The city by
Miles from nowhere
Choa Kariala railway station a year ago was sufficiently attractive to want to return to. Only this time it was a bit of a disappointment
By Salman Rashid
I am a train traveller. That is, if I have the choice, I will take the train. And so travelling between Lahore and Rawalpindi, I have so many times rattled past Choa Kariala station between Kharian and Serai Alamgir. But even the most interesting railway station is nothing from the train; it only becomes a monument when you go pottering about it. And it was only last year in March when a friend took me to Choa Kariala while we were investigating shrines that were, in a way, not really there.
The station lies a 100 metres off the south-bound track of the Grand Trunk Road just as the road enters the Pabbi Hills as one comes down from Serai Alamgir. It is an unpretentious, white-washed building all but concealed by the mesquite that grows between it and the highroad. The station is hardly of any use now, but as we were dawdling about on the platform, an up train was due and what happened was what can, by a very long stretch of the imagination, be called a flurry of activity.
A bell rang in the Station Master's office who called out to no one in particular and a sloppy, unshaven man appeared from somewhere. He slouched across the platform to the small cabin up one flight of stairs to see that the points were set for the train to run through. Then, even before we heard the thunder of the approaching train, the Master sauntered out of his office to stand by the edge of the platform with his two flags. The red one he held by his side rolled up on the stick; the green one he stuck out, the pendant hanging limp because there was no breeze.
As the speeding train neared and the breeze it generated rose, the flag began to flutter. The Master's head swivelled with the passing train as if tied by an invisible thread to the locomotive. The 'whoomph' of the front of the approaching train turned to a dull 'clack-clack-clack' as the last carriages receded, the breeze died and the green flag fell limp again. The slouch watching from the doorway of his cabin shuffled down the stairs, the Master rolled up his flag and walked slowly back into his office. Save for the crow calling from the banyan tree across the lines, it was silence again.
I had stood rapt; so utterly lost in the revue that I did not even think of photographing the train rushing past the flag-holding Master. I was lost in, first; the timelessness in the scene for it has been enacted at Choa Kariala railway station ever since it started service some 80 odd years ago. Then, the setting was so remarkable. Although only a 100 metres off the busy Grand Trunk Road, it seemed miles from nowhere. The broken Pabbi Hills beyond the platform on all sides, the silence, the sad air of the building with its fading white-wash matched by the equally morose look of the young station master. But best of all, it had that sense of remoteness without it actually being so.
Somehow it had all reminded me of Verne's story 'Light At The Edge Of The World'. Only the Station Master seemed a rather subdued version of Michael Denton, the keeper of the Lighthouse. I could not help but wonder if there had been or would be a character as delusional as Justin Congrey to terrorise this Denton. But the place certainly was sufficiently attractive to want to return and spend a lazy morning with the Master talking of life at Choa Kariala railway station.
A whole year went by before I could return. Nothing had changed. Only this time round there was a fortyish sort of Master. He did not remember the young man I had met. His assistant was young, he said, and would be soon there for he was going off duty. I asked him how it felt being a Master at a station like Choa Kariala and all the man could talk of was shortage of staff and the difficulty of managing. Surely something exciting did happen every now and then. Nothing, said he.
We went outside and he told me that he had only two passenger trains stopping there, the up and down passenger train between Lahore and Peshawar -- the slow one that stops at every station and takes ages to complete this 400 kilometre journey. Since the road trip between these two stations takes at most seven hours, no one rides the train any longer and all that disembarks here, and that rarely, is some freight. Yet he had his crib sheet about the troubles of managing the station. When he left I wheedled his assistant who had meanwhile arrived. Sadly nothing interesting came forth.
I was reminded of all the people I have spoken to in Britain: the owner of a 500 year-old home, the Master and locomotive mechanic at the tiny station of Leighton Buzzard, the landlord of an inn called the Marston somewhere in the Bedfordshire countryside, to name just a few I have hobnobbed with. Every single one of them had more than one interesting tale to tell of the buildings they owned, of the stations they ran, of the locos they kept going.
Fifteen years ago I had met Iqbal Ghauri at the Malakwal Steam Locomotive Shed. He was a person made in the European tradition. He spoke softly and with so much love and tenderness for the smoke-belching black behemoths whose upkeep Pakistan Railway had entrusted him with. Or there was the soft-spoken Idrees Chaudri who I first met in 1987 as the station master of Harnai on the all but forgotten line running north from Sibi to Khost. Over the years I returned to the line again and again and Idrees was either on this station or that. But he remained on the section almost as forgotten as the section itself. He always had stories to tell. There was Salim Jehangir, the white-haired traffic inspector in Quetta, who rode with me on the train to Chaman. Everything one could possibly wish to know about the line was inscribed in very fine handwriting (Salim's own) in English, in a small notebook. You asked the question, out came the book and you got your answer. All of these wonderful people had made my journeys worthwhile with the stories they told.
Now I long for such tellers of yarns and we have this crop of folks who have nothing to tell people like me. But why lament only the railway for the loss of its old guard. In the years of my life as a tramp, I have seen the craft of story-telling being first corrupted by the pernicious influence of television and then completely destroyed. Now when I ask a question anywhere in this country, I get some pointless, quasi-religious song and dance.
I left Choa Kariala in some disappointment to go on to Serai Alamgir and meet Majid, my doctor friend. He drove me back down the road to a place not far from the station but on the side of the north-bound track of the road. Right under the shoulder of the road there was a well locally known as Pabbi vala khu -- the Well of Pabbi. The point of interest was that it was lined with bricks of a size that I thought was in use only until Classical times and had certainly gone out of fashion by the Muslim advent in Punjab in the 11th century.
The water, about four metres below the brim, was murky and not drinkable. Majid said the well was reputed to be very deep but had been filled in with debris when the Grand Trunk Road was upgraded several years ago. What with our disregard for history, it's a small wonder that the well was not altogether covered over. As we stood there, it suddenly came to me that a small car would go down the well like waste running down the tube. And the way Pakistanis drive, I am surprised why this does not happen at the rate of about a hundred cars daily until the well is choked with cars filled with dead people.
Next on the agenda was Hutti vala Dun (the u as in 'put'). In Punjabi hutti is a shop but Majid could not say what a dun was. Only a couple of kilometres further up the road on the same side heading north from the well, this is a remarkable structure. It comprises of half a dozen steps made from blocks of limestone. But this is not a staircase as staircases go. Each riser is nearly seventy centimetres deep making it rather difficult for people to use.
Majid said some oldies had once told him that there was a water tank at either extremity of the steps. Rain water having collected in the one on top slowly overflowed into the lower one over the steps. The idea, he said, was to let the silt settle and make the water palatable. But this did not appeal to me. The tank would only overflow when additional water was pouring in during a fall of rain and that would roil up the silt all over again. That would not make sense. I do not doubt the story about the two tanks, but I think the stairway is the last remnant of the water course in a long forgotten pleasure garden. Rain water did indeed collect in one tank and flowed to the other by the staircase and perhaps a length of lined channel, but it was not for the purpose of drinking. This flowing water was meant to please the heart of some long forgotten king.
One day, leafing through the 'Akbarnama' or the 'Tuzk-e-Jehangiri' or some such work, I will surely run into reference to the garden that no one remembers. Then I shall return to Hutti vala Dun and discover the remains of the garden again.
There were other sites Majid wanted to take me to, but it was late in the afternoon, a dust storm had picked up and I did not care to remain in the car anymore. In any case, if Choa Kariala was a bit of a disappointment, the Well of Pabbi and this staircase had made up in a way.
The city by the sea
A Lahori visitor to Karachi varies between liking its honesty and being a little unnerved by it
By Mina Farid Malik
When the air-conditioner is running in December, you know you're in Karachi. The relatives I impose upon whenever I'm in the city live near the sea, and being a landlubber, I like to stay close to a window whenever I can. Palm trees wag in the ocean breeze and the sun shines yellow. "I love Karachi", I suddenly say, and my aunt chuckles. She obviously knows much better than I do the filth and the police blockades, the over/underpasses that are built into infinity (there is always one under construction whenever I visit) and flooded streets. But Karachi is a blue-skied, balmy breezed siren today, and it is always good to me. It always gives me Jeanette Winterson, for one.
I first discovered Winterson in a copy of 'Art Objects' that I found at a little 'book fair' -- three long tables with scandalously cheap books piled on them -- a few shops away from Agha's. This trip yields me two -- a delicious new copy of 'Weight' from Liberty Fantastic Books, where the staff is so devilishly adept at recognising a book addict when they see one, and an old and also copy of 'Oranges are Not the Only Fruit' from the sprawling tent village of the Sunday Bazaar. I promptly dispense with the quick fix I was holding to snatch the Winterson up. The bazaar stall man flings the books I leave behind back into the pile with a soulless carelessness I hate, but I have a Winterson -- nay, I have two!
My friend B hunts Sadequain, so he takes me to see Frere Hall, which I have passed many times but only longingly gazed at from a car window. We walk down the road to get there and it is deserted. Nobody is allowed to stroll the green grass or sit on the inviting stone benches and bask in the sun because it isn't safe -- someone might bomb the Yanks across the road. Wondering why they don't move somewhere else, I walk into the library, where an image of Mohammad Ali Jinnah guards the door. B makes friends with the librarian whilst I prowl the shelves. I'm not allowed to go up the intriguing little spiral staircase I find tucked away in the books either; Karachi seems to be a city where everything is simultaneously possible and disallowed.
Frere Hall suffered damage from the impact of the bombs that have been detonated in its vicinity, and the ghostly tatters of the wire mesh at the windows that flank the entrance to the gallery are perhaps the most telling symbol of it all. Something in me winces at the sight of them, tiredly moving with the omnipresent breeze.
The roof, incomplete as it is, takes my breath away. I fight the urge to lie down on the cool chips of the floor and stare -- the bearded guardian of the gallery does not look like a man with an indulgent sense of humour, or magic. So I crane my neck back and gawk, hoping none of the gurgling pigeons has an emergency anywhere near my face. It's the beginning of the world, and the ruination of it; it's Pandora's box and what man made of its secrets; it's the origin of everything.
Sadequain's scribble on a piece of the paper he made this mural on is framed in the gallery -- 'God: O Sadequain! Now spend thy days and nights of life in Creative Work.' Maybe God really did speak to him, I muse to myself, swimming in the flames and otherworldly hands and kinetic starbursts that explode across the ceiling. When I'm resting my neck I look at the art hanging on the walls and wonder how anyone would be able to muster the courage to hang their works in the presence of a near masterpiece.
Outside policemen sit around a fountain that doesn't spout any water. Pigeons coo and peck at the disc around the dry waterwork. Again I have to stifle an impulse, this time to fling my enormous bag down and run whooping through the birds, making them fly up in an alarmed, Trafalgar-esque cloud. It isn't fair that simple pleasures are curtailed by complicated things, somehow; the same way it isn't somehow fair that the Clifton bridge, seething with traffic and class boundaries, has pretty blue tiles embedded in it and the lampposts have whimsical little flowers scalloped in green on them, flanking an abandoned gunner's nook.
In Karachi one cannot escape what lies beneath the thin veneer of society the way one can in Lahore; I vary between liking its honesty and being a little unnerved by it. What remains the same across the board is that as ordinary people wanting to do ordinary things, we are constantly thwarted by the 'system', be it religion or family or the government. There is an invisible gunner crouched in a bunker watching us traipse across busy intersections and eat biryani and feel like we're free. Is this why art is treated with caution?
Because when you leave murals and films and books behind you are indelibly etched into the plate of history, your banner defiantly, indestructibly present. When one is destined to spend their days and nights in creative work one cannot be disallowed from sitting on a park bench. Bridges and embassies and people become dispensable but real art, the bearer of true divinity, lives forever. So do oceans.