Fiction on Track
By Maham Javaid
This story was first published in The News on Sunday
I once fell in love on a train. I was travelling with my family from Bahawalpur to Karachi in the Shalimar’s parlour carriage and he was sitting across the aisle looking at photographs in one of those tiny digital cameras that were all the rage back then. I couldn’t very well go and strike a conversation with him, so I did the Pakistani thing and sent my brother over to befriend him, in the hope that they would later invite me into their conversation.
The invitation never came. The boys talked for a few hours and my brother returned to seat himself beside me. I craftily pried my brother for information but all I got was a name and that “he’s an excellent photographer”.
Since I am not Kareena Kapoor and the Shalimar wasn’t conducive for a Jab We Met moment, my love story was brief, and entirely unrequited.
Today, this man is a photojournalist whose work has appeared in leading papers across the country. Imagine, we could’ve travelled the world together looking for stories and visuals.
Memories like the one above stand testament to the fact that train journeys have inspired great fiction across genres: romance, tragedy, thriller.
My tragedy memory is fortunately more Anna Karenina than Train to Pakistan, i.e., it involved just one corpse rather than hundreds. It occurred a few years after my almost-romance; I was on the Bahauddin Zakaria Express when the train abruptly stopped and remained motionless for a few hours until the area police were able to identify and remove the body of a woman who had jumped in its way.
Much to the confusion of my teenage conception of life and death, the train and all of its passengers seemingly moved on and onward. I spent the remainder of the train journey imagining her life and the possible reasons behind her suicide.
Most of my thriller memories come from my college days when I journeyed back and forth between Lahore and Karachi at least thrice a year. Even though the Karakoram Express has almost nothing in common with the Hogwarts Express, we were fascinated by Harry, Ron and Hermione’s adventures and often drew comparisons. Instead of chocolate frogs, we had garam aanday, instead of Draco we had cockroach infestations, and instead of magic we had mystical babasasking for alms in exchange for prayers.
On one particular journey home from college, I promised three female friends economy class tickets in a ladies’ coupe sleeper, but upon reaching our seats we discovered that the ladies’ coupe in that particular train had been discontinued years ago.
We were annoyed but up for an adventure in the jungle of Pakistan Railways. What we didn’t know then was that one of our fellow male passengers was on a college trip with 8 young men, all competing to appear stronger and more masculine than each other. They were separated from us, at points by a very thin sheet of metal, and at other points by nothing at all.
The harassment began as soon as the train left the Lahore station.
Legally, they had the right to one of the six seats in the section, but by the time we reached Faisalabad, they had all taken turns to occupy that one seat. They would seat themselves, smile gleefully at the achievement of staring at our faces, and then leave only to send in the next friend.
“Saima! Naureen! Maryam! Sana! Kaiseeee ho Sana? Kya haal hai?” they shouted amidst peals of laughter, trying to guess our names. To give credit where its due, by the time we reached Faisalabad, they had rightly guessed two of our names.
At Toba Tek Singh, we had had enough. Through a coolie, we sent for the ticket master. Maybe some authoritarian intervention would calm these dementors down?
I was immediately relieved at his arrival. He was balding and had a bulging tummy, and if that wasn’t enough, he even had Poirot’s pointed moustache. After all, in every Agatha Christie train mystery, Poirot always stood for justice and retribution. Why would his doppelganger be any different?
Much to our disdain, however, this uninterested government employee was no Belgian detective searching for the truth. He gave the buffoons a half-hearted sentence or two while making some vague reference to mothers, sisters and respect, and then announced that he was returning to his chai and taash and that he wouldn’t appreciate being sent for again unless there was a real emergency.
It was at this point, that one of my friends looked out the window and screamed in delight. Through the milling Khanewal-station crowd she had seen a familiar face, a friend from Lahore.
Asghar was short, but sturdy; bright faced and eager to help. But what was this? His arm was in a cast? Surely, he must have broken it while protecting vulnerable people from wolves. “I broke it while arm wrestling with a female friend of mine,” he said.
Our short-lived dream of a patriarchal protector crumbled.
Asghar’s masculinity was nowhere as violent as that of the buffoons and by inviting him to “protect” us we had given our enemies more meat. With us, they had restrained themselves to lewd gestures and words, with Asghar they got physical. They blocked his path, teased his broken arm, and roughed him up.
During one episode of bullying, I remember a friend saying “Yaar, is ko toh waapis is ki seat pay bhejho, hum apni larai larain, ya iski?”
Needless to say, it was a long night.
In Declan Walsh’s essay about journeying across Pakistan on a train, a train official says, “the railways are the true image of our country, if you want to see Pakistan, see its railways.” And he’s so right. Every berth, every cabin, every coach, and every station is its own mini-representation of life in Pakistan. The gender battles we fought that night were just a tiny reel of what this country had in store for us.
However, as the night faded and Karachi drew closer, the tables began to turn. This was not because our fellow passengers had suddenly lost interest, but because geographical politics were at play.
We were city girls, born and bred in an urban mess of 27 million people: Nothing feels safer than the madness that is Karachi. The buffoons, on the other hand, were sweating bullets about being in Karachi. What if they got lost? What if a coolie stole their bag? What about pickpockets? What bus should they take? Wardrobe decisions were being made. Pants and button-downs were whipped out of duffel bags, combs were greased with oil to slick back hair, and they doused themselves with ittar to try and overpower the smell of fear.
Their vulnerable display of small-town-boys-go-to-big-city allowed us to see how miniscule they were in light of Karachi’s gaping vastness. That was the wonder of travelling on a train. As you traverse the country and its train stations, your relevance and importance alters. Samasata’s don is Karachi’s dog.
Their anxiety forced us to forgive them and the whole night was forgotten.
When we left the train we waved goodbye and wished them luck. This particular train memory defied genres — tragi-comedy, thriller, and perhaps a cautionary tale about booking the right cabin, all rolled into one.