Monday, January 18, 2010

Arzhung: Pictures Of a Pakistani Village

An American friend asked my father to describe how a Pakistani village looks from the air and he said, “All Pakistani villages look the same from the air: a few houses and a mosque surrounded by a few fields”. They look very different from the ground though. And the most wonderful thing about them is that they are inhabited by people of diverse natures. You pick out any one of them, and each individual has a story of his own. Love, hate, pain, joy, sickness, wisdom, foolishness, seriousness and humour all are to be found in these stories. They teach us that life and love can survive, even in the most desperate conditions.

The Journey: Returning To the Nest

It had taken me ages to decide whether it was the fit time to visit the native village. And it took longer to decide which things I wanted to take along. Books, clothes, talcum powder! And a toothbrush added as a second thought. My mother helped me pack and later on I regretted it. Too few clothes and most of them were unsuited to the fluctuating weather, which appeared never to be able to make up its mind. As if it was standing between winter and summer, with one foot on the either side, wavering between the two. Cool winds blowing now, the hot sun blazing another moment. My mother under the mistaken illusion that it was frosty cold in the village had made sure she packed all the warmest clothes. Of course I was the one who chose how many books to take, and carefully stacked them in a neat pile, hoping they would stay in the same neat order after suffering the jolts in the train and tonga respectively. Things somehow always tend to get so mixed up in a bag.

It was very early in the morning when we arrived at the platform. For various reason my family always has favoured the 7:50 train in the morning. In the summer because it becomes unbearably hot in the noon; and in the winters merely out of habit I suppose. And anyway, the 7:50 train travels faster than the others, makes fewer and shorter stops, and has very few ‘crosses’: the things which we used to hate mutually in our childhood.

In summer vacations, when all of us were eager to reach the village as soon as possible. When all the stops and stations on the way seemed unjust and unnecessary, the ‘crosses’ were the most hated things. Sometimes, the train you were stopping for took twenty to thirty minutes to arrive. Every minute seemed to pass like eternity. Young boys would get down and stroll along the platform. The kids would start demanding to eat all kind of uneatable stuff from the vendors at stations. Greasy pakoras and leathery naans, the soft drinks which were invariably hot, the water whose taste seemed to get worse the further you got from Lahore; men discussing the current affairs and smoking cheap cigarettes, women fanning their babies and themselves with the pallus of their dupattas, the smaller kids bawling, the older ones scampering around and all cursing the railways, which perhaps they held culpable for the scorching heat and buzzing flies. As if the railways had especially had the weather ordered, or the flies bred for them by the most competent scientist of the country!

Every now and then one of the kids would dangerously lean out of the window to see if the other train had arrived or not. We always thought it mean of the other train to leave before ours. Well, if we had waited say half an hour for them, they should at least have the civility to let us go first! And when the other train started to leave, it always did make me so dizzy. Because, I was so confused wondering which train was moving, then had always to look the other way, and see the stationary platform of the station to know that it was them and not us leaving. Somehow we always happened to be on the waiting side after all! That of course was in the time when most of the train drivers thought it an insult to arrive at time. Nowadays most trains leave and arrive at time, on our route at least.

Most of the benches at the platform had already been occupied by the crowds of people, waiting for the train. In childhood it always fascinated me that the train for our village always arrived and left from the same platform. I was always worried that one day they would change it without letting us know, and then we would end up in Faisalabad or Rawalpindi, the only two alternate destinations I could think of.

Once the train arrived, everyone eagerly flocked to the train. That is when coming early comes handy. You can choose any compartment and any seat. Window seat for me! As kids however we always thought it more adventurous to sit on the sleeper’s berth. But we did get to down to have a look at the Ravi, which to our small minds seemed deeper and vaster than the oceans; and the tombs of Jahangir and his beloved wife Nur Jahan, now decaying and surrounded by dirty and ugly houses. Though, most of the times the berths were occupied by sleeping men. It never ceases to amaze me that some people mange to travel all the way from Lahore to Narowal sleeping on them. What if the station they had wanted to go on would pass without them noticing? What if they change their side while sleeping and fall down? What if someone decides to run away with their luggage, or else their shoes which always seem to be too close to the edge of the berth, as if they were going to fall right on the head of the person sitting under it. What a row would it start then!

But never once so far have I seen any of the above things happened. My aunt though told me a story that chilled my blood with fear. Apparently one of her cousins (a distant relative of course, since miraculously all the horrible things seem to be happening with the distant relations) had been sleeping on a sleepers berth, using someone else’s briefcase as a handy pillow. Well what do you know; the briefcase had been put there by a terrorist, and contained a time bomb. Poor thing had her face completely blown off when the darned thing exploded. It must have been a horrible sight to behold her corpse!

The fans perhaps are older than anything one can possibly think of. It is a wonder that they work at all! They move at an imperceptible speed, hardly producing any air, and producing lots of interesting sounds. And in winters I have often seen them used as the trash bins. The rinds of orange, banana skins, the empty packets of stale potato chips, pieces of newspaper that the vendors had used to wrap their eatables, shell of peanuts and what not! A short while ago the railway has put restrictions on the vendors. No more sellers of fruits are to be seen any longer. The railway thinks this would help to keep the train clean. Well, my advice is let us wait till winter and see if we don’t find it all littered up with peanut shells and all.

These days the journey seems much shorter, perhaps the railways system has improved after all, despite all the complaints to the contrary. Or perhaps the passage of time has taught me to be a bit more patient. Or is it because I have finally learnt that the journey itself is far more exciting than we ever gave it credit to? That the tightly packed compartment; noisy and quarrelsome women; men passionately discussing the current political situation of the country; the vendors selling the cheap, low-quality foodstuff; children with smudged faces and runny noses; young boys ogling at any available young girl; wheezing old men, old ladies complaining of various diseases and injustices suffered by them; the beggars, most of them sound in body and mind, have all begun to interest me in a way they never did before.

However, I never can and never will learn to put up with anyone smoking. When the acrid smoke of the cheap cigarettes fills my lungs and almost chokes me, all I want to do with such a person is: beat him, slap him, shout at him and send him home! This was the treatment my Iraqi neighbour’s young daughter always threatened to give her impish brother. “Khobaib!” both of us would say in the gravest voice, “if you don’t behave yourself, we will beat you, slap you, shout at you and send you home!” And Khobaib sulked and jumped up and down like a little monkey, threatening to beat us, imitating the poses of some hero from the screen.

The ticket checkers, the deity that reigns the trains; some smiling and friendly, others frowning and sultry. My family insists that the ticket checker is the most corrupt person in the entire railway staff. Many of them buy the tickets not out of a sense of duty; they buy it because they do not want those ‘swindlers’ to profit! They are sure that the fine you pay if you have not bought a ticket goes straight into the pockets of those ‘contemptible’ fellows. More often than not this does happen.

It appears to be many centuries away, the time when you got down from the train and there were hardly any tongas at all to be found. You had to walk all the way from the station to the house. With blazing sun, and heavy luggage it seemed to last for many miles, even when you were passing through the fields using them as a short cut. In winters it was comparatively better. The tongas were scarce, and most of the villagers considered it too great an expense to hire one. These days, there is a host of tongas, and a rickshaw too. The rickshaw perhaps was found at some excavation, perhaps it is the mummy of some ancient transport. That could be one explanation for all the terrible sounds it produces when the driver tries to start it. It has a notorious history of never being on time, tumbling off the road when you least wish it to perform such acrobatics. (Not that there is ever a time when you do wish it to turn upside down, you never say it would be such fun if the rickshaw tilts to the left just once, after all!)Mercifully there is only one of its kind in our village.

As far back as I can think, all the tonga drivers and now the rickshaw driver too, absolutely refuse to go further than a certain point. Perhaps they have unconsciously but unanimously appointed it as their stop. From then on you just have to walk! The same sensation one used to have, on the way to home. Greeting old men and women, all of whom appear to know my parents and all our ancestors perhaps. My aunt with moist eyes, since she is more than an aunt to me is: a second mother. Then there is a whole host of aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers to be dealt with. Take your shoes off; the verandah is as cool as ever, home at last!

And when the birds are tired after having flown all the day, the frivolities of day have wearied them. The grains of food have filled their bellies; they all flock back to the nest. To home!


Arimas said...

Before anyone else is puzzled, this piece was written almost a decade ago. It belongs to a series of stories or articles that were never completed. Publishing them here may push me to complete Arzhung: the album! I do hope so.

It's a bit long and I considered publishing it in two parts but then decided aginst it. aiween.

Saadat said...

Beautifully written. :) Do complete the whole series.

I have only once travelled by the train, but that was from Rawalpindi to Karachi, so the experience was worth remembering. I also slept on the sleeper's berth, or rather, tried to sleep on it -- to this day I cannot understand how other people manage to sleep on it, with all the jerks and the constant dug-dug-dug-dug of the moving train.

Arimas said...

You have only travelled by train once?!! Trains are the best mode of transport every invented by human beings. If only one could travel on a train everywhere.

Will try to complete the series, really wish I could. Anyway, I will publish the other three thar are completed soon.

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