Somewhere during the 25-hour ride from Lahore to Karachi I vowed to make my friend, who had said “Shalimar Express is a good option”, eat his words with a knife and fork
There’s nothing quite like a train ride. If you’ve ever travelled on a train as a child, you will know of the fantastical wonders these carriages offer for the young, imaginative mind. The clack-clackity-clack of the wheels on the track provide a primitive drumbeat for all sorts of imaginary adventures; the many compartments yield sources of entertainment and amusement. The joy of finding other children to play with, the sights and sounds out the window, the rush of air as you open the door and stick your head out of the moving train: these are all pleasures unimaginable to those who have never experienced rail journeys.
As a child, I had more than my fair share of trains. My father was a civil servant in the employ of the Pakistan Railways. Much like military kids, railway children were also shuttled around a lot as their parents find new postings in remote locations. In my case, I was born in Faisalabad, pre-schooled in Lahore and Sukkur, carted around in a house-on-wheels through Quetta, Peshawar, Karachi and Rawalpindi before dad got permanently posted to headquarters in Lahore. I was nine when the moving stopped, and I hated being a landlubber. Still do. Sort of.
The proverbial house-on-wheels, or saloons, as they are referred to by those in-the-know; are unique, condo-style accommodations. A kitchen, quarters for the cook and the stenographer, a living area, two bedrooms and a lavatory comprise this phenomenon that was my surrogate home for the better half of the first nine years of my life. Through the windows of these accommodations, I was introduced to Pakistan. Needless to say, I promptly fell in love with the vast, undulating plains and lush crop fields of the Punjab; the dusty expanses of Sindh, the barren nothingness of Balochistan and the rolling mountainous landscape of the Frontier province. It was an education and a playground. My sense of Pakistani geography was honed by the stops on the Peshawar to Karachi line, and places such as the domed station building at Samosatta, the mammoth junction at Khanewal, the limestone ridges of Rohri, or even the blackened earth of Aab-e-Gum (on the line to Quetta) are still etched onto my memory. It was a dream machine, which (especially after watching the third Back To The Future movie) would be my ship through imagined adventures through space and time. Being a child with an overactive imagination and a penchant for getting my way, I set up my first trainset-within-a-train at age 5. My mother still proudly displays photos every time we have company over.
Through the years, the frequency of my travels via rail decreased. With the discovery of the motor car and the acquisition of the driving license, I had acquired yet another vehicle for my dreams (albeit somewhat different and definitely less complex than the ones I had entertained aboard any train). But the nostalgia and the longing for train rides did not leave me. Finally, at age 28, after nearly fifteen years of travelling solely by air or by road, I decided to take the train from Lahore to Karachi. It was to be the culmination of a childhood well-spent: I wanted to bring closure to the visions of my youth.
Having worked as a journalist for over eight years, I was no stranger to the state of the modern railway system in Pakistan. Having seen ministers such as bumbling Bilour and catastrophic Qazi come and go, I knew that the Pakistan Railways of today was a far, far cry from the days of yore. Still, I persevered with my plans and through the ‘kindness’ of some friends, bought my ticket for the Shalimar Express. It was going to be a journey I would not soon forget.
For the average traveller seeking to reach the port city from my hometown of Lahore, there are several options. The aptly-named Awami Express is the people’s choice: there are no air-conditioned compartments or dining car. But this train carries most of Pakistan’s migrant/labour class to and fro between the two largest cities in the country. The Karachi Express is the second option: here, the air conditioning is occasional and optional at the same time. This means that while one would normally not see an AC bogey attached to the train; when one is mistakenly included, the chances of the air-con working adequately are about the same as the chances of you finding lasting relationships on matrimonial websites. The Karachi Express also takes a pretty long-winded route to Karachi, stopping at every station between the two-destinations, no matter how small. Each stop is usually longer than 30 minutes, ostensibly to facilitate senior citizens who take longer than usual to board/disembark from the labyrinthine compartments of economy class.
The Shalimar Express used to be the staple choice for travellers wishing to spend 18 (sic!) hours in the ‘lap of luxury’, especially since its privatization. The Business Train, the crowning achievement of private enterprise, is the closest we in Pakistan will ever come to a ‘bullet train’, seeing as this is the only train one expects will depart and arrive at its destination relatively on time. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that even this modern marvel is seldom on time. But what it lacks in punctuality, it makes up for in terms of comfort and style, so passengers here usually forgive any tardiness.
So it was no surprise that I asked for a ticket on the Business Train. But a friend of mine, also a journalist, who covers the Railways beat for another, more widely circulated newspaper, recommended with great aplomb that I opt for the Shalimar, as it was the more economical option. He also insisted that it was, “just as good”. But somewhere along the way, as the Shalimar Express trundled along the Lahore-Karachi line, I vowed to make him eat his words with a knife and fork.
You see, I took my well-meaning friend’s advice in good faith and boarded the Shalimar at 5:45 AM. The train left the station at a reasonable 6:05AM, but from then, everything went downhill. My ticket, having been purchased by said friend, turned out to be valid for the Lower-AC section, as opposed to the Parlour Car. This was a blow to my well-fed and elitist ego, but I persevered. Then, I was forced to ‘purchase’ a pillow that would be my companion for the rest of the journey, for a measly Rs 20. This did not suit me at all, because I would’ve paid at least five times that sum to get my hands on a more comfortable seat, but I was provided no such option.
But about three hours in, I realised that this train was not quite the ‘non-stop’ that I had imagined it to be, since it went up to Faisalabad before starting its southward descent towards Karachi. Hardly an hour outside said city, the engine broke down and the train was held up for three hours in the blistering Punjab summer sun. I was indifferent to this, having slept through most of the delay. Once we set off again, the air-conditioning promptly decided to turn itself off. This was quite the setback, and upon inquiry, I discovered that the air-con was ‘out of gas and would not be fixed until the next major junction.
However, I was not too worried, because I knew that Khanewal would be along in a matter of hours. But when the clock struck three and I looked out the window and realized that we were still slowly making our way towards said stop, I began to worry. Khanewal took another hour to arrive, and it was there we were told that the AC technicians would meet us at Rohri. Already, there were murmurings of a coup among my co-passengers and the women, having divested their children of all clothing, began to fling curses at the railways top brass, their families and sundry others. At 6PM, 12 hours after we had left Lahore, we were still wandering the tracks in Punjab. Rahim Yar Khan passed at 8PM and we managed to reach Rohri at 11PM. By this time, the power in all AC-compartments had been severed by a cruel twist of fate and the passengers were up in arms. Desperate to quell the disquiet, the private staff of the train arranged for the AC to be fixed and fired up the power supply. This shut people up for all of twenty minutes, because that was how long both things ran without fail.
At exactly 12:01AM (the day after we left Lahore), the power and the air-conditioning failed and plunged the 90-odd passengers in my compartment into a darkness blacker than anything Joseph Conrad could have imagined. Tired of this turn of events, I left my seat to investigate and returned ten minutes later to discover that my friend in misery, the Rs 20-pillow, had been purloined. This turn of events shattered me completely, especially because the man on the berth above mine insisted on keeping it in the ‘sleep’ position, even when he was merely masticating on some gutka, which he would discard in the space between the berth and the wall. This refuse would trickle down to my headboard, but my trusty pillow would shield me from the nastiness. With that gone, all I could do was sweat it out and inhale greenhouse gases from my berth. After about an hour of that, when I could take it no longer, I decided to go sit in the doorway, something that should be illegal. But because of the extenuating circumstances, the staff allowed me to plant myself squarely in the doorway for about four hours. This helped me reflect on the journey and also terrified the living daylights out of me when the train would stop, inexplicably, in the middle of nowhere, for what seemed like several different eternities. That this was daku-country was making things even worse for my paranoia.
At the 23 hour mark, at 5:30AM, the electricity and the air-con suddenly roared to life and within a couple of hours, we were passing Malir Cantt. I stopped to take stock of the situation and discovered that due to excessive sweat, my seat was now a veritable kiddie pool and smelt like a bull on heat. Each time I walked, dust would emerge from the fabric of my pants and shirt and distribute itself over my shoes. A trip to the loo revealed that mud had accumulated on my domed head in such massive quantities that I looked positively negroid.
To be honest, I cannot believe a happier time than when the train finally pulled into the Cantonment Station in Karachi. Delivered from my trials, I walked triumphantly over the mango crates that were strewn across the walkways of the compartment, scrambled over the lines of porters jostling for position and stepped out into the Karachi sea breeze. I was disgusting, but to me, it felt like the Arctic wind.
I’m sure that after reading this whiny rant, you must think that I would have sworn off trains for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I am what they call a Pakistani, i.e. I deliberately seek out misery for sport. Therefore, I am pleased to announce that in three days time, I shall be seeing the Pakistan Railways ticketing officer in Karachi to buy my ticket back. If you’re reading this, ticketing officer, be afraid. Be very afraid.