For whom the bell tollsThe 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.
Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing on the doors as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.
The jurisdiction of Gujrat starts across the river, but the train actually takes a while to fall in love with this place. On descending into the plains, the rivers tend to expand so does the history. It no more rushes in a line but trots in the extended formation, much like the maniple formation of the Roman Armies, where many soldiers walk abreast. The area between the two rivers is hardly 40 miles, but the time here delinks itself from the distance and both travel this expanse in their own style.Having passed Sarai Alamgir, the track crosses over the UJC or Upper Jhelum Canal. The canal is famous for its cold waters and feeds Chenab River through Jhelum River. The stations of Choa Karyala, Kharian, Chak Perana, move past with speed until the train stops at Lala Musa. The mesmerising diversity of Gujrat spell binds it and helplessly it parts. One of the lines moves past the stations of Karnana , Mandi Bahauddin and the battlefields of Chailianwala to reach Malakwal, another heads straight and crossing Bhimbher Nullah, reaches Gujrat.
Kharian is one of the major post colonial cantonments in the world. The post is imposing but its military inhabitants are not. The men in arms do not stay for too long in the military posts, so their association is only a big mosaic of smaller interactions. Kharian figures in small episodes in the memoirs of military men, much like the traditional Sindhi chequered cloth called Ralli that contains a patch from each region and color. Their stay at any garrison is short-lived like migratory birds, who only add color to the cosmos of an Eco system and as soon as it rains or shines enough they fly to other destinations, exciting at times and dangerous at others.
The construction of Garrison started in the early 50s, when Pakistan and America were led by few good men. It was the time when terminologies like “Do More” were not coined and people like Panetta fought against racism. The construction completed in 1958 and it added not to the military might of the infant nation but also to the construction companies which built the garrison. A local firm of one Muhammad Imam Din Janjua transformed (much during this development) to the trendy acronym of MIDJAC, a construction house which now furnishes a large clientele. After almost half a century, the American signatures can still be seen at places in Kharian. There are electric buttons, water supply systems and ventilators that open and shut the US way. To sum it up, the Garrison as a whole is a blend of Texan might and Gujrati humility.
Inside the gates of Kharian, it’s a different world; the never ending rush on GT road gives way to impeccable silence inside the cantonment. This serene ambiance is only disturbed by the futile urgency of the military vehicle. The engines grunt habitually to remind of their importance, in case somebody fails to notice. They mark their time from 8 to 2 and before its mid-day, the evening starts to set in. Veterans tell the story of Kharian being a heavily committed station ever since.
After the divide of religion, the second line was drawn on lingual basis and Bangladesh was born. The raging violence did manage to divide the tangibles but somehow the memories refused to be divided, they tend to multiply. On one of the visits, I came across a Bangladeshi military officer and he asked whether Kharian was still the busy military district. On being inquired, he told me about the cliché used by the Bangladeshi army “as busy as Kharian”.
The sun sets on the rainforest like garrison and the small groups of soldiers, young and old, sit around with teacups to talk about their homes, the happenings and the children they just don’t see growing. They have given up their homes for a greater cause. On the other side of the cantonment, a residential colony undergoes the same ritual at sunset. The lone occupants of the houses switch on the security lights and open the Skype windows to greet those who have given up their homes too. Throughout the year, Kharian remains enveloped in clouds and diaspora.
A road leaves Kharian and passing through Gulyana, moves to Daulat Nagar, a historical Mughal stop-over enroute to Kashmir. Somewhere in the vicinity, the historical village of Bhaddar lies unnoticed. An important pre-partition town where all communities lived peacefully, it had the history of almost four centuries. No one probably wants to remember that people lived peacefully so the village has been erased from collective memory.
Departing Kharian, the train passes by a series of high-end furniture shops. There was a time when these shops rented furniture to military officers posted in garrison. The changing economics have included other things in the rental list, so the shops have been transformed into furniture showrooms. The small eatery of Mian Ji which served the famous “Daal” is also a refined restaurant now, with conditioned halls that serve the non-resident community of the villages. Sabour, Thootha Rai Bahadur and Kotla Arab Ali Khan stands gracefully at a distance from the railway line, because of their historical arrogance.