Daily Times: Sunday, June 18, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: The trains that come no more

By A Hamid

Someone sent me a picture of the Lahore Railway Station taken in 1937. Until 1947, that picture had not changed. The station wears a different – and perhaps better and more modern – look today, but I remember it as it was in another world, another dimension of time. There were just a handful of cars in the city in those days. Ordinary people intending to travel would arrive by tonga, which could be hired either in its entirety for the trip or by individual passengers. The rich had their own tongas which were called “raeesi tongas” or the tongas of the rich. The tongas would disgorge their passengers in the main porch of the railway station and were obliged to move out immediately to make way for others.

The main station building only sold tickets to first, second and inter class passengers, while third class tickets had to be obtained from a passengers waiting room on a side of the main terminal. There were bookstalls and newsstands on the platform, which sold English books and magazines, including, I remember, Penguin paperbacks. I recall that stand where one could buy popular London magazines such as Punch and Men Only, and even the Readers’ Digest. One could also buy expensive cigars, pipes and English pipe tobacco from these bookstalls. In winter, the ticket checkers would dress in smart dark uniforms, which would make way for white cotton in summer. There were refreshment rooms off the platform, but only for first and second class passengers. If you walked past them, you could smell the aroma of fine orange pekoe tea. There never was much of a crowd on platforms. The arrival of a train was announced with a brass gong or bell, the kind that used to be common in schools.

The Howra Express that went from Calcutta to Peshawar and the Frontier Mail that linked Peshawar with Bombay were two of the great trains before independence. Except for two or three inter class carriages, which were always at the rear of the train, the rest were reserved for first and second class travel. One or two of the carriages used to be air-conditioned, but their occupants were mostly British. The Howra Express would depart from Calcutta in the morning, and the Frontier Mail from Peshawar would arrive in Lahore at eight or nine in the evening. Another train, Bombay Express, would run from Peshawar to Bombay, while Calcutta Express ran between Peshawar and Bombay. Both trains had third class carriages.

Every time I ran away from my home in Amritsar to Bombay or Calcutta, I took one of these two trains. Third class fare between Amritsar and Bombay was either thirteen or fifteen rupees. I would never head out to Bombay first, but come to Lahore and hop on either the Calcutta Express or the Frontier Mail or the Bombay Express for my dream journey. My elder sister lived in Lahore and I would always tell her that I had only come to see her. All day long, I would roam around the streets of Lahore and catch the train for Bombay or Calcutta at night. Most of the time, I would buy a ticket, but when I was short of money, I would buy a ticket up to Delhi only.

Ticket checkers from railway headquarters in Lahore would travel in groups and pounce upon ticket-less passengers somewhere between Jullandhar, Ludhiana and Ambala. These men had the reputation of being hard-hearted and unforgiving. They would impose heavy fines and if the poor ticket-less traveller had no money, they would have the fellow handed over to police. Since I was a boy, if I was found without a ticket, by way of punishment, they would order me off the train at the next station. When that happened, I would return to Lahore by the first train going in that direction. The Frontier Mail and the Howra Express would generally come to Platforms 4 or 5, and they were magnificent trains. All the carriages of the Howra Express were painted green. The air-conditioned carriages of the Frontier Mail were a bright red. The window glass was brown and you could not see those sitting inside. The run-through trains were really fast. Their first stop after Lahore used to be Amritsar. Blowing clouds of steam and smoke, they would thunder through smaller stations, leaving those standing on platforms wonderstruck.

There used to be a tonga stand outside the old Lahore Railway Station. The horses, who were invariably lean and thin-legged, would just stand there waiting for the next trip, their long necks bowed to the ground, as if they were lost in thought. It seemed as if God had created them only to ply from point to point on Lahore’s roads. They would move very slowly and I do not remember ever having seen them cantering or galloping. Sometimes the poor things would fall and the passengers in the front seat would topple over as well. These animals suffered the hard work to which their unhappy lives were devoted uncomplainingly, spending the entire day crawling between Delhi Gate and Bhaati and from Bhaati to Delhi Gate. So sensitive they were to the weight they were accustomed to carry that as soon as four passengers had climbed on the tonga, they would move without the driver urging them to do so.

The tonga drivers of Lahore were a class apart. They would seat themselves nonchalantly in the back seat of their tongas, puffing away at their cigarettes. They would never walk up to a fare; the fare had to walk up to them. If a fare asked, “Bhai, will you take me to Temple Road,” they would pretend that they hadn’t heard him. They did not believe in bargaining and would charge the fare of their choice. There was a token fee that every tonga driver had to pay to the tonga stand contractor. However, it was always the poor passengers to whom this privilege was transferred, over and above the fare. Some tonga drivers, especially those who had been in the business for many years, would prefer not to converse with their passengers. There were others who would chatter on regaling them with all kinds of stories. That old tonga stand is gone and so are those tongas and their drivers, both the quiet and the garrulous ones.

The 1937 photograph of the Lahore station tonga stand that I mentioned shows a long shed which has no roof but the one I remember from my childhood had a corrugated iron roof, which always fascinated me. It was a noisy place but to my little boy’s ears, that noise was music. But where is that music gone, and where has my childhood fled?

A Hamid, distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan


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