the problem? My problem? Is not the whole point of the exercise to wake up? Wake up at Rohri where Shahid was waiting to tell me what is new there. Wake up to Hussain Abdul Rahman who had come at Hyderabad Railway Station to deliver hot breakfast and tell me what he had explored in Thar.
But it was amazing trip, I still remeber.