NARRATIVE ARC: TRAIN INTO THE PASTArchive
“Faster than fairies, faster than witches/ Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches.” Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘From a Railway Carriage’ is one of the earliest poems I remember from my school days. The rhyme and rhythm, the comfortable speed, views of the ever-changing landscape and the excitement of travel, all rolled into one, brought such joy that many of my classmates learned the poem by heart. That was the beginning of my romance with trains and the universe they unfolded. Later in life, Akhtarul Iman’s fascinating poem ‘Daasna Station ka Musafir’ [The Traveller at Daasna Station] began to haunt me. It is about first love, separation and belonging, the pathos of Partition, and the advent of the commercial and industrial age. And, there are so many of us who would wake up before sunrise to Munir Niazi’s couplet, “Subh-i-kazib ki hawa mein dard kitna tha Munir/ Rail ki seeti baji aur dil lahoo se bhar gaya” [The early morning breeze was laden with such pain/ The whistling train passing by filled my heart with grief].
From Majaz Lucknavi’s celebrated poem ‘Raat aur Rail’ [The Night and the Train] to one of Mustafa Shahab’s riveting poems, there are many literary references in Fazlur Rehman Qazi’s book Roodad Rail Ki [The Saga of Railway], an intimate view of a unique communication and transportation organisation introduced by the British in India during the 19th century. But literary references are a small part of this widely informative and insightful account of the establishment and evolution of railways in British India in general, and what now constitutes Pakistan in particular. If we had a comparable intellectual tradition and a quest for knowledge and inquiry, we would have written scores of books and screenplays such as the ones we find on the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian railways. But there aren’t many books on the subject, barring a few published some years ago in Urdu. However, Roodad Rail Ki is by far the most comprehensive work to have appeared after Raza Ali Abidi’s Rail Kahani [The Railway Story] and Dr Irfan Ahmed Baig’s Derh Sadi ki Rail [A Century and a Half of Railways].
What makes Qazi’s book stand out is the blend of personal anecdotes and character sketches of relevant individuals, with hardcore technical details from tracks to engines, and a matter of fact description of the policies and practices of Pakistan Railways as an institution. His long personal association with Pakistan Railways, which he joined in Quetta as a young man, brings an air of authenticity to his narrative and arguments. He later moved on to found and run the Civil Defence Directorate in Balochistan, but his passion for railways always kept him abreast with new developments in the institution.
Qazi discusses the colonial motivation to establish the rail network in South Asia and the massive impact on the local culture and economy as a consequence. He has definite views on the developments in railways over the years, under the British as well as afterward and the subsequent changes that were brought about in lives and livelihoods. But he maintains scholarly objectivity and refrains from getting carried away by simplistic political commentary. He has recorded the advancements in both technology and administration and the way the institution worked for its employees and their families. He also evaluates the ineptitude and corruption that would later cause deterioration in standards and services. The book also lists major train accidents and casualties over the years.
There is a rare collection of black and white photographs of ordinary people, celebrity passengers, equipment, tracks, bridges, stations, tea stalls, engines, wagons, fatal accidents, etc. But what makes the book truly accessible is Qazi’s simple, fluid, idiomatic and absorbing prose that makes the historic account of an institution read like the biography of an individual. Lest we forget, railways have a formidable history of trade unions and labour movements, earlier under the stewardship of the legendary Mirza Ibrahim and now under stalwarts such as Manzoor Razi. That struggle needs to be chronicled as well.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2017