Next time you are battling through a busy train station to catch a train, take a second to look up.
A high-arched ceiling, ornate in nature stands tall in front of us, filled with workers polishing the underbelly of the roof.
Outside the bustling station, a distinct corner is surrounded by a hub of activities. Hot fritters come out of a coal fired, pot-belly stove and roadside barbers are swamped with men waiting for their turn.
The atmosphere is buzzing with evening banter of men relaxing on charpoys. The area encircles a colonial building, crooked footpaths and walkways occupied by shoe sellers, and make-shift hotels serving low-priced desi food.
There’s always something gripping about busy train stations; perhaps the vivacity and pulse that makes modern life fuse with the city’s unique history that inculcates a sense of belonging.
Local men loiter around, selling magazines and current newspapers, passengers thumbing through pages to decide whether to purchase them. Small shops selling candy, tobacco (cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco and few cigarettes) and fruits are spread on both sides of the railway track.
The Cantt Station building has somehow survived through years of filth and betel sputter. On the platform one can see passengers, baggage wagons, as well as freight crates and a narrow corridor with offices. No waiting room is in sight, passengers lounge on the platform on picnic sheets, benches, anywhere with a little space to accommodate their families.
The station welcomes its passengers with an enticing aroma of the freshly made pristine, golden tea.
Colossal clouds of dust surround the air, both by the porters’ frantically stacking bundles of lofty baggage and by stomping feet of the haze of people gathered here.
A flock of birds happily peck at crumbs on the floor left behind by a woman feeding a child. Amidst all the clatter, the sound of newspaper pages being flipped can be heard from across the trails.
“I have traveled all my life via train but for the first time in years I’m enjoying my trip,” says Aashiq Hussain, a traveller from Lahore visiting Karachi.
“The train arrived at the platform early, the bogeys are spacious and the berths are wider. The compartments have charging sockets, the food is great. A confectionery trolley is available too. It has been a completely different experience than previous years when the berths were full of stains of betel and the bogeys smelt of puke. However, the availability of clean water is still a pressing issue which the authorities need to address,” he elucidates.
As long crooked queues are maintained in front of the booking window, children cling on to their parents amid the hustle and bustle at one of Pakistan's busiest train stations.
Suddenly, the undying fluster is packed down by the wheels of a train that screech past us. Passengers that are eagerly waiting for the arrival of the train stand up.
“It’s my 25th year at Pak Railway and I have to say that things have improved. Gone are the days when trains arrived late and black tickets were sold. Things are not like how they were in the past when passengers had to pay bribes to get seats,” says Muhammad Nasir Khan, a telecom engineer.
At sunset the sun looks as red as the bright red 'coolie' uniform. Soon enough we realise that blending in the crowd is impossible as we walk past passengers slurping tea and holding hand-rolled cigarettes.
Porter's who are on a break from work sit in a circle under the shade next to the Cantt Station’s main gate. Some seem weary of the day’s work while a few prefer to spend their leisure time singing. These men in red are the people that bear the weight of the nation’s train passengers on their shoulders.
“I’ve worked here since 1969, I have seen the railway grow and deteriorate and then revive again. For a Rs. 300-400 daily wage, I have to work tirelessly from 10am to 6pm,” says Khanzada, who is awarded by Railway Minister Saad Rafique for being the oldest 'coolie'.
“We sometimes even have to run with the commuters so that their luggage is delivered on time. And on one such an occasion, with piles of heavy baggage over my head and shoulders, I once slipped off a banana peel. Ever since then, I have to live with my damaged knees for the rest of my life,” he says.
“Life around here, for us, isn’t easy,” says another porter, Shah Nawaz. “We sleep here,” he spreads his arms, wide enough for one to grasp the breadth of the platform he refers to as his bed. “Falling into a deep slumber here means getting yourself robbed by druggies and drunkards who rove around here at night,” he says, wiping sweat off his brows.
Battling our way through the bedlam and fighting off frenzied workers, ensuring that everything that was in our pockets a few minutes ago is still in our pockets — we savour our time at the Karachi Cantonment Station.
Standing in the middle of an unruly railway station is similar to being in absolute wilderness.
A cozy and neat restaurant, looking distinctly unloved, stands next to the tea-shops. The tea-stalls teem with commuters and the local stuff as the owner prepares hot tea and succulent, chicken patties.
“I have been here since the past three years. This joint is open 24/7,” says Muhammad Rizwan, a dhaba owner. “When I joined, the railway system was pitiful. Trains were never on time and commuters spent all their time at the platforms along with their children and women, a mere addition to the commotion and uproar. But now, trains arrive even before time which makes passengers happy and that makes me happy since my sales have increased ever since the change in the system.”
“We often have tea gatherings here with local staff, and passengers join in too after sunset for a midnight chat. Now we have regular customers,” he gleams with joy as the sun rays radiates in his eyes.