All aboard!

Published January 8, 2014

History rests in the serene surroundings of the Golra Junction. The spiritually festive silence at the Golra Junction disassociates the area from all controversies, joys and sorrows; and all which perfidies a person.

Woven with platitudes from man’s deceits, it is this place where it conceals itself, avoiding all repetitions, where no historian’s voracity can interrupt its peace.

I am certain it wants us to know that we are the only ones to be blamed for whatever tragedies befall this nation after a Londoner’s pencil divided a homonymous history into two.

At any rate, it is merely history, is it not? The rate at which it is being cared for lesser every day, its decimation will surely change into its demise. No worries, for it is likely that the Moghuls of the post-modern medievalism that our dreary state and a majority of its subjects are very much fascinated with will surely formulate their desired version of the events of their choosing, chronicling in a vernacular that best suits their taste.

However, that is for the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals to argue over. I am simply an admirer of the true, the beautiful, and that is what I shall keep doing.

Was I there to disturb history? No, sir! It was another sunny morning that would have been laid to waste had I not driven with a friend to explore the possibility of discovering something to write about while enjoying some sightseeing. It turned out to be the other way around.

I am not a cynic but that Sunday seemed fortunate as we stepped onto the junction’s platform and it was only banyan trees and empty benches to greet us there. I could not but appreciate the absence of people; it led me to believe how natural the place was, regardless of how the surroundings were a mixture of pleasant green and centuries-old concrete, metal and lead. I did not mind the few seemingly regular occupants of benches.

They seemed more the part of the picture than the town of which the junction was more or less a part of. Like an island with secret treasures, the Golra Junction, too, had more than one face, both fronting the homes of the townsfolk. The occasional passer-by with little or no interest in what went on at the station was proof that those who dwell in the adjoining areas have seen enough of the solitary railway station’s glory. Although when inquired, the only person who was said to have had all the knowledge about it had passed away just a few weeks ago.

The sight of litter was saddening. It was evidence that our generations will be remembered in the distant future as people of the past, who were customary litterers. Later, when I wanted to throw my empty pack of smokes somewhere, I could not find a garbage can. I did what any normal human being would do out of shame: I put it back in my pocket.

Taking photographs of whatever our eyes rested upon for more than a couple of seconds, my generous friend and I decided that she will keep clicking more of them while I talk to the people at the station. A train was about to cross the junction soon, so I was told to wait. I will be honest: it was only because of that train and because of the fact that I had my friend with me that I saw the museum. I am certain I would I have missed it otherwise.

Established originally as a railway junction in 1881-82, Golra is now also the only railway museum in Pakistan. It is not quite the Musée Extraordinaire that one imagines when the word ‘museum’ is mentioned. Once the waiting room for passengers back in the day when trains were the fastest mode of travel, it was in 2002 that a Mr Ashfaque Khattak, a senior Pakistan Railways official, made the effort of changing it into what it is today. Sadly, no one bothered to maintain the frequency of change, as is generally the case with positive change in our society.

The glass door had the Scinde Punjab Delhi Railway monogram on it. Inside, a couple of Pashtun youngsters sat on and stood by the showcases. Fareed, the Pashtun attendant of the museum with an Urdu accent thickly influenced by the distinct Punjabi of Rawalpindi, asked us if we had tickets. We did not have them and so, he wavered the need. At first, we started the tour on our own. While my friend continued performing her photography duties devotedly, I tried to identify the baggage of history stored in the glass showcases.

Although not classy, and that the archived historical recollections were also stored in the fashion of a basement crawling with childhood memories, the glass showcases were quite exquisite in themselves. It was pleasing that they did not look like glass crypts of moments long departed. The uncanny finishing, the unprofessional placement of tags and the positioning of the items without any pattern itself enhanced the scene. Onlookers with a sense of attachment with history and a love for trains would surely love the place, as we did.

There were items like surgical kits, first-aid kits, cutlery used by officers hundred to hundred and fifty years ago, bayonets from the 19th and the early 20th centuries, kerosene lamps which looked as if taken off from the streets of Victorian London, electric heaters that one would have to build a whole new house around, and old telephones that at least made me want to dress up in the fashion of the Victorian era, not forgetting a hat and an overcoat and then pose for a daguerreotype. A Neal's ball token machine, replicas of which are still in use across Pakistan, captured from Khem Karan, India, by the Pakistan Army in the 1965 Indo-Pak war was also an interesting piece. All of them, Fareed told me, were retrieved or collected from various railway stations across Pakistan. I could see the names of Mirpurkhas, Hyderabad, Lahore, Jodhpur and other railway stations.

There were other items, too. A mobile phone from the early 20th century, as he described it, was an interesting one. Literally speaking, the term does refer to a phone which can be used while the user is mobile, if I am correct? This was a set of a single-ear headphone attached with a pipe that begins with a microphone. In times of distress, the train drivers would attach the wire with the nearest telephone pole found and make calls to the nearest station for help. Lo and behold, mobile phone!

There were sounds from the past, too. A siren that I could easily link to emergency announcements during the partition. The moment Fareed Khan spun the handle of that old thing, it cranked up and the noise flew me back to motion picture scenes with dead bodies in train bogies. The other siren was a softer one, although it did not make any less noise. It was an old wooden rattle that made an annoying sound. Fareed Khan told me it was for alerting passengers of arriving or departing trains. I believe it to be a pleasant sound back in its days, when people awaited anxiously for its rattle.

The railway station is still in what Fareed calls ‘a working state’. “There are trains that pass through on the up-track for Haripur, Nowshera and Peshawar. On the down-track, trains for Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi cross this station,” Fareed tells. Tracks from here lead to Karachi, he says, adding that Multan, Fateh Jang, Tarnol, Kot Addu, Havelian and many other stops are approachable by train from Golra. “In 24 hours, at least a dozen trains cross the station. Only a few stop here, mainly the morning train that leaves Golra for Havelian,” Fareed continues as I promise myself to embark on that journey someday.

The history of the railway in India goes back to the first railway track that became operational in Madras, India in 1837. It was meant for goods transport, mainly the locally found granite. Decades of investment had then made it possible for railways to be the most favoured mode of transport. Golra was among the most important railway stations for the North Western Railways for the first half century of its age.

Stepping out of the museum, we were shown some signboards from the times of the British rule. These coloured publicity boards were from the days when the British were trying to convince more and more Indians that tea is not witchcraft, is kosher, is not against any religion and that it is rather healthy. Out of the three signboards, the most interesting was the one with a Muslim, a Hindu and a Sikh enjoying tea. No wonder it took three quarters of a century after that for us to learn we wanted independence. Sadly, it has taken even more than that for us to learn the true meaning of many good things as communities, as a society and as a nation.

I had thought the tour was pretty much over, except that I remembered the old train on display. Fareed did not take us there. Instead, passing by the hand-operated water pump from 1904, we were taken to a more deceptive place. It looked like a warehouse, the items inside were covered in dust. The resting chairs, which you can still see in use at the Lahore Railway Station, could be seen in the room taking up space like no other item. I could not resist the temptation of laying on them for a minute or two. There were model trains, a stretcher which had the Pakistan Railway logo on it but was clearly old and remade. One could smell the rust that could be seen on the metallic possessions in the room. Typewriters from the olden days were my favourite sight. A trolley with two holes in it was told to be the place where two different water pots were placed for Hindus and Muslims to drink out of.

You would be amazed to see the photographs that are kept in the showcase with glass doors that do not allow seeing what the photographs want to show. “Put them in a gallery for God’s sake,” I told Fareed. He replied, “I wish that, too.”

After the storeroom of a museum, we finally visited the old trains. The first stop was the narrow gauge locomotive. It is said to still be in working condition. Attached to the motionless ‘metallic giant’ as one of the documentaries I found online about Golra describes it, there were economy class and first class bogies along with a postal van. The postal van was from the days of the First World War.

Fareed then took us aboard the white train bogie which was separately kept there on the tracks. “It was gifted to the Princess of Jodhpur by her father, the Maharaja in her dowry,” Fareed told us. It was astonishing to witness the extravagance of even the toilet in that bogie, let alone the bedroom and the sitting room.

The jealousy subdued as quickly as it has arrived, almost humbly, with a visit to the common bogies. It reminded me of my late-night visits to the Mirpurkhas Railway Station and the little toasts with strong drinks that my cousin and childhood friend and I used to raise in the rail bogies waiting to be boarded by passengers in the morning.

Later, we visited the most significant train bogie at Golra. “Jinnah, Gandhi and Mountbatten travelled in the bogie together in 1937,” said Fareed. I could not find any references to prove that the claim, reaffirmed by the station master Muhammad Ramadan, was true. However, the moment I stepped aboard the bogie, it felt like no proof was required. Its wooden interior, the overindulgence, the spacious toilet with a bathtub, the bedrooms, and the sitting room all had the air of a luxurious flat in London.

After the tour concluded, my friend and I sat on a bench near the platform on the ‘good side’ of the junction. The bench, from the 19th century as per Fareed’s claim, was comfortable indeed. I was thinking of the poem From a Railway Carriage. It was in 1885 when Robert Louis Stevenson, known on both sides of the Atlantic for his notable works of pure literature, author of novels such as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped and Treasure Island, published the Child’s Garden of Verses, a collection of his poems for children and more enjoyed by parents. It was in this collection that this poem of his first appeared. Interestingly, his joy and awe were equally shared by the people of the sub-continent as well who, by then, had increasingly begun travelling by trains. The Great Indian Peninsula Railways and the progress of railway in India were already far ahead on the track, with green signals of investment from across Britain and British India. Trains were no more a new thing for the Indian populace; it was not strange.

It was disappointing to think of the present state of the Pakistan Railways. I frustratingly condemned the decision of ceasing the trams in Karachi. I missed the tongas that used to take us to the railway station in my hometown so that we could embark on our journey to Karachi by train. It was a collage of memories.

“Thank you,” I heard. My friend, usually not interested in almost anything in the world, was happy to have been there.

-Photos by author.

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