It is barely dawn and the sky is as pink as Turkish delight. Yet already, at 5:45am, Lahore Central Station is buzzing like a kicked hive. Bleary eyed, you look around in bewilderment. At home the milkmen are abroad at this time, but no one else. Here the shops are already open, the fruit and vegetables on display, and the shopkeepers on the prowl for attention.
“Hello my dear,” says a man proffering a cauliflower.
“Sahib- what is your good name?”
“Subzi! Subzi! Subzi!”
“Your mother country?”
A Punjabi runs up behind the rickshaw, waving something horrible, a wig perhaps, or some monstrous vegetable:
“Sahib, come looking! Special OK shop! Buying no problem!”
Lahore Station rears out of the surrounding anarchy like a liner out of the ocean. It is a strange, hybrid building: the Victorian red-brick is imitation St Pancras, the loopholes, battlements and machicolations are stolen from some Renaissance palazzo: Milan perhaps, or Pavia, while the towers are vaguely German, and resemble a particularly extravagant Wagnerian stage set. Only the chaos is authentically Pakistani.
As a tape of the Carpenter’s Greatest Hits plays incessantly on a tannoy, you fight your way through the surge of jammed rickshaws and tottering red-jacketed coolies, through the sleeping villagers splayed out on the concrete, past the tap with the men doing their ablutions, over the bridge, down the stairs and onto the platform. In the pre-dawn glimmer, Platform 7 seethes with life like a hundred Piccadilly Circuses at rush hour. Porters stagger towards the First Class under a mountain of smart packing cases and trunks. Lower down the platform, near Third Class, solitary peasant women sit stranded amid seas of more ungainly luggage: cages and boxes, ambiguous parcels done up with rope, sacks with lumpy projections: bits of porcelain, the arm of a chair, the leg of a chicken. Vendors trawl the platform selling trays of brightly coloured sweet meats, hot tea in red clay cups, or the latest film magazine. Soldiers wander past, handlebar mustaches wobbling in the slip stream.
The railways are now so much part of the everyday life of the subcontinent, that it is difficult today to take in the revolution they brought about, or the degree to which they both created and destroyed the India of the Raj. For from stations like Lahore ran the railway lines which bound the subcontinent together- but which were eventually to act as the agent of their bloody division, at Partition in August 1947.
Before the arrival of the railways in 1850, travel in India meant months of struggle over primitive dirt roads. Just fifty years later, tracks had been laid from the beaches south of Madras to the Afghan border, more than 23,000 miles of railway in all. It was the biggest- and the costliest- construction project undertaken by any colonial power in any colony anywhere in the world. It was also the largest single investment of British capital in the whole of the nineteenth century.
By 1863 some three million tons of rails, sleepers and locomotives had been shipped to India from Britain in around three and a half thousand ships. Engineers had looped tracks over the steepest mountains in the world, sunk foundations hundreds of feet into the billowing deserts, bridged rivers as wide and as turbulent as the Ganges and the Indus. It was an epic undertaking even by the standards of an age inured to Imperial heroics
The railways also brought about a social revolution. For there could be no caste barriers in a railway carriage: you bought your ticket and you took your place. For the first time in Indian history a Maulvi who spent his days contemplating the glorious Koran might find himself sitting next to an Untouchable who skinned dead cows. Moreover, as journey times shrank, India became aware of itself for the first time as a single unified nation. For as the bullock cart gave way to the locomotive, a subcontinent disjointed by vast distances and primaeval communications, suddenly, for the first time, became aware of itself as a geographical unit. It was the railways that made India a nation.
Ironically, a century later, the same railways also made possible the irreparable division of the subcontinent. The partition of India and Pakistan, which took place fifty years ago, on the 15th of August 1947, led to what was probably the greatest migration in human history. When partition was announced, more than twelve million people began packing up and preparing to exchange both their homes and their countries. Muslims in India headed en masse for Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs made their way in the opposite direction. In the course of the mass migration, suppressed religious hatreds were viciously unleashed; over a million people lost their lives in the riots and massacres that ensued. Yet partition would have been impossible without the railways; and it was on the railways that much of the worst violence took place. Lahore station was the eye of the whirlwind.
The fate of Lahore remained uncertain until the final maps of the boundaries between the two nations were released on the 14th of August. In the event the city went to Pakistan, just fifteen miles from the Indian border, and the city and its people were torn apart. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs fought their way to the station to flee to India. At the same time train after train began arriving from south of the border carrying hundreds of thousands of Muslims to their new homeland. The station became a battleground.
From the travel writings of William Dalrymple