Although I had travelled the "Lonely Line" between Quetta and Zahedan (Iran) seven years ago when I was doing what I called "The Little Railway Bazaar" after Paul Theroux, this journey had a special meaning for me. I was on my way to Dalbandin to see the house where my father had lived when he was posted there as Assistant Engineer (AEN) on the North Western Railways from April 1943 to December the following year. For me it was like a pilgrimage. But that was not all, I had also wanted to see if this train continued to be the festival on wheels that it once was.
In my six berth "First Class Sleeper" Agha sahib sat serenely and allowed the big, crinkly haired man and his friend to fawn over him. He wore the round black turban and the matching robe of the Ayatollahs of Iran. His chinky eyes, very Mongol face and sparse beard screamed that he was either a Hazara or a Chengezi, like his attendants, and claimed descent from Chengez Khan. He was a quiet man who did not speak much and when he did it was difficult to catch his soft whisper. Mostly he just sat there looking regal with his pout, occasionally flicking some unseen particle of dust from his robe with ring laden fingers.
The crinkly haired man said Agha sahib was returning to Qum in Iran where he was a teacher, after visiting with relatives in his native village not very far north of Quetta. The master spoke only Persian and I, despite my illiteracy in the language, was asked to see that he was not inconvenienced in any way during the journey because he suffered from a sick heart, high blood pressure and diabetes. I hadn't the faintest idea how I was to accomplish what was expected of me but the nod and the smile from the man of God assured me all was well. Then suddenly, as we sat their exchanging nods and smiles, all hell broke lose.
The lad burst into the compartment surrounded by the characteristic smell of lower class trains. His hair was wild and dirty and his face unshaven with parched lips flaked with dried spittle. His clothes were dusty and on filthy feet he wore the slippers that every worker from the Middle East wears. His eyes swept over the four of us and in a state of agitated frenzy he asked if we were all travelling in the same compartment. Since it was just Agha and me he relaxed, but only a fraction, turned about and swept out of the room.
A moment later a red shirted porter dumped a large case sewn in khaki cloth and measuring about one metre by half a metre by half a metre. Then another, and another. And they kept coming until they were all over the four free berths. Crinkly Hair got up and asked how many more were coming. "No more, no more." said the boy breathlessly and leaned out of the window to shout to the coolies to bring in the rest. And they did; until there were nineteen khaki cases each weighing over fifty kilograms and there was no room for Agha sahib and me to do anything but sit on our berths with our knees tucked under our noses.
"How do you expect Agha sahib to get to the toilet?" demanded Crinkly Hair.
"No problem," said the man, and to demonstrate he climbed over the cases, opened the door and jumped into the toilet. "It's easy." he said looking desperately at Agha sahib.
"Get this bloody stuff out of here!" Crinkly Hair exploded, "We are not paying good money to see our religious mentor hassled by the likes of you."
What Ali Raza, whose name I was to learn much later, said next blew my brains out. "Please bear with me." But Crinkly Hair was not impressed and insisted that he book his stuff in the luggage van. Raza begged to be allowed to keep his cargo under his watchful eye; Hair remained implacable. The argument dragged on, Hair got extremely worked up and Raza was virtually grovelling when in came two other boys who were clearly his brothers.
The trio begged, wheedled and made promises they were never going to keep but Hair was adamant: the stuff had to go. In the course of this carrying on one of them disappeared to return a moment later with a young woman carrying a child and dressed like the women of the Ayatollahs' Iran - black chador and all. She turned out to be the eldest brother's wife who joined the chorus of entreaties giving Hair a new angle to his argument. "Baji, there isn't room in here for a decent woman. Also this is a very long journey and I am not allowing my sister to be inconvenienced."
The farce kept on for almost three quarters of an hour when at lenght Hair gave up and called for the conductor. After several more minutes of the three brothers and the wife individually and collectively imploring Hair and the conductor to relent, the nineteen crates were removed to the brake-van. And so the Taftan Express bound for Zahedan finally steamed out of Quetta over two hours behind schedule.
Clearly Raza was the architect of whatever was happening. The eldest and the youngest looked utterly miserable and it was certain that they were not having anything to do with future madcap schemes; but the wife, remarkably unperturbed, was buried in a cheap Urdu magazine. Raza lived and worked illegally in Meshed and since it meant much more money than living and working illegally in Karachi he had come home to fetch his two brothers and the wife. Now they were travelling on pilgrimage visas valid for only two weeks which were going to be "easily converted into residence visas". None of them could tell me how a family on pilgrimage was going to explain nineteen crates of assorted onyx handicrafts to custom officials on either side of the frontier, especially when there were no export papers. But then good sense and logic were not this family's forte.
Raza began by telling me that Karachi was soon going to be independent like Hong Kong, but he was utterly incapable of telling me was how they proposed to attain "independence" and, more importantly, sustain Karachi as a viable economic entity. He seemed to believe that when they really wanted to be like Hong Kong they would simply have to wish and they'd be. I asked how the Sindhis were going to put up with this independent Karachi. He thought a moment and very airily informed me that they would join Karachi because they had had enough of living with the Punjabis. "You Punjabis will starve to death when Karachi isn't there to feed you," he said smugly. Five minutes later he was telling me that the Punjabis did not realise other people's problems because they had too much to eat: "Aap ko to rotian lagi hoee hain." At this point I told him to shut up.
Outside, the wind sculpted crescent shaped sand hills looked like chocolate icing in the gloaming. We had crossed the last ridge of low hills into the desert that stretches clear across to the Iranian frontier, over six hundred kilometres away. Beyond Nushki the desert took over completely; in the dark landscape of a moonless night there was no reassuring flicker of a man made fire.
Until August 1916 the "Nushki Extension Railway", as it was called, terminated at Nushki beyond which travel was by camel. Then in 1915-16 disease destroyed thirty thousand animals and they said that a traveller could pick his way to the Iranian frontier by the carcasses littering the desert. When work began on the extension the English called it the "Lonely Line" for in the one hundred and sixty eight kilometres between Dalbandin and Nok-Kundi there is just one station: Yakmach -- One Date Palm. It is a great unpopulated wilderness with little vegetation to break the monotony of the wide open plain covered with dark rocks and occasionally punctuated by sand hills.
Ahmedwal, seven years after my first visit still is an important watering stop on the line. As before there were hordes of children and adults selling tea and eatables and several men with live chickens tucked under their arms to be sold to travellers presumably for slaughtering and cooking on board. Earlier I had seen no stoves on the train; now none of these men attracted any customers. Evidently the chickens never changed hands; and the Baloch entrepreneurs never gave up.
In World War I when fear of a German invasion of India rode high the line was laid to enable British troops to join the Russians in patrolling the area between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Subsequently in 1932, with this threat subsiding and with little passenger traffic on it, the line between Nok-Kundi and Zahedan was pulled up. Then came World War II and the line was revitalised in April 1942. Exactly a year later my father, fresh out of Thompson College of Civil Engineers (Roorkee, India), arrived at Dalbandin.
We arrived in the middle of the night, with a good part of the desert deposited on my person and crunching between my teeth. Half asleep I staggered after Ramzan, the man I had been handed over to in Quetta. The rest house, a majestic high roofed, mud plastered building painted the perscription pale yellow of all rest houses, had no electricity and, unable to read, I lay awake until just before dawn when I was roused by the chowkidar come to show me the Assistant Engineer's residence.
It lay behind a high brick wall in the midst of a sprawling not very well kept garden with a few patches of vegetables and looked as dusty as the desert that surrounds Dalbandin. The facade was taken up by the glass windows of what probably meant to be a sun room. In the backyard was the mandatory masonry pedestal with its structure of pipes for the fan (with the fan missing), a swing and a fish pond. Except for the addition of a powder room the interior was exactly as my parents remembered it. But there was very little furniture. The spacious drawing and dining rooms were empty, only the bedroom was equipped with a bed and a dresser. What struck me as unusual was the complete absence of any form of reading material. Fifty years ago an avid reader like my father had piles and piles of books in the house ("A Penguin was only ten annas at Quetta!"). Now there was not even an Urdu pulp digest, and since the AEN was away I could not find out how he kept his sanity in a place like Dalbandin. Doubtlessly, like most of us, he too whiled away the tedium in aimless gup shup.
The high point of this pilgrimage came when upon my asking for the oldest railway man they brought Mohammed Sharif who had joined the railways in 1942 and retired twelve years ago. "Baba, do you remember the AEN posted here in April 1943?" I asked.
"I remember him well," said the old man, "It was Rashid sahib."
This was remarkable. Forty nine years after he had left Dalbandin never to return, my father was remembered by a man who had worked with him. "Baba, I am his son," I said, and all that escaped his lips was "Oyy!" as he grabbed me in an embrace; then he kissed me on either side of the face in proper Baloch fashion and held me away to regard me through misty eyes. And then the stories came pouring out. What touched me deeply was the untainted sincerity of Sharif's words and actions; it was all spontaneous and straight from the man's heart.
There were also insistences to stay. "I am a poor Baloch, but Baloch nonetheless, and you are not allowed to leave without proper hospitality." He expected me to stay with him for a few days at least. But this was one of the two days in the week that I could get the flight back to Quetta and after much pleading I was let off with a lavish tea of several different kinds of biscuits and the promise that I would one day return to Dalbandin to be hosted by Sharif. He then showed me the AEN's office where my father had worked many years ago.
I asked if he remembered my mother. Of course he did. My father had received his transfer orders when he was going on leave to be married. When he returned with my mother they stayed just long enough to put their stuff together, in the meantime the twice a week service returned from Zahedan. "Rashid sahib was transferred to Mach and I went with them to see that they were comfortably settled there." His memory was uncanny; my father had indeed gone to Mach. And that was where I was headed.
Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of eight books including The Apricot Road to Yarkand.