Railway station Ruk relegated to oblivion

by Salman Rashid, 2013

Mr Rashid is a travel writer and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. Website

Ruk station
Ruk station

Except for those who serve on the Sukker Division of Pakistan Railways, there will be few to whom the name Ruk would mean anything at all. And when friend Raheal Siddiqui asked me recently if I knew why this railway station had once been important, all I could remember was that it had featured prominently in the laying of the Kandahar State Railway (KSR) - the line that was to connect Quetta with the rest of the country. And that is a great story, for it is connected with the Great Game - the 19th century struggle between the imperial powers of England and Russian for control over Central Asia. So, allow me to quote myself from an article published in this same newspaper almost five years ago.

When railways came of age around the middle of the [19th] century both nations saw in it the means to easily and quickly cross the great desert expanses of Asia. And so it was that while the Russians struggled to span the blistering Kyzylkum Desert, east of the Caspian, England was inching its way forward across the desert and mountains lying between Sibi and the garrison town of Quetta. Fear of the Cossacks riding in through the vast openness of Balochistan, the subcontinent's back door, rode high and the "Kandahar State Railway", as it was called, was top priority.

First proposed in 1857, this railway hoped to reach Kandahar in Afghanistan and make its way across the southern part of that country to Herat and then to Merv in Central Asia. It was eventually to reach Bokhara which was to be swamped with English and Indian goods to counter the influence of Russian traders. Needless to say that the railway was also to help the army of British India maintain some sort of presence in Central Asia.

Work on the Kandahar State Railway, however was deferred for one reason or the other until the Second Afghan War broke out in 1878. Even then it took the government another two years to get their act together and when work actually began the following year it was in a state of frenzied desperation with a force of three thousand five hundred men. On the sixth day of October 1879, the first rails were laid in a northwesterly direction at the station of Ruk on the Larkana-Sukker section of "The Indus Valley State Railway;" and on January 14, 1880 a jubilant crowd celebrated the completion of the line to Sibi. In an extraordinary effort of engineering, two hundred and seventeen kilometres of line had been laid in a mere one hundred and one days!

When the British began the process of annexing Sindh and Punjab, they sent out men to investigate the navigability of the Indus River. Of these the most famous is the doughty Scotsman, Alexander Burnes, a.k.a. Bokhara Burnes after his swashbuckling days in Central Asia. On a large boat loaded with five imported horses and a fancy coach together with an armed escort that included a surveyor Burnes set out in late January 1831. Overtly the man was conveying a gift of horses for the all powerful Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. Covertly, however, his surveyor was mapping the Indus. Naively the British government believed that this bizarre entourage sailing up the Indus would fool the Sindhis. They were entirely wrong. The independent Talpur amirs objected on grounds of suspicion. But threats of angering the powerful Sikh ruler mingled with fancy gifts proved to be sufficient inducement, and the flotilla made its way safely into Lahore.

Subsequent to the annexation of Sindh (1843) the Indus Steam Flotilla was established. It served as the main medium of transportation between the port of Karachi and the north until 1878 when it was replaced by the faster Indus Valley State Railway (IVSR). This line ran north from Kotri (the connection between Karachi and Kotri was called "Scinde Railway") along the right bank of the Indus through to the station of Ruk, fifty-five kilometres northeast of Larkana. Now this was before the Indus had been bridged between . Consequently Ruk was to take not only the traffic coming up from Karachi, but also that arriving from the north and transferring at Rohri across the Indus by ferry. At Ruk the Kandahar State Railway was to take off, make its way to Kandahar via Quetta and Chaman. From there it was to skirt the high mountain ranges of central Afghanistan in a giant arc first west and then north to connect with Kushka, the terminus at the bottom of the Bokhara-Merv section.

In those days men and women of the Raj who had made the dreadful sea journey from Southampton to Karachi or Bombay would have been positively thrilled at the idea of getting on a train at, say, Lahore, Karachi or Delhi and three weeks later disembarking at Victoria Station in London. This journey through the cooler northern latitudes would have had a definite edge over the pestilential heat and humidity of a voyage in southern seas. Strategists, on the other hand, would have dwelt ad nauseum on the need for a rail link between the marts of Central Asia and the ports of Karachi or Bombay. The catch phrase then would have been "access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean." Indeed, even today, half-baked strategists carry on drivelling about the importance of a rail link between Pakistan and the Central Asiatic network.

Unfortunately for this ignorant lot, the Iranians seeing us Pakistanis engaged only in pleonastic inactivity went on ahead as little as two years ago and extended their line from Meshed to Serakhs in Turkmenistan. And so if the Central Asian states need access to the hackneyed "warm waters," it is provided by Iranian ports in the Gulf. The railway through anachronistic, barbaric Afghanistan has been killed in the dark womb of bureaucratic planning and by a war that is remarkable only for the greed and savagery of the protagonists. With it has died the romantic connection between Pakistan's ports and Central Asiatic cities.

But in the heady days of the 1870s the prospect of this railway would have animated the conversation at many a Victorian dinner table. And so in October 1879 when work began on the connection running northwest from Ruk to Quetta, many railway enthusiasts would have seen the beginning of the dream coming true. At that time, however, there was no railway station building. That was to come in 1898; a full century before my visit.

But the line deceived its own name - Kandahar State Railway, for it never reached that city. Having started five hundred and sixteen kilometres away at Ruk, the line terminates at Chaman, a forgotten and forlorn frontier town plonked in the middle of a vast, dusty landscape. There the station is but a short walk from the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan; and Kandahar is yet sixty kilometres away. The first damper on the effort to take the line any farther came in 1878 when the Second Afghan War broke out. In desperation KSR inched its way northwest from Ruk, and in those thrilling times Ruk saw the only excitement in its life. Here was established one great dump of material and equipment: sleepers of timber and cast iron, steel rails, cranes, tents and food. And men of nationalities as diverse as could be imagined came to work on this line: Punjabi, Baloch, Sindhi, Pathan, Tamil, Bengali, Kashmiri, Welsh, Irish, English, Scottish. By the time the war had come to an end three years later, focus shifted. And the railway line whose ambition had been to reach across the Eurasian land mass to England did not go any farther than Chaman.

I had arrived early in the morning hoping to see a freshly shaven Station Master in an immaculate uniform with shiny badges. But Akbar Ali, youngish and unshaven, was dressed in an untidy shalwar kameez. I told him my favourite Station Master was Idrees Chaudhri of Harnai station for he was always immaculate, whether in uniform or in mufti.

"There are only four trains per day up and down through Ruk," said Ali, "therefore I only dress up for special occasions, like visits by officers." I reminded him that Harnai, on the lonely Sibi-Khost section, sees even less traffic yet in all the years of dropping in unexpectedly on Idrees, I have never found him to be slovenly. Ali only smiled. That, perhaps, was the difference between the old and the new school.

But he allowed me inside his office where the large desk was bare but for a telephone and the walls were decorated with registers bearing esoteric and bizarre titles: "Booking of Dangrous (sic) Goods," "List of Fog Signals," and even "Officials to be advised in case of Accident." On the fa´┐Żade facing the platform, besides the mandatory station name, were two rectangular white tiles bearing in blue letters the legends "KSR" and "IVSR." Ruk thus is the only station anywhere in Pakistan that flaunts original titles. Seeing my interest Ali said there used to another plate that had been removed by unknown vandals many years ago. Indeed, the oval seat of the lost plaque can still be seen in the foyer.

In the foyer, too, was a darkened room, filthy inside, with a sign that said (in Urdu) it was the second class waiting room for women. Ali said the real waiting rooms were in the verandah facing the platform. But there were no signs on the doors saying, "First Class Waiting Room for Gents" (the other would have been "For Ladies"). The spacious rooms with the handsome, coloured floor tiles now serve as quarters for the Station Master and his assistant.

On Platform 2 a tin sign - the only billboard in the entire station, hanging askew, swung on the breeze. It commemorated the murder of Bhagat Shromani Kanwar Ram, a singer of Sindhi Sufi poetry. In 1939 inter-communal riots broke out in various parts of India after the son of the Pir of Bharchundi was injured by Hindu extremists. The Muslims retaliated and it was fate that brought the singer to Ruk where he was to change trains for Sukker on the first day of November that year. A Jalbani Baloch disciple of the Pir, who had travelled with him shot and mortally wounded Kanwar Ram. More riots followed and many more people died on both sides of the religious divide. But Bhagat Kanwar Ram was no longer there to sing the philosophy of Sufism that transcends beyond religion.

As for the Jalbani, I was later told that lack of evidence saved him from punishment. In 1983, infirm with age, his mind still surprisingly alert, the Jalbani lived out his last days in the village of Rutto Dero, not far from Larkana. There, I am told, he freely confessed to the killing of the singer. But then he was past being punished.

Ruk missed glory by a hair's breadth and by the quirks of chance that shape history. Another set of historical combinations and travellers would have changed here for trains to Bokhara and Tashkent, or Istanbul and Budapest, or even Zurich and London. But today travellers on the Shahbaz and Khushal Khan expresses peer out only to check where their train has stopped. Perhaps they even make puns about the name: "Ruk" is to stop in the vernacular. And the Bolan Mail, whether up or down, steams through in the dark of the night without stopping, its passengers asleep. Few people notice the sign on the facade that says that Ruk is a full one hundred years old; even fewer are aware of the importance that Ruk was within an ace of having. One cannot but wonder if some railway officer, remarkable for his interest and enthusiasm, will see it fit to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of this station that barely missed it to greatness.

Meanwhile, Ruk, that could have known fame and richness, remains surrounded by forest and farmland. And oblivion.