Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pakistan: An update on ‘Railways at 150’ An update on ‘Railways at 150’
If you want to know the size of the ‘journalist community’ in Lahore then the Railways Headquarters is the place for you.

The nearby press club is not expected to give you the right number, for it may be unaware of the existence of all these journalists making passes at the Pakistan Railways head office for a concessionary journey on the rails.

Still media people have this unhappy knack of angering their benefactors, the railways ministers.

When, a fortnight ago, Minister Ghulam Ahmed Bilour bludgeoned the media over its unfair criticism of the railways he was following in the footsteps of Gen Musharraf’s minister for railways, Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi. So irked was Mr Qazi by the nosy newsmen that he banned their entry on the railways premises. In this comparison between the two ministers lies the answer to Mr Bilour’s allegation: journalists are silent when a dictator is in power and over-critical in times of democracy.

If this is not sufficient enough to placate our worthy friend from Pakhtunkhwa, nuggets from a recent experience with the Pakistan Railways may make him happy. The idea is to continue our romance with the rail journey and celebrate the preservation of the department exactly 150 years after the first train was run on the territory that is Pakistan today.

The journey began on May 10, three days before the 150th anniversary of the original Karachi-Kotri train, and ended the following evening in Lahore — a bit abruptly given how reluctant the meandering Tezgam had been in letting go of its guests.

The closer we got to Lahore, the stronger was our bond.

If only for the romance attached with the name, I would have preferred the nearby Prem Nagar station for the last unscheduled stopover. Instead, we were stuck at Kot Radha Kishan. By that stage in the journey, complaints had subsided and travellers were that much more equipped to get the best out of the situation.

Consequently, the battery of under six-year-olds in our touring party went for quick bathing sessions, under cold gushes of water delivered by a hand pump on the KRK platform and to the envy of their senior companions who were too limited by the social codes to take advantage of this genuine throwback in time.

On a more urgent note, let me add that even on a station with the right kind of non-Islamic gender balance, the Radhas sat stiff
in admiration of the freedoms that their Kishans enjoyed.

Beloved Lahore was just one hoot away, but it seemed that the souls on board the Tezgam were in no hurry to reach their destination. They were hooked on the every-10-minute doses of refreshments that they had been served for the last 20-odd hours since they began their journey in Hyderabad.

You learn as you travel. Dev Das didn’t need to spend so much on the real thing; given the bottles they serve on the rails, he would have been dead by the time he arrived at Paro’s door.

But there was one gentleman who was not ready to go down without a bit of excitement … “The trains will never run the way you want them to unless you confront the railways officials … He who says you will soon be under way is a liar. You shall remain at Kot Radha Kishan for another two hours at least, and that is if the staff is efficient enough to deal with the problem …

In the meanwhile let’s go beat up the station master.…”

The leader of the (failed) rebellion said he was an off-duty railways official. He may have been speaking the truth. He had the same trimmed railways moustache and his hair was oiled, just as railways officials do their hair probably to camouflage the fits and starts their bodies are subjected to.

He had some resemblance with the modest, patient Nazir Junior whom I had the privilege of having as our guard on a train journey many years ago. It appears that he continues to be a model for railway staffers on the move. They have the powers to stop fast trains but in their achievements they are as modest and shy as Nazir Junior was every time he had Sir Vivian
Richards on the ropes, or actually a few feet inside.

At the centre of running an extremely unpopular service that still ferries some 200,000 to their destinations each day, the railways officials try to be as people-friendly as they can under the circumstances. I saw one neatly turned-out Nazir Junior allowing the guests to get away with paying the fare for Multan from Khanpur, when actually they had boarded in Karachi.

The non-railways chaps on duty were as facilitating, and consequently another lesson learnt was that a train is a place where your Rs10 are still worth something. A nan-tikki cost just that provided that your exposure to the new hygienic standards permitted you to dig your teeth into the cutlet. A chilled soft drink cost Rs20, much less than what school canteens charge their greedy young clients these days and at Rs15 a piece the thin disposable cups lived up to the milked tea’s hot billing.

The same poor man’s economy prevailed on the stops, of which the old, nervous Tezgam now has too many. As indeed did prevail the romance.

At the risk of irate fellow journalists who want to revolutionise the railways, I can confirm that nothing can substitute the nostalgic feeling evoked by the sounds and smells of a train journey. If the glimpses above are not romantic enough, I had the privilege of being treated to some unique mime patterns woven in the dark by a newlywed couple too lost in their blanketed world to bother about outsiders.

I hope that they did manage to oust the mischievous camel from their tent. And I realise why everyone is so afraid of letting the curious journalists in. They have no respect for privacy.

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