EVERYONE HAS THEIR own personal monuments to live by and measure the development around them against. For instance, the railway station in Lahore has been a personal standard reference point to gauge how much the city has progressed or how true the boasts of rail officials are at a particular time. It has been a favourite stop for tea when others in the vicinity would shut down for the night, a place recently married men took their wives to late at night for a true, hurried and an affordable taste of Lahore. And much, much more.
A recent visit, however, suggested that the British-period landmark maybe losing its position as the yardstick with which to gauge how far Lahore had come. The contrast between the old building and the developments outside the station’s immediate circle is too intimidating to miss.
It had been a while. The missing visits to the railway station feature prominently in my guilt trips. The distance is a reminder about how far adrift ‘we’ had come from our old, uncomplicated life. Once we knew of no another mode of movement between cities, and at the same time, took the railway station as a place that brought together people of all kinds, a source of instant live scenes that stayed with us forever.
The romance of the railway station was just too overpowering for the impressionable to escape its magic.
There is some background to how the station made this permanent place in memory. There were two incidents — I don’t quite recall which was recorded first. The first image is that of a flame burning bright red. It was not the red worn by the coolies back then, which has since been changed to green perhaps. It was rather the passengers. It was a train full of men, all of whom looked the same, apparently on a mission to some unknown destination.
I can see him clearly. There he is, our father. He stands out among hundreds of lookalikes, under a bright red cap, all ready to set off, to Toba Tek Singh to attend Maulana Bhashani’s kissan meeting, as we later came to know. March 1970, was it? It was a salient enough moment for our chacha to haul us — me and my elder brother — to the railway station, all the way from home more than two kilometres, maybe 3kms, away to witness history in the making.
The distance is a reminder about how far adrift ‘we’ had come from our old, uncomplicated life.
The second image from the same venue speaks of more settled times cosily steeped in tradition. It was a grey morning in Lahore, like the ones we had earlier this week. It was conveniently early for a boy who was not yet enrolled in school and hence was free to accompany his father to receive a guest.
The romance of the railway station was just too overpowering for the impressionable to escape its magic. The early morning sounds dignifying life were just out of this world for him, the smoke adding to the grey mystery that could only be confronted in the assured company of the man who knew it all.
The wait for the guests to arrive from a train from down-country was well worth it since it prolonged the experience, helping to cultivate a lifelong relationship between the person and the place — all places of arrivals and departures for that matter.
It is difficult to describe that scene on that distant morning in plain words but it would be incomplete without its more memorable climax. The icing came at the breakfast table where one of us went on sipping his tea and endlessly puffing away at cigarettes uninterrupted by any signs that anyone disapproved of the habit, while the other got treated to a simple yet most elegant dining experience. It was right out of an account about the Raj — spotless white china and cutlery complemented by the catering hands the likes of which have not been seen since.
The feeling has stayed with me after many years and the experience has been my little Michelin scale to assess eateries against. In the larger scheme of things, it has also inevitably been an example that has been used to compare the rather unsettling present of an adult with the serene past of a child secure in what may be called parental grandeur. Meanwhile, life itself has been moving between these two zones, of secretly craved comfort and revolutionary promise.
I recently took my daughter to the station and was more than a little appalled. Clearly, to my mind at least, it was a tough challenge for the next generation to pick up a few threads to build some fond memories on. There were simply too many distractions in the way of imagination and romance, in my reckoning. Not for the first time the picture left me a little embarrassed, as if it were my own creation that couldn’t quite live up to my high claims about it before the new audience I was desperate to impress.
The general state of the premises at the outset did not quite match up with all the good things that we have been hearing about some kind of a turnaround taking place in the railways. There have been security issues which meant that the facade of the station is underpinned by a kind of a clumsy cordon in the name of protection. But you will only notice this addition of the ugliest kind if you survive the stench and the indifferent attitude that prevails in what goes by way of parking area outside the station. It belongs to another era altogether, surely to the period before Shahbaz Sharif.
Things were not helped by the fact that we were required to proceed to Platform 14 to receive our guests. This platform by the look of it existed at a considerable distance from arguably the more presentable parts of the station and had apparently escaped the urge to clean up the act. It did offer plenty to revive old memories. Perhaps it will soon lead to an urge to conserve what is more than a showpiece of the railways.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore. This article first appeared in Dawn and is being reproduced here with the due permission of the author.
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