A Daily Train of Fresh Fruit from Afghanistan

By B M S Bisht, Retd GM, NFR, 9 October 2009

This article was previously published on the website of the Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS) and has also appeared as a post on the IRFCA mailing list in 2009.

I fondly remember as a youngster -- in the late 1940s and as late as the early 1950s -- the repeated shouts of burly, awesome Pathan vendors in our mohalla (neighbourhood)in Lucknow: "Fresh luscious grapes from Chaman! Red juicy pomegranates from Kandahar! Buy them now, eat them now, lest you repent!" These Afghani fruit vendors would come to each mohalla daily almost punctually at a time "allotted" by them. And lo! the kids and the grown-ups would scamper out of their homes, the first out of curiosity and the latter to strike a hard bargain with the vendors who were notorious about their prices. But whatever the virtues of the vendors, their assertion about the quality of their products was never in doubt. So with this childhood experience when I read the following lines in P S A Berridge's old classic, "Couplings to the Khyber: The Story of The North Western Railway" I became really nostalgic about the fruits which are certainly no more:

"Built primarily as a strategic line the Chaman Extension Railway served for many years hundreds of tons of luscious fruits -- grapes, peaches, and nectarines in particular from Afghanistan found their way to the markets of far-away cities in India. Before 1947, in the summer months, there used to run every day a train with its ice-packaged refrigerator vans destined for places as far away as Calcutta and Madras..."

The famed fruits continued to filter into India even after 1947 by road from Pakistan, but unfortunately as the relations between the two countries worsened even that dribble dried up and we lost the burly Pathans and their products by the early 1950s.

Reverting to my nostalgia: Berridge's brief remarks led me to do some research about the fruit traffic from Afghanistan and their train journeys to various stations in the Indian hinterland in days of yore, that is, before the Partition. That I took to be an unusual, novel subject for the railfans and more so when it related to a country rated by Robert Young Pelton, the adventure travel writer, as one of the "world's most dangerous places" in his eponymous book.

Let me now construct this interesting rail transportation story which has a human angle too.

Actually the grapes and all the tempting fruits came not from Chaman (4304') but from Kandahar (5500') and areas near it (60 miles or so around that city) in Afghanistan. Chaman was in India then as the remotest station in the North Western Province bordering Afghanistan. It was the terminal of the strategic line viz. Chaman Extension Railway. It sounds incredible today that adopting a crude cooling technique the perishable fresh fruits always reached the customers in perfect condition at destinations so far away covering a very long distance by road and rail that too through intense summer heat and humidity of various regions of India. The destinations were in Sind, the Punjab, United Provinces (U.P.), Delhi, Bengal, and Madras to name only a few important ones. The distance covered by rail was itself mind-boggling being around 1000 miles (1600km) from Chaman to Delhi excluding 67 miles by road from Kandahar in Afghanistan! It was only in 1929 that for the first time motor transport consisting of Chevrolet lorries was used supplementing the conveyance of fresh fruits from growers in Kandahar to the originating station Chaman for onward dispatch by rail to consuming stations. Each lorry carried 40 kawaras covering the distance in just 4 hours as against 3 days by animal transportation. A kawara was a conical shaped basket about 10 inches wide at the base, opening out to an 18-inch mouth at the top and was about 16 inches deep. These were indigenously made by the Afghani women at home as a cottage industry from pilchi wood taken from branches of cotton bushes. The kawaras were filled with fruits which were packed in layers between wild grass and lavender. Each such basket weighed 33 seers (60 pounds) with 22 seers of fruit. To keep the heat away ice was used in generous quantities to keep the kawaras ice-cold till they arrived Chaman whether carried by animals or by motor lorries. This basic, unsophisticated method kept the contents fresh and unspoilt despite the intense heat in the loading season.

The export of fruits used to begin from Afghanistan to India in May every year. Apricots in kawaras used to be cleared from Chaman by the daily mixed train to Quetta, 176 miles away, and onward from there by corresponding connecting trains to stations in the Punjab, U.P., and Sind. With the advancing fruit season when grapes, peaches, apples and pomegranates were in full bloom a daily fruit train was run comprising refrigerator vans and luggage vans from Chaman to clear the fresh fruit traffic. The traffic reached its peak of 3000 kawaras daily in August. It continued until October after which the dried fruit traffic commenced.

Let us see how a typical loading day started in Chaman. Till 9am Chaman would be a calm and peaceful station except a few coolies who were seen busy filling the bunkers of the refrigerator vans with ice to cool them sufficiently well in advance for the evening's loading.

As the day progressed caravans of hundreds of heavily laden donkeys and mules travelling from Kandahar via the neighbourly north-western town of Spin Baldek (7 miles away) in Afghanistan, each carrying 2 to 4 kawaras could be seen arriving on the horizon, travelling in batches of 10 to 30. The intermittent clouds of dust raised by them would sometimes give only their hazy silhouettes. The arriving animals had decorative multicoloured trappings and innumerable bells of varied shapes and sizes around their necks literally giving them a colourful appearance, and the jingle lending a somewhat romantic touch to the otherwise monotonous environment. Reaching the destined allotted shelter (locally called gunj) for them near Chaman railway station these beasts of burden would instinctively go to their nominated places for unloading. Once unburdened again instinctively the animals would leave making a bee-line across the station yard to the caravan-serai in the city. Their rightful temptation was prompted by anticipation of a well-deserved rest and big mouthfuls of welcome fodder. Along with this animal transportation several motor lorries would also arrive bringing fruit consignments in kawaras.

So Chaman which was quiet until a few hours earlier would suddenly become a scene of great hustle and bustle with fruit merchants, shouting muleteers, neighing mules, braying donkeys and the noise of aimless bazaar spectators and others. By 1pm the din would die down with the departure of the last of the donkeys, mules, their masters and the local shoppers. But the peace was to be short-lived as from 3pm the pandemonium would re-surface with the start of the auctions of consignments. Customarily before auction at least a couple of kawaras of each kafla or caravan were opened to test-check the quality of contents. There were hardly ever any rejections! Then with "Ek! Do! Teen!" ("One! Two! Three!") the auctioneers would hammer the deals successively, duly selling all the consignments.

To keep themselves out of boredom and the heat the auctioneers and bidders would also chitchat in between and enjoy the multi-coloured aerated cold drinks sold locally. By 6pm more ice would be brought in by the loaders from the two local ice factories in Chaman city to replenish the morning ice-fillings in the refrigerator vans as most of that would melt by that time.

Now labelling and dispatching of the Vans remained to be done. The labelling time was between 6:30pm and 7pm. After that the kawaras would be brought from the nominated shelter, (gunj) to the loading platform at the station where they were weighed and assorted out for various destinations and loaded in the vans. The loading would continue until midnight! The vans would then be closed, shunted and marshalled for each destination station, to form the special Fruit Train.

It would contain consignments for many distant markets in India, namely Lahore, Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Cawnpore (Kanpur), Calcutta, Bombay, etc. The Fruit Train -- the flagship of North Western Railway -- would leave Chaman punctually at 12:50am daily, for Rohri or farthest to Samarsata, depending on the quantum of traffic. These were two important junctions. From either terminal for the Fruit Train, further clearance of the refrigerated vans was done by connecting mixed or passenger trains. Delhi, where the bulk of this traffic went via Bhatinda as piecemeal parcel traffic in individual vans, was still a long way off, being 400 miles (480km) away from Samarsata, which was the usual last terminal for this special Fruit Train.

The route of the Train from Chaman was via Gulistan and Bostan through the famous Bolan Pass to Quetta and from there via Sibi, Jacobabad, Sukkur to Rohri and finally ending most of the times at Samarsata. The entire route was steam-hauled and was on broad-gauge single line except with a few patches of double line as between Gulistan and Shelabagh at the mouth of the marvellous Khojak Tunnel, short of Chaman and the main line from Rohri to Samarsata. The entire railway system was part of the main route of the historical North Western Railway, which in 1947 after the Partition, was bifurcated into Pakistan Western Railway (now Pakistan Railway) and Northern Railway of India.

The Partition ended the very nostalgic story of a glorious parcel train (starting through the railways now in Pakistan) of exceptional quality fresh fruits from the remote country, Afghanistan, which has most unfortunately gained a topical notoriety recently, but with which, fortunately, India has even now good relations.