Last month I got a chance to spend a weekend with some friends who had a bungalow in the hills not far from Islamabad. The little mountain train went down to the plains early in the morning so on Monday morning. I went to the tiny station where I could join it on its journey down.
At the early hour the world was remarkably quiet and cool. The sun just risen and was casting long shadows to the westward. So that a great patch of ground at the foot of the hills and all their western slopes were still in shade. Further off one could see the glint of water as a tank or canal caught the reflection of the mounting sun and right on the sky line. I could sometimes think I saw the sea.
Peace was there on every side. There was hardly any movement taking place in the country side around me. A road which wound its way down the hill side showed its white dusty surface between the bushes and burnt grass and now again I could see a small group of travelers who were walking down. Two women in blue suits made a moving splash of color. Reappearing every so often as the road came into view. Some goats browsed among the rocks behind the station. But everything else seemed asleep. There was complete peace.
In the meantime the signal moved heralding the approach of the train and away to the north a plume of smoke from the engine appeared above the trees. Immediately the morning peace was rudely broken. People and animal appeared as if by magic from the deserted landscape. The station master emerged from his house. Buttoning his coat a couple of coolies who had been sleeping in the goods shed began to run up the platform with a truck full of luggage. Shouting warning cries to ensure that nobody would get in their way.
As it approached at its usual leisurely pace I could see that it was accompanied on both sides of the line by hoarders of children both boys and girls. Most of the boys wore only lion clothes or dirty torn shorts. The girls were in dresses of varying degrees of dirt and dilapidation. Many of them carried smaller children on their backs. All with one accord keep up a continual high pitched shriek of sahib give me some money sahib some had bunches of flowers clasped in their grubby hands, which they tried to trust upon the unwilling passengers.
There was steep hill just above the station. So the line made a great curve in order to take the gradient more gradually. This provided an opportunity for those of the children who had lost their breath. And failed to keep up with the racing screaming crowd. They waited till they could breath again and then scrambled down the almost perpendicular hill side to meet the train again as it came round the bend beneath them.
After a while the train pulled into the station. The air was filled with the hissing of steam. The banging of doors. The clatter of luggage being loaded and the shrieking of the attendant children. I mounted into a fairly empty compartment the train moved on quickly our stripping its attendant beggars and except for the rhythmic bump of the wheels all was again quiet.