The Railways’ slow death | Pakistan Today

The Railways’ slow death

Walking around the station one day this summer, I met Abdul Majid. He was an old man with hennaed hair and heavy plastic spectacles. He wore a sparkling clean shalwar kameez, and sat on a magnificent throne raised on a mahogany dais above platform 1. Above him was a plaque with the message ‘Our objective- Speed Cum Safety.’
Abdul Majeed told me that he had retired from the Pakistani Railways ten years earlier, but chose to come to the station and sit in the information booth by choice. “I spent forty years in the Railway Department,” repeated Majeed, lowering his face shyly. “I come back to this station because I love these railways of Pakistan- to them I have dedicated my life- and because my colleagues are my best friends.”
I remarked to Majeed how many of the older men in the Pakistani railways seemed to regard the running of the railways almost as a sacred duty.
“I think we should,” replied Majeed. “I always took my duty as a sacred duty, just like my religious function. I never came to the station without washing myself, just as I prepare for my prayers in the mosque.” I asked him how the railways had changed in the forty years he had been part of them.
“Sahib,” said Majeed. “It’s not only the railways. The change is in the general sphere of life.”
“In what way?”
“In the shape of corruption, in the shape of requirements, in the shape of evils, in the shape of thinkings, in the shape of harassment, in the shape of sabotages. Now the young men are not so dutiful, I think. There has been big change.”
“You think corruption has eaten into the railway system?”
“Sahib, you can imagine. When I was working as a station master, people used to adjust their watches by the passage of trains. Now we adjust our watches from the public. Today there is no punctuality. Yesterday’s train arrives today and today’s train arrives tomorrow. No one thinks to mention it when a train comes in ten or twelve hours late. Things are very bad.”
Abdul Majeed, it emerged, was born in the half of the Punjab which is now part of India. Expelled from his ancestral village in early September 1947 at Partition, he and his family were made to walk to a refugee camp in the Monsoon rains. There were no facilities for drinking water or for even the most basic sanitation. Soon cholera broke out.
“In the camp my mother died at about 14 hours due to cholera,” said Abdul Majeed, eyes still lowered. “The same day my father died at 2 am.”
“So you lost both your parents on the same day?” “Yes. We buried our mother that evening, then buried our father on the morning of the 9th of October.”
“You had to bury them yourselves?”
“Yes we buried them ourselves near a mosque, offering our religious prayers. I was just fifteen years old. The following day we were made to walk to the new place from where we had to catch a train. In the crowd, my younger brother was separated from the rest of us. I never saw him again. In the morning, when the train passed the Beas River I looked down and saw hundreds of corpses scattered in the river bed from point to point, being eaten by crows, dogs and kites, giving bad smell. After many hours we eventually crossed the Pakistan border from Atari at about fifteen hours. We were stunned when people said Pakistan Zindabad [Long Live Pakistan!]. They welcomed us and gave us food and water. We had not eaten for four or five days. Then we thought, we are still alive.”
The longer I stayed at Lahore, the more I realised quite how cataclysmic Partition must have been. Pakistan’s birth pangs had also been India’s Holocaust. Everyone you met had their story: fifty-year-old tales of exile, death, massacre and bereavement flowed from their lips as readily as if it were new gossip. The most horrific were told to me by Majeed’s elderly friend, Khawaja Bilal who had had the unenviable job of being the station master of Lahore in 1947.
“I have been coming to Lahore Station since I was a student,” Khawajah Bilal told me as we sat on a bench outside what had once been his station master’s office. “Before Partition took place the station was a landmark of beauty. The platforms were clean and the carriages were spotless. The people were calm and quiet. The staffers were well dressed. The uniforms they wore were immaculate. The buttons were polished; the braid was golden and shone under the lights. All that ended with Partition.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“On the 14th of August I was on duty. We heard an announcement that Partition had taken place. Soon after that the killing started, the slaughter began. Everywhere we looked we saw carnage and destruction of human life. There was no law and order, even when the soldiers came and made a barricade with barbed wire outside the station. Despite their presence, many were being killed on the platforms, on the bridges, in the ticket halls. There were stabbings, rapes, attempts at arson. I had my charpoy in the station master’s office: I didn’t dare go back to my house. But at night I could not sleep because of the screams and moans of the dying coming from the platform. In the morning, when the light came, bodies would be lying everywhere.”
“One morning, I think it was 30th of August, the Bombay Express came in from Delhi via Bhatinda. There were around two thousand people on this train. We found dead bodies in the lavatories, on the seats, under the seats. We checked the whole train, but nobody was alive except one person. There had been a massacre when the train stopped at Bhatinda. The sole survivor told us he had approached the train driver, an Englishman, who gave him refuge. He hid the man in the watertank by the engine. When the Sikhs arrived they could not see him so they went away and he survived. Only one man out of two thousand. After that every train that came from India was attacked. We used to receive one hundred trains a day. There were corpses in every one.”
Listening to these horror stories it was clear that for the people of India and Pakistan the horrors of Partition were not just the stuff of history, consigned to the memories of a few old men: for most people they were still livid scars, unhealed wounds which were still poisoning relations between Hindu and Muslim, India and Pakistan, more than half a century later.
When Lord John Lawrence broke the earth on the future site of Lahore Railway Station in February 1859, the silver shovel he used bore the Latin motto ‘tam bello quam pace’- better peace than war. The motto was appropriate because the railways did play a vital part in creating a peaceful, united India. The irony was that less than a century later, they were also the instrument that made its irreparable division feasible. The biggest migration in human history was only possible because thousands of people could be moved from one end of the country to another by rail. It was two way traffic, and the slaughter which resulted was on a scale so unimaginable, and the wounds created were so deep, that to this day India and Pakistan are still the most bitter enemies. Today the old main line from Lahore to Delhi, once the busiest line in India, is now the hardly used. These days only one train a week passes from Lahore Station down the line to Pakistan- and that is largely empty.

Based on the travel writings by William Dalrymple.

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