Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Endless Journeys

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I gave up train travel in the year 2008. That was when Pakistan Railway was at its worst. Before that, trains were my favoured mode of transport. Then between December and March I was obligated to do two train journeys: the one from Jacobabad to Lahore and the other from Rohri to Karachi. On both occasions the trains were late by two hours. And now I was once again forced to travel from Lahore to Nawabshah. Forced because PIA has closed down the Lahore-Nawabshah-Hyderabad sector.

I arrived on the platform twenty minutes before departure (which is 5:00 PM) only to find my fears were true: there was no train ready to depart. Now, Karachi Express, the train I was taking, originates in Lahore and should have been at the platform at least half an hour prior. I sat down in the shade and soon had the company of two railwaymen in mufti. From their talk I gauged they were either Traffic Inspectors or Ticket Examiners.

I asked when we would be departing. The man, invoking God, said we would leave per schedule. I stuck my wrist in his face for him to see that with only ten more minutes to departure there was still no train. The man would just not concede we were going to be late. My pestering however drove him away only for him to be replaced by a much more jovial sort of railwayman.

This man told me that any train within an hour of its schedule was considered ‘on time’. I joked with him and he was a good sport to laugh right back. I even smiled when I told him about Indian trains running eighteen hundred kilometres – sometimes more – and still being on time. He said I keep faith. It was a long way to Nawabshah and the train would ‘make up’ on the way. Making up, I retorted, was a thing of the distance past.

We left forty minutes behind schedule. My compartment of six had three Karachites. Typical Lalukhet business types with little education. They spoke to each other and into their phones about a couple of million rupees of payments and receipts and by and by I learned that they were businessmen living in Korangi.

At Raiwind the two empty berths were taken by two chinky men with sparse beards. They were Thai Muslims the senior one (in his early twenties) of whom spoke some Urdu. He was a ‘graduate’ of some seminary in town now on the way to Karachi. There he was to leave the younger man (late teens) at Jamia Binoria before flying home to convert the Muslims of Thailand.

At the name Jamia Binoria, my head snapped in the direction of the young man. He had not the faintest hope of leaving that famous centre of pederasty unmolested. He was just the soft cuddly kind ‘teachers’ preferred to warm their beds with. He was not going home unscarred. I wondered if the older one knew what jungle he was leaving the other man in and also if he had suffered what is predestined for every student at these seminaries.

The train had hardly begun to roll again when we were joined by a clean-shaven, skull-capped man in his late twenties. He began an unsolicited oration about God’s pleasure at seeing us six people travelling ‘in His way’. I don’t know where he got the notion that we were all evangelists for he harangued us with an unctuous and repetitive effusion of the many ways God was going to recompense us for the trouble we took in ‘His way’.

With the orator done and gone with whom the Urdu-speaking Thai also took a walk, the Korangi men asked each other if it wasn’t Thailand that was the greatest bonking house of the world. One mentioned the friend who had sometime earlier been there and suggested confirmation be sought. Thank goodness for cell phones for the man who had been to Thailand was called. On speaker phone we heard that that country was indeed the bordello to the world. The friend added a few juicy details about Phuket and told the chaps to specifically ask about the place.

Meanwhile, the Urdu Thai returned and the three set to whispering among themselves to ask him. The one who evidently was the most worldly-wise opened the query and I thought how much better and less clumsy it would have been if he had been a Punjabi for then the question would have been blatant and aided by appropriate hand signals. ‘In your Thailand can everyone, errrr, ummmm, you know, do that? I mean, is it easy to find, you know, relief.’

Obviously the poor Thai had been asked this question one time too many. A little miffed he said the kafirs did it. As a good and true man of the one and only true faith, he or his family did not engage in any bawdry. But that did not bring the spiel to an end; the men wanted to know all about Phuket. They had meanwhile forgotten the name of the place and after some mutual consultation asked Chinky about Thoopait.

‘Thoopait?’ Chinky scratched his sparse beard and shook his head. More consultation, soto voce now, ensued between the Korangi wallas as they tried different pronunciations of Phuket. When none worked and I feared the game was coming to an early end I said to no one in particular but loud enough, ‘Phuket!’

Chinky said Phuket was a fine place and once again Korangi man was at a loss to get the true answer to his query. I wanted to tell the idiot to make some appropriate gestures but continued to pretend to be dozing. By now Chinky seemed to be quite disgusted with this line of questioning so the man tried another angle.

With the kind of geographical knowledge that even grammar school types have these days, this bunch could be forgiven for thinking Thailand was the name of a city. Chinky was asked how far his home was from Thailand. Chinky simply gave up. He picked up his Tiffin box, gathered his young ward and went off somewhere to eat dinner without being pestered about the price of sex workers in his native land.

I like Karachi Express since it permits one to be tormented by the likes of the Korangi wallas for a couple of hours only and then it is bedtime. We all hit the sack at about nine. By this time the train was already about two hours behind schedule. I have a theory that a secret promulgation ensures that all trains must be delayed three hours in the first one hundred kilometres of the journey. And so I reached Nawabshah, instead of the laid down 6:45 AM, at 10:30 AM. The train had ‘made up’ the delay well and truly.

Thank heavens for my young friend Zaman Narejo, I was received at the railway station and facilitated in my work. Zaman is one unique civil servant who came along at a time when I thought they were no longer made like that. I eventually made my way to Karachi where it was soon time to head homeward again.

Arriving at the airport I saw that other than Shaheen Air, nearly every flight out of Karachi was either cancelled or indefinitely delayed. Since we were in the middle of making a new Pakistan and simultaneously bringing about a revolution as well, I thought there was some trouble up north. Nevertheless, I did not give it much thought.

Fearing PIA flight 306 would once again be late as it had been on the past three or four occasions of flying it, I thought I was playing smart booking myself on Air Blue. The scheduled departure was 5:00 PM. Thirty minutes before that I received a text message that the flight had been ‘delayed’ by twelve hours.

Completely inured to this sort of thing, I gathered up my stuff, collected my checked luggage and came out to see what other plane I could get on. Now there was PK 306, delayed two hours and full, one Air Indus (dicey, dicey, dicey airline) at 11:30 PM and Shaheen at 11:45. I thought I should save fifteen minutes and got a ticket on Air Indus.

For the second time I walked in through the gates that evening. And, what do we have? At 11:30, the scheduled departure time of Air Indus, we were informed the flight was cancelled. Once again outside I rushed to the Air Blue counter and waved my old ticket to the girls behind the glass. They said the flight was now departing 5:00 AM and I could use the same ticket.

It was a little after midnight and since I had to get the Air Indus refund, I got in line behind a few dozen men. It took fully two and a half hours to reach the window to collect my money. Meanwhile, I was stuck with a Lahori who was a loud and incessant talker. But by then, twenty hours in dress pants and shirt (hard for a person always in shorts and tee-shirt) and without a wink of sleep, my mind had shut off. I have no memory of what the man said.

At 3:30 AM, groggy with sleep, I entered the concourse the third time in ten hours. In the event, we did fly at 5:00 AM. But the Air Blue flight was not on time. We were fully twelve hours behind schedule.

PS: All said and done, I don’t think I have the stomach to take Daewoo to Karachi (twenty hours). I think I’ll simply never go back to Karachi again.

PPS: At about 9:00 while waiting in the briefing hall for the Air Indus counter to open, I overheard a tall fiftyish, heavily bearded PIA man telling his colleague that he was on his way to offer his night prayers. ‘Array yaar, do it at home,’ said the colleague.
‘Nah! There are other things to do at home.’

There were no qualms taking time off for worship from duty – time paid for by the employer for duty to be performed conscientiously. At home, however, in his own time, the value of worship paled in the face of ‘other things’, more important for this heavily bearded so-called Muslim.

Related: Why I Travel

Also in TNS, September 28, 2014

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 28 September 2014 at 11:59, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting though sad account of train travel in Pakistan which used to be a fascinating experience.
The use of the term "chinky" is offensive it derogatory and racist. I hope it was not meant like that.please remove if possible. It mars an otherwise a good piece of writing.

At 28 September 2014 at 20:01, Blogger Iftikhar Shah Gilani said...

Interesting piece of writing but varoius terms used in travel writing for passengers, students & mufti etc., shows that nothing has been changed nor could chanhed the writer as had experienced during working in one company in mid 80's.

At 29 September 2014 at 17:55, Anonymous muhammad Athar said...

Intresting atticle with sad facts which clearly indecate the detereating functions of the bad govrnesd

At 29 September 2014 at 18:32, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

An interesting article highlighting the sad facts of our bad governess


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days