Recently browsing through the internet, I came across an old film song which went something like, “Chai garam garam, pan beeri cigarette lay lo, chai garam garam chai garam...” Though I did not recollect the movie, I could guess that the song must have been picturised on a railway station.
It would not be wrong to say that the sights and sounds of Subcontinental railway platforms (especially in the nineteen fifties and sixties) depicted a unique culture. This culture, although diluted with the absence of the immaculately uniformed dining car ‘bairah’ (bearer) and the growing replacement of the ‘chai/anday wallah’ with McDonalds and KFC outlets, can still be savoured in Pakistan and India. My endeavour in this week’s piece, is to resurrect a platform (perhaps Platform Number 4) at Lahore Railway Station, as it looked five decades ago. In doing so, I will not only take readers of my generation on a nostalgic trip down memory lane, but will also introduce this unique environment to readers, who have perhaps never experienced the excitement of watching arriving and departing trains from up close.
Railway platforms were and are strange places - empty and silent one moment and bustling with urgent activity amidst a cacophony of sound in the next. Lahore Junction was no different and we were always eager to visit the fort like facility to receive and see off relatives. Entry into this exciting world (for this is what it was to us as children) was gained by buying a platform ticket. This small cardboard rectangle was punched at the foot of the stairs that took us up the bridge and down to Platform Number 4. There was a hushed expectancy as the loud speaker announced the arrival of the train. People stood on the edge of the concrete platform with the rails running three to four feet below it, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the approaching train.
As the train entered the platform, an electric charge appeared to run through the red shirted coolies and vendors. The former ran alongside the moving line of compartments and some of them hopped aboard. A sea of humanity was then disgorged from the ‘bogies’ along with their baggage. This was further multiplied by an army of vendors selling hot tea in glasses, boiled eggs, newspapers, magazines and cold beverages precariously balanced on shoulders or head. These individuals went up and down the platform chanting “Chai Garam, Garam Aanday, Taaza Akhbar aur Digest, thandi botel (bottle)”. Bearers wearing white dresses, a ‘kummer bund’ or a 6 inch broad colourful belt around their waist and a ‘pugree’ branded by a stripe of the same colours moved in and out of compartments with meals stacked precariously on trays. Professional beggars also joined the fun, pestering passengers and non-passengers alike with irritating persistence.
The platform had some permanent stalls, which sold books and magazines, tea and snacks, garlands and cold beverages. There was a decent enough restaurant that served hot meals and also replenished the attached dining car in the train. These meals consisted of rice, curry, thinly rolled large sized ‘rotis’ and a ‘pootin’ (pudding).
While all this was unfolding, railway crews were busy replenishing water tanks in on board toilets from an overhead pipe line that ran high above the tracks, using rubber pipes. As they finished their work, the line of ‘bogies’ was jolted (causing some alarm to the unwary). This signalled the arrival of a fresh locomotive that soon attached itself to the train to recommence the journey.
As the train steamed out of the station, a hush descended upon Platform Number 4. The coolies disappeared into obscure nooks and crannies as did the vendors and the beggars - waiting for the next train to arrive. It appeared that fatigued by all the hustle and bustle of the past hour, Platform Number 4 had decided to take a nap.