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 a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.
“Just like old school Russian novels, the city lived an industrialised life; the one on the assembly line. There was a mile long mill, beside other reasons; the length also contributed towards the name, Koh (from kos, the vernacular word for a mile) Noor Mill. In the mills across the city, thousands of employees worked in three shifts, ticking the life along this regimen. Bus routes, cinema shows and even robberies were timed on these shifts. Each mill housed a bank, a post office, a petrol pump, a hospital and a small market of its own. This plaza, where we stand today, was once the rest house of a mill and the flats, you see in the far distance, were the air hangars. Parked inside, was a small aircraft, which shuttled the kids to Lahore and back for education pursuits.
“The double-lane carpeted road by canal, where we just stopped for a 120-second traffic signal, was once a worn out wooden gate on a small brick paved pathway. The crossing at Abdullah Pur, where the non-stop traffic has enforced a flyover, was an isolated stop, off-limits at night. The returning labourer stopped here, organised into groups and cycled away blowing carefree whistles and singing folk lore. Faisalabad, by then, was Lyallpur and urban life was disciplined by these mills. Bonuses offered inside the mills, accelerated economic activity of the city and meatless days, in the world beyond the mill’s premises, appeased no vegetarian inside.
“The law and order situation of the city also revolved around these mills. The closures brought labour on roads and screeched life to a halt, ultimately the city administration succumbed to industrialists. All this happened just 50 years ago.” Baba halted for a while.
“Are you sure that the kids flew to Lahore schools daily?” I was lost in calculus and my father was lost in nostalgia, the most fatal of South Asian ailments. He spoke in a drowning voice:
“Yes, that was the 22 families’ phenomenon, well-heeled of their time. Besides economy, they were the cultural statement of Lyallpur.”
“But then why did they break down the mills?”
Baba laughed and said:
“Had those mills not broken down, we would have never sipped this expensive coffee. With the crash of textile mills, the weaving units moved out. People bought the auctioned power looms in pairs of four and six and started weaving cloth at their homes. The prosperity, you see today, was baptized by those power looms. How else could I even imagine visiting this plaza?”
“But how did it happen?” I needed an answer.
“As it has happened in this country”
The answer was harsh this time. My father had not bled in partition. I, however, knew him as a grateful and acknowledging human being. Pakistan had honoured him, and many like him, for their hard work and reasonably made up to him. But, since the last few months, he had started watching TV, regularly. The prime time that once belonged to the grandchildren was now spent with anchors playing up political comedy. Our country will soon approach its 70th birthday but the ideology has remained an infant. Democracy, in its first appearance, was hideous; so dreadful that everyone desperately wished something new, even if it was as gruesome as an imported fusion of religion and modernity. I thought it was a moment of pessimism, only to fade away in a while. Minutes later, I heard a defeated voice.
“Firstly, the families shifted to Lahore and then the owners lost interest. They showed up at mills, only to draw cash and top up the cars. A little later, they abandoned it for good; disposed off the machinery and sold the land. No enterprise functions with lost interest. It is not always man who seeks the shelter, but quite often the buildings need their residents, too. The long visa queues tell me that all those who can afford, are leaving the boat. When it is all about drawing cash and topping up cars, it does not take long to be doomed, regardless it be a functional mill or a prosperous country”.
Baba wiped his eyes, signalled to leave and walked to the parked car. On our way back, silence filled our vehicle. I made many attempts to initiate conversation but somehow, my immigration papers in the gloves compartment ate up all my words.
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