By Shaheda Rizvi, Canada
Editor’s Note: Shaheda Rizvi lives in Montreal, Canada. This nostalgic article is about the time when she lived in Westridge, Rawalpindi way back in 1954-58.
Over the years, I have traveled long distances and also short distances, high-speed (TGV) and also not so high-speed. Some train journeys were made for pleasure and some for work, some to meet friends and relatives and some to bid them adieu, but my Pindi train journeys transcend them all.
However, writing my most cherished train journeys, the ones taken in Pindi, has been infinitely more difficult than I ever imagined. My problem is not that I don’t remember much. On the contrary, there is so much to write and compartmentalize and then all of it gets so mired and mixed that I don’t know where to begin and where to end. Childhood perceptions can be tricky, especially where speed, looks and reputation of trains go, and so I have settled with a piece on “Goods Trains” (also known as “Freight Trains”).
A posting at the Rawalpindi Offices of Pakistan Western Railways (PWR) was a Railway officer’s dream. Among many other perks, the posting guaranteed a Railway Saloon, also known as “home on wheels” for travelling all parts of the country, wherever railway lines and steam engines could go.
Senior Divisional Managers, General Managers and Directors were allocated air-conditioned saloon cars with bedrooms (at least two), two bathrooms, a dining area complete with china crockery and cutlery, which converted to a drawing-room, during the day. Beyond the bathrooms were two sleeping alcoves, one for the onboard-cook and the other for chaprasi, their private toilets, and a kitchen fully equipped with old cast iron cooking stoves and oven – legacy of the British Raj. Some senior officers shared their Saloons. How well I remember the heat that the stoves generated even during simple chapatti-making chores.
My father was a junior officer in the Railways of late 1950s, but because his job involved tracking signals, and railway lines under scorching sun, sometimes in a trolley, his particular job came with two small private saloons, one for the narrow-gauge and one for broad-gauge, both for my father’s exclusive use. The smaller saloons were not air-conditioned, and immensely uncomfortable to travel during hot summer months, but autumn and winter guaranteed, unconditionally, some heavenly travels.
The broad-gauge saloon for my father’s tours and our weekend or holiday trips was Saloon Number 245, size of a large studio apartment with bathroom, attendants’ sleeping alcoves and another tiny toilet, and a kitchen. Besides the dedicated Saloons, PWR, also provided a parking spot, known as a railway siding, which was about 1/3rd of a mile from our front gate, near the Power Station.
How immensely unbelievable it sounds today, but then it was pretty much routine. To board our saloon, and head out of Pindi towards Peshawar, while stopping at various small and large railway stations, required that we walk out through the front gate of our house on Westridge Road, board our saloon, which stood at its special railway siding along the road. Soon a steam engine would arrive, attach itself to the saloon, and then pull us out of the siding onto the main railway lines, leading to the Rawalpindi Railway Station. There it would attach the saloon to either a fully packed passenger train or a goods train (freight train).
The reason that our saloon was attached to a freight train, was that our saloon was not large enough to become part of a fast passenger train, like “Tezgam” or “Khyber Mail” – attaching it to those two trains, upset the balance and hence the speed. (at least this is the explanation given to us). And, if the other passenger trains could not accommodate another car, freight train was our inevitable choice, and that was more often than not.
Being the only passenger car amongst 20 goods cars was a little daunting for a child’s ego, and I generally avoided telling my friends at school about our weekend visits and holidays around the railway country side.
“Freight train freight train goin’ so fast
Freight train freight train goin’ so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
So they won’t know where I’ve gone.”
Our railway journeys took us through rich wheat fields, villages, flowing rivers, dark tunnels and bridges. Sweet and gentle villagers herding their goats, tending their livestock, using water wheels to irrigate their land and perhaps fetch water for personal consumption. Such were some of the sights that played peek-a-boo, as our train traveled from Rawalpindi to Nowshera and Peshawar on the western tracks.
Weekends and holidays from September through March, involved train journeys through cosy villages infused with sweet scent of toasted green chanas; dried apricots that overflowed push carts (rehri) and took over the oily smoky scent of our freight train. Pleasant scenes and sad scenes all came and went like a kaleidoscope in motion. There were sad and sorrowful times of flooded mud-huts, with villagers and livestock swimming together, as if to say that we are coming to the same oasis for rest and rescue—Young boys and girls waving at the train, wondering whether the engine driver and the few passengers (us) were part of a rescue mission.
At the train station, the conductor and the engine driver exchanged personal and non-personal information with local vendors and service providers; documents and goods exchanged hands; sometimes in the dark of the night, and sometimes during the early morning hours, or mid-day as our train moved along familiar railway stations. There was much love and generosity in the hearts of these villagers. While loading their harvests, they smiled, waved, graciously and gladly sold us large baskets of plums, pears, apricots etc. (Rupee 1 for each basket) and the joy which that exchange brought to their faces, is something that is impossible to describe.
“Taxila Junction” was always one place that our saloon rested. While my father worked, inspected and discussed freight trains signals and procedures, we toured the museum and its various sites. Another advantage of being the only passenger saloon on a goods train was that we did not have to pack up and get off at our destination. The engine driver, a guard, with a lantern (green side to go and red side to stop) and the steam engine took care of all the logistics. In less than an hour, our saloon would be detached from the goods train, moved out of the main lines, and installed safely on the railway siding at the Taxila Railway Station.
All that is on Taxila Musuem’s website is still fresh and alive in my memory bank–we saw the immensely rich gold-pieces, the iron tools, Buddha statues, spoons, plates, nails, keys, and art pieces, relics of the period that people cross continents to see and admire. What is pleasing to observe is that the grounds are as lovely as I imagined, and as can be seen in our 1956-photograph in the rose garden at Taxila Museum.
“I’d say we often in many ways, begin as blind beings, from whatever cause, and like the evolution of humans ——–through experiences that open our eyes… like Bluebeard’s current wife comes wide awake, like Argos with the thousands of eyes, some of which stay awake while others sleep, in tandem. ” Dr. C. P. Estes
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