2017 Theme Issue - Stranger(s)
In 1973 I was a passenger on the Bolan Mail, a legendary train which runs from Quetta, Pakistan—near the Afghan border—south to Karachi, Pakistan’s main seaport. The train traverses the Bolan Pass, which has been used for millennia by travelers, traders, or invaders as a gateway to the Indian subcontinent.
The train runs once per day in each direction. It carries mail, packages, cargo, and passengers, who have the option of sleeper class, sleeper class with air conditioning, and— cheapest of all—economy class, which was what I took in 1973 since it was all I could afford.
In those years I worked as an AB, able seaman, on U.S. merchant ships. I’d caught jobs in seafarers’ union halls in San Francisco, New York, or Seattle, but I soon realized I could also catch ships abroad, which was a sweet deal for me. If I got a deck job, say, in Bombay or Buenos Aires, I could work for a few weeks or a few months, earn union wages and get my trip back to America paid for. It was good business for the ship owners as well: they wouldn’t have to fly in someone from the U.S. to fill a position that was open because of illness or other reason.
So now I was on the Bolan Mail, headed to Karachi to try to catch a job on a U.S. cargo ship.
The economy compartment on the Bolan Mail wasn’t divided into small individual rooms like a normal train, nor was it configured like a bus with seats on both sides of a central aisle. The car was a broad gauge, wider than a normal train, and the passenger area was an open, undivided space with hard wooden benches along both sides of the train car, facing toward the center, as well as a block of seats in the middle, facing front. Surrounding the center seats there was a narrow open area piled with valises and boxes. It was crowded, but there was a bit of room to walk around, and a path to the toilet—a foul-smelling hole in the floor. Unlike Indian trains, there were no pull-down racks in which to lie down or sleep.
There was no catering either, so most of the forty passengers had brought food, which added another layer of smells. For those who hadn’t, sellers appeared at each station, elbowing each other outside on the platform, aggressively hawking snacks and shoving meals through the barred windows. I brought my own bottled water and food: dried fruit, nuts, and crackers.
Most passengers smoked constantly, little cone-like cigarettes called beedis, wrapped in greenish leaf, which left a pall of smoke, like a wispy, wavy horizontal sheet, just below the train car’s ceiling. Many also chewed betel-nut, so there was a reddish tint to almost everyone’s teeth and gums, and a great deal of spitting, which left red splotches on the floor.
As often happened during my travels, I was the only westerner aboard. Nearly all passengers wore Pakistani clothing, most of them in the pajama-like shalwar kameez used by both men and women. There was one couple dressed in farmer-peasant work clothes, shoes clumped with manure, sitting in the middle section. They had several children, including a babe in arms. The whole family, especially the patriarch, smelled strongly of fermented goat milk.
In the car’s middle section there was one family that was different: a couple in their 30s with two pre-teen girls, probably eight and ten. The husband—handsome, with a trimmed moustache—wore a suit and tie, while his wife was covered with a black burqa: all you could see were her hands and her eyes, which were lively but made contact only with her family.
The two girls—dressed modestly but with their heads uncovered—were angular and active, like sprightly fawns: they constantly poked and pawed one another, as well as their father. The girls left their mother alone, possibly because of her forbidding, spectral look.
To my left were two men in their late 20s or early 30s dressed in hip Western clothes: wide-collar shirts, flared jeans, tasseled shoes. They were brothers, Roger and Ahmed, who spoke good English and struck up a conversation with me. They said they’d filled two steamer trunks with audiotapes which they intended to sell in Karachi for twice as much as they’d paid.
“In Quetta you can get anything that comes from China,” Roger said. “Anything! You know, they make copies of everything in China, good copies, they don’t pay nobody for rights, then they bring to Pakistan, we go up to Quetta and buy tapes and anything else we can find.”
“But this time we got only tapes,” Ahmed said. “No rugs, no watches, just cassette tapes.”
“What kind of music?”
“Oh, man, we got everything.” Ahmed twisted around so he could talk to me as well. The brothers spoke almost with a single voice, finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts. “Yeah, we got Beatles and Rolling Stones, we got classical, we got Supremes and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. We got Johnny Cash. We got it all! We got regular customers, waiting to see what we come back with.”
Roger, sitting to my left, filled me in on some of the passengers: based on their look, or their smell perhaps, he felt confident guessing where they were from and what they did. Roger seemed to have nothing good to say about any of them. He made sarcastic remarks about the person sitting to my right, a bearded man dressed in religious clothing.
“He’s an imam from Persia. I don’t speak Farsi, he don’t speak much Urdu,” Roger said. “He’s a holy man, you know, man? So he’s, like, he’s very backward. Primitive. You know how they are, right? Doesn’t know any English, you know? I mean, he speaks Arabic ‘cause it’s the language he prays in, but I don’t remember any Arabic, so, you know—”
“Hey, man,” Ahmed interjected, “we get you good deal on music, okay? Yeah, man, when you’re in Karachi, come visit us at Saddar Bazar, we got a boot there.”
“A boot, a boot. You know, a kiosk.”
“Ah, a booth. Right. Yeah, sure, I’ll come by.”
The train stopped about every twenty minutes or half-hour. As we went through the Bolan Pass, the compartment got dark inside the tunnels, and the pre-teen girls screamed in mock terror, goading each other on and laughing constantly until we got into daylight again.
At prayer times, many of the passengers took their shoes off and knelt, each one with a personal prayer rug. The imam sitting to my right led the group in prayers, and when prayer time coincided with a stop, most of the passengers went outside to pray.
Roger and Ahmed never prayed. At the first instance of group prayer, Roger looked at me and rolled his eyes, letting me know the brothers had no truck with religion.
At one of the early stops, a desolate-looking outpost called Sibi Jn, two lepers were waiting at the platform. Dressed in soiled rags, one was missing a foot, his fingers were stumps, and he used a homemade crutch made of a stout, forked tree branch; the other leper had no nose and just one ear. They were a team, helping one another, keeping an eye out for the dreaded stationmaster. At the very last moment, just before the train pulled out from the first station, the lepers limped aboard and congratulated themselves once the train was in motion.
Roger and Ahmed took a liking to the lepers and in subsequent stations became their point men. Every time we came into a station, the brothers helped the lepers get off. Then, just before the train left each stop, Roger would examine the platform, signal when all was clear, and Ahmed would wave the lepers back into the train car. It became a game we were all involved in, and each time this happened, passengers applauded. Our routine with the lepers took place at every stop until they arrived at their destination and left the train for good.
The very next station, a boy, maybe nine or ten years old, got on the train. He carried a flat, round waiter’s tray filled with a rounded heap of cooked, spicy chickpeas, and he had a stack of empty tiny cones, made out of old newspapers, inserted into one another. When someone paid a few paisa, the boy filled a cone with chickpeas and handed it over.
He was a nice-looking kid, wiry and strong, and amazingly self-possessed: after all, he was alone, his parents trusted him to go by himself in and out of trains with what must have been an important part of the family’s income. If he didn’t have parents, more power to him: either way, he had been thrown into the world of adult responsibility much too young.
The boy looked tired, weighed down by his burdens, physical and economic. He made several turns around the car, selling his wares in a mechanical birdlike trill, as if he were sleep-walking through it. People bought small cones of chickpeas and devoured them in seconds. The boy put the money in a purse without cracking a smile. He looked as if this wasn’t what he wanted to do with his time.
I thought of myself at that boy’s age: in Baltimore, in elementary school, playing step ball, watching cartoons on TV, going to movies with friends on Saturday. I was 12 when I got my first paying job: a friend’s father, a bridge whiz, got us jobs picking up decks of cards at a contract bridge tournament: a different world from that inhabited by this boy, on a cross-country train, carrying a heavy tray, selling little cones of spiced chickpeas.
After making a round past those of us sitting by the train’s bulkhead, under the windows, the boy put his tray down and sat in a corner of the car, near the toilet. There he waited for us to come to him if we wanted chickpeas. And once in a while, someone would. Gradually, the rocking of the train and the boy’s fatigue had their predictable effect, and he dozed off.
But the boy had made a bad mistake: he’d laid the tray of chickpeas too close to the heavy toilet door, so he was awakened with a start when Roger suddenly exited the bathroom. There was a split second when the boy realized what was about to happen. He shouted and lunged for his tray but it was too late: Roger opened the door quickly, and it slammed into the chickpeas, which spilled to the floor and rolled around as the train moved along the track.
Among the passengers close to the toilet there was a collective gasp and conversation stopped. Everyone focused on the boy, who got up and yelled at Roger, who yelled back. They seemed to be blaming one another for what had happened. I imagine they said something like:
You should have opened the door carefully! It’s your fault!
You shouldn’t have put that tray so close to the door! It’s your fault!
The boy was crying but was desperately trying to hold it in so no one would see it. The burden was more than he could bear. He knew he had to be a man—whatever that meant—but his nature was to cry: cry at having been unable to prevent disaster, cry at having his livelihood disrupted, cry at the unfairness of fate. Or maybe he had no idea about life’s unfairness. Did he even know that there were other ways of being nine years old? If I had told him what my life had been like at his age, would he have understood?
One thing the boy knew was that he, a scrawny kid, couldn’t stand up physically to Roger, and though the boy looked toward me—and at everyone on the train—to help him through this crisis, none of us stepped in. However unfair it was, he was on his own.
Suddenly, the boy broke off arguing with Roger and started to salvage all the chickpeas he could, picking them up from the train floor, wiping them off, putting them back on his tray, a job that took him a long time, maybe a half-hour or more. He worked diligently, cleaning and stacking, searching for chickpeas that had rolled into odd corners and under seats and valises.
As the boy sifted out and cleaned each chickpea, as he reluctantly threw out those that were beyond salvaging, no one on the train helped him. But none of us could take our eyes off him. Even during prayer time, those who were kneeling and bowing kept glancing over to check on what the boy was doing: digging for his buried chickpeas as if they were valuable chunks of ore. The boy became our train car’s entertainment, as if it were a movie we were all watching.
Once the boy had finished reshaping his roundish pyramid of chickpeas, he looked at the faces staring at him. He must have made the business calculation that no one on this train would buy his chickpeas. After all, we knew they’d rolled around on a floor full of god-knows-what.
So the boy dried his tears, counted the money he’d made, put it back into his purse, sighed at what he knew was a poor sales figure, and resolutely waited for the next stop so he could get off. This nine-year-old entrepreneur apparently decided to cut his losses and start over, some place where they didn’t know that the chickpeas had been salvaged from a train floor.
The boy waited, not making eye contact with any of us.
I’d like to tell you that Roger and Ahmed offered the boy some tapes to make up for his loss. I’d like to tell you that the man in the suit, the one whose wife wore a burqa, gave the boy a few rupees, perhaps thinking about his own daughters, who were the same age. I’d like to tell you that the farm family offered the boy some goat curds, which, from the smell, they must have had wrapped and stored somewhere.
Even more, I’d like to tell you that I gave that boy the money to make up for his loss, that I bought his entire tray, all of it, and gave him enough rupees so that he could take the rest of the day off—hell, the rest of the week—and go home and play or whatever else a nine-year-old Pakistani kid should be doing instead of selling chickpeas on a train.
I’d like to tell you all that, but I can’t, because none of that happened.
I rationalized it this way: I knew I was going to Karachi to look for work and I’d need every penny I had, so that’s why I didn’t give the kid anything. Not a rupee.
As the boy got off the train, he looked at us, focusing on Roger. It was a cold look, full of dignity. Then he shouted something and spat on the train floor.
“What did he say?”
“Aw, man,” Roger said, “it was, how-you-call-it? A curse, yeah, a curse. You know? Like, ‘May you all suffer from the fires and go to Jahannam!’ or somethin’ like that. You know?” I nodded. “C’mon, man,” Ahmed said, “you don’t believe in that stuff, no?”
After the boy got off, the rolling of the train put me to sleep for a couple of hours.
By the time I woke up, it was dark outside. It was dark inside the train as well; apparently, the electricity had gone out while the train had kept moving on the tracks. The only lights in the economy car were flashlights and matches used to guide the way to the toilet, which had a horrendous stench, since no one could see where the hole in the floor was. Mixed in with the smell of feces and urine was the odor of vomit, since several people had gotten sick, possibly from food poisoning.
Meanwhile, the temperature rose drastically; it was well over 100 degrees in the compartment because the windows were now shut tight: a nasty desert wind was blowing and the passengers wanted to prevent dust from getting in. It was a futile battle; the dust had seeped into our lungs already and we were coughing and gasping for breath, but we couldn’t open the windows because the swirling dust would have been deadly.
Because there was no light inside the train, because of the constant coughing, I lost all sense of time and place. I was untethered to the real world, so those around me became ghostly shadows, and their squeals of retching and coughing seemed like the sound track of inferno.
In the darkness I heard horrors, and saw vague outlines of violence. What was it, husbands hitting wives? Parents slapping children? Passengers attacking one another? There were groans, sounds of flesh slapping flesh, followed by sharp cries of pain. Controls had broken loose and some seemed to be venting their agony and rage. I’d heard that during dust-storms, with the intense heat, with humidity dropping to zero, people run amok and commit senseless crimes of cruelty. Was that what was going on inside our passenger compartment? Or was I imagining all this? My head was throbbing with pain and I sipped water constantly.
It got worse. Just before dawn, the train stopped where there was no station, in the middle of a scrub desert. A problem with the track? Was it possible the train had run someone over, some unlucky soul sleeping on the rails? I had no idea what was going on.
The waiting, the train not moving forward, the windows shut tight, the overwhelming smells, the darkness—if it was hellish before, it had now gotten to a state beyond that. Hell on earth.
After two hours the train started moving again and at dawn it stopped once more. There was a collective groan, but it turned out they were giving passengers a chance to go outside and pray. I got off the train as well. In the east the sun was big, fat, red, sending waves through the air. Had we finally gotten past the desert winds? It seemed so. I took a few deep breaths. The air was still dusty and oven-hot, but it cleansed my lungs of the stench from the train’s toilet.
Once we got back into the compartment, Roger told me that the last two stations—before downtown Karachi—are considered part of the local Karachi train system. “Hey, man,” Roger said, “it’s a pretty crazy scene, all these poor people in rags are gonna jam in here and all those beggars. You’ll see, man, all those low-class people, you know?”
At the next station, our car filled up to capacity, with every inch of standing space taken by someone. The newcomers all flinched at the smell as they got on, some of them covering their noses with handkerchiefs. There was no need for a strap—we were so hemmed in that no one could have fallen anyway. I was still sitting and someone fell into my lap, a child who started crying. His mother, grabbing him, sat next to me on the bench, shoving me.
At Landhi, the final station before getting to Karachi’s outskirts, beggars got on as well. The stationmaster looked overwhelmed by the immense number of people crowding inside and seemed to have given up hope of checking tickets. A woman with a deformed baby cut a swath into the crowd, then wailed like a banshee, her hand out, begging for pennies. A man with a harmonica elbowed his way inside and played a loud off-key caterwaul as if this were a talent show in hades. Other beggars managed to push their way into a crowd that was already terminally crowded, all with a hand outstretched, piteously begging for a rupee.
With a constant squeal, metal against metal, traveling very slowly, the train mercifully pulled into the main Karachi station. When the car’s doors opened, those who had boarded during the previous two local stops spilled out first, anxiously shoving their way to the platform.
Within seconds, there remained those of us who had boarded earlier, overnight passengers with valises and boxes, those of us who had spent the past day and night on the train.
Ahmed and Roger grabbed their trunks full of cassettes and dragged them out the door, yelling at me not to forget to visit them at Saddar Bazar. The farm family was no longer aboard; apparently, they’d left during the night. The man dressed in western suit gathered up his family’s valises while his wife, still in her burqa, straightened out her clothing and guided the two little girls out of the train. I grabbed my backpack and went out to the platform.
It felt as if we had gone through one circle of hell after another—gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence—until reaching Dante’s ninth and final circle of hell: treachery.
Treachery? Whom had we betrayed? The boy? And if so, what price would be exacted?
I put my backpack on and walked away from the train station.
Several blocks away, on a wide street without pedestrians but lots of cars and other vehicles, I passed a woman who sat on the sidewalk, her back to a solid wall bordering a cemetery on the other side. The woman was covered from head to toe, including her face, which was veiled. I glanced at her discreetly and realized she was breast-feeding a baby, so the only parts of her anatomy that were visible were her hands and the breast she had bared to feed the baby.
I felt something bizarre at the back of my neck and down my spine: as if what I had just seen wasn’t real. As I walked past her, I looked straight ahead, not turning back: I was afraid that she might not be there, that it had been a message from beyond the grave. Maybe the woman was a guard of some kind, a gatekeeper to death itself.
I walked on. Two or three blocks further on, I reached downtown, a heavily peopled area. It was the middle of the day, lunchtime for those working in the office buildings all around, and a circle had formed. I walked up to see what had gotten the crowd’s attention: a wild-looking middle-aged man, bearded and naked, was covered in mud. Some mud had dried but some of it was still wet, and as the crowd gasped and oohed, the naked man grabbed chunks of the mud and pretended to fling it at the crowd, which scattered, shrieking. Every once in a while, he jumped up and down insanely, like an ape, and when he did this, his genitals also jumped.
Watching the naked man covered in mud, the crowd was getting the kind of thrill it gets from a horror movie, as if they’d agreed to be terrified and entertained at the same time.
Was this Lucifer? Had I reached the innermost circle of hell and finally met with the Devil? Is that where I was?
Welcome to Karachi, I thought. Welcome to Karachi.