The 'Bumba Mail' Called Here
by Salman Rashid, 2013
Mr Rashid is a travel writer and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. Website
Once upon a time, before the new border was drawn and Pakistan came into being, through trains from Karachi to Calcutta via Delhi left what we now call our "main line" at Bahawalpur, turned northeast to chug through the desert to Bahawalnagar and on to the junction of Mandi Sadiqganj. From here they either carried on through Amruka to Fazilka and onward, or turned due east to Bhatinda, one of the busiest railway junctions in this part of pre-partition India. From Bhatinda travellers could go in any direction on any number of trains.
In undivided India, the Bhatinda loop was also used by some mail trains running between Peshawar and Kolkata. Being a longer, more tedious route in comparison to the direct line through Lahore, Jullundher and on to Delhi, the term "via Bhatinda" passed into common usage for long-winded verbosity or for a pointless and circuitous journey. The phrase remained in use until the 1970s before transiting unobtrusively into oblivion, perhaps a sign of the thinning of the generation that understood its import.
But then the line was drawn, India was divided and Pakistan came into being as a separate country. Towns and cities that were once nerve centres on ancient travel routes suddenly became places on the unfriendly fringes of the two neighbours. Suddenly they were places that travellers did not pass through on their way anywhere, but border towns where one only went when pressed by business of great importance: from mid-points they became the ends of journeys. Likewise, significant way points on the great trunk railways became terminuses for trains that once chugged haughtily across the vast Punjabi plains.
Time passed and failing to mature as a nation, we became extremely paranoid. As a result it became difficult for ordinary Pakistanis to travel freely to these border towns for fear of being hounded by agents of those dreaded secret agencies who live two hundred years in the past when the camera had not yet been invented and when every traveller was essentially a spy. Not having heard of spy satellites, they still believe that spies must necessarily travel to photograph and map "vital" installations. Consequently, had it not been for my friend Kashif Noon from Bahawalpur, I might never have gone to the lonely, deserted railway station of Mandi Sadiqganj treading on the Indian border.
Meanwhile, the railway in Pakistan was not doing too well either. Given the lowest priority by successive governments, the once mighty and efficient machinery had ground to creaking sloth and inadequacy by the 1970s. Where even neighbouring India was racing ahead with fast trains and new lines, we were closing down long sections of railway inherited from the Raj. But no railway in the world makes money from hauling passengers; it earns by moving freight. Consequently the last nail in the railway's coffin came with the establishment of National Logistic Cell (NLC) in the 1970s.
The import of vast numbers of lorries and trailers was a fine chance for some powerful persons to nicely line their pockets with hefty commissions. No thought was paid to the fact that a country long and narrow like Pakistan was ideally suited for freight haulage by rail rather than by road. No thought was paid too to the great environmental cost of hundreds of smoke-emitting lorries pounding up and down the country in place of a single locomotive hauling a hundred-plus freight wagons. Nor too to the damage to be done to the already battered roads. The only thought was for the fat bank account in Switzerland. And so the once proud North Western Railway we had inherited at independence came to the sorry pass where we are trying to resuscitate it with all manners of hare-brained ideas.
We left Bahawalpur early, wasted a great deal of time at Bahawalnagar turning ourselves into a self-important and oversized expedition before heading out to Sadiqganj. Self-important, for whereas no one would have cared for the two of us pottering aimlessly about deserted railway stations, Kashif's brother who joined us at Bahawalnagar had a couple of friends tagging along. The bonus for travelling with Kashif's brother was an armed escort as well. Through the great throng of country folks crowding the bazaars of Minchinabad, we turned due east toward the border. Presently Sadiqganj rose out of the heat and dust of the plain: stacks of dust-coloured houses surrounded by a thin sprinkling of date palms and other trees.
The railway station was outside the town to the east. A couple of young boys played some childish game in front of the cream-washed building, but seeing our armed guard made themselves scarce. The foyer was deserted. On the single platform there were just two men: an older one looking regal, his walking stick leaning against his knee he sat cross-legged on a bench and stared intently into the distance. Near the bench a ruminating goat sat on the floor. The other, younger and bearded, sat on the bench outside the padlocked Station Master's office. Behind him a sign announced that permission was needed before entering the Master's office. Next to it another warned (in red, perhaps for added emphasis), "Prohibited Area. Photographing is Prohibited."
Professedly unpatriotic and convinced that India (and perhaps Israel as well) would pay a fortune for a photograph of the padlocked door of the Master's office in the all but disused railway station of Sadiqganj, I committed the illegal act. No sirens were sounded and undercover agents did not materialise from nowhere to take me in. Meanwhile, seeing the crowd of our expedition dawdling about, an elderly railwayman, now retired since three years, came around to investigate. He had known the glory days of Mandi Sadiqganj railway station.
"There were eight trains up and down daily through here until only a few years ago and you should have seen the bustle and splendour of our station," he said proudly. "And this was after Partition. Earlier, it was a right glorious station when there were more trains."
Among those of pre-partition days, he told us, were the passenger trains that commuted between Ferozepur and Bahawalnagar and the ones that returned from Mandi Sadiqganj to Ferozepur after waiting overnight on the outer platform. He pointed out the place where those trains were watered and cleaned overnight for the return. But the greatest of them all was the daily up and down "Bumba" (Bombay perhaps?) Mail that swept into the station like a storm. It made a short stop, then, with wheels flying sparks, whistle screaming and the booming woof of its boilers reverberating in the quiet of the night, rousing the sleeping Sadiqganj-wallahs, it would go charging out of the station again. Vendors would run alongside, their outstretched hands some time meeting, mostly missing, the outstretched hands of the passengers leaning out of the windows. Then all would be quiet again. Though I could not figure out where the Bombay Mail originated or terminated or which line it ran on to have passed through Sadiqganj, I yet liked the story for its romance.
Somebody was sent off to fetch the key to the Station Master's office and our man showed us in. The office had the usual complement of registers that hang (yes, hang) from the walls. My favourite among this breed of hanging registers is entitled, "List of Officials in Case of Accident Telegrams." On the table sat a fat-bellied brass paraffin lamp with a broken glass chimney. The man (whose name I never asked) followed my longing gaze to this antique piece.
"In my time there was electricity and water. Now there is nothing and the Station Master uses this lamp," he said and added with a chuckle, "But that is only if he has to work after dark - which is rare."
He led us outside to the small pitched-roof cubicle that once held large water pots with the sign in Urdu proclaiming "Drinking Water." At some point in time the pots were replaced by an electric water cooler. But now even that was gone and the cubicle was empty. The few travellers alighting at Mandi Sadiqganj would have to wait to get home to quench their thirst.
"Its all over for Mandi Sadiqganj. When the steam locomotives were phased out the need for water was reduced drastically. But now with just one train up and one down - and that's diesel, they don't even care for drinking water," said our man full of complaints. "In any case, the train is so slow hardly anyone uses it anymore. They take the faster buses now and the station is all but disused."
On our request the Waiting Room (Gents) was opened. The unswept tile mosaic floor told the tale of a better past. The regulation notices and furniture was all there: the cane settee, the round table and the straight-backed chairs around it and the two chairs that are listed in the inventory as "Chair, Long Arm." Great for sleeping in in half-reclining comfort, this chair was nicknamed "Bombay Fornicator" by some long-forgotten British wit who was apparently also a masochist. Heaven knows how one can justify this title without breaking or at least seriously injuring one's back.
I asked our man if Amruka, now the terminus of this line from Bahawalpur, was any more interesting. The man's emphatic and unequivocal "No" dissuaded me from asking Kashif to drive me the remaining twenty odd kilometres to the end of the line.
There is no record to show when the last regular service clanked through Mandi Sadiqganj en route to Hindu Malkot (now the terminus on the Indian side) and on to Bhatinda. But from mid-August 1947 for a couple of months it was only refugee trains with their sometimes ghastly manifests of human corpses that called here. Time flew, relations between Pakistan and India worsened and the dream of free travel between the two nations receded. At some point in time, the line between Amruka and Hindu Malkot was also uprooted, perhaps as a precaution against an advancing Indian army. That put an end to the international character of this line.
Shortly after this journey to Mandi Sadiqganj, I read in the papers about the two Koreas, once bitter enemies, making up after fifty years of mindless bellicosity. As surely as night follows day, it will happen likewise one day in our part of the world too. When it does, I wonder if railway engineers would be interested in revitalising the line between obscure Hindu Malkot and Mandi Sadiqganj. But if they do, they will make it possible for railway enthusiasts to embark at Calcutta for Victoria Station in London. What a magnificent dream this is. And what a remarkable journey it will make.