For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.
Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing on the doors as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.


While the train whistles away from the jungle of Chaklala … before the place gained fame as an elite residential area, Chaklala was a dense forest and the woodcutters made their living by cutting and selling the logs. These woods, in turn, fed the Murree Brewery of Bhandaras, Palace of Surjan Singh, Fire places of Officers Club, temples at Boharr Bazar and lastly the Shamshan Ghats by the Nullah Layee.

The train, then swiftly passes by Mankiala, a historical town that refuses to be bypassed in such a cursory manner. The fading board, guarding the railway crossing, is too feeble in its warning to the violators. This century old railway station, like the Land of pure, awaits the change. On a side wall, the timetable is chalked out with separate columns for up and down trains. Nothing has been inscribed in the empty columns since long. The wire-gauzed wooden doors, meet each other diagonally. The ticket counter remains, however, the waiting room has withered away brick by brick. These bricks now provide shelters to the homeless at Mankiala. There was a time when the station buzzed with activity. Students, land owners, tenants, farmers and government servants would take the train to Rawalpindi. Now that trains only exist in textbooks and parks, the crowd has also vanished.

Mankiala is registered as a historical place because of its Stupa. In local slang, the word has degenerated to the pronunciation of Tope, so Mankiala is referred to as Mankiala Tope. The stupa has traded its muddy appearance with green. According to the local mythology, Raja Risaloo, a folk hero was passing by Mankiala when the reigns of his horse were pulled by a wailing woman. The woman narrated the plight of Mankiala. A man-eater feasted on the young of Mankiala and her son was next. Raja Risaloo fought the monster and locked him inside the dome. Another legend narrates how Buddha fed young hungry tiger cubs with his own flesh and later on the Stupa was built to commemorate the sacrifice.

Originally, this is a Kanishka Age Stupa which dates back to the 2nd century. The classical Buddhist symbol of the Lotus is engraved on the foundation pillars. To reach atop, visitors take the flight of stairs and trek a bit. On the top, it looks like a well with staircase descending to the base. These stairs are wider at the top but gradually lose their width on descent. In the first instance, the view from the top is like a big black hole. Another folk lore describes the tunnel which connects the base of Stupa to the royal palace located few kilometers away.

The Governor of Bombay, Lord Mountstuart Elphinstone, (The famous Elphinston street (Islamicised as Zaibunnisa Street) was named after him since Sindh was part of Bombay), was mesmerised by the beauty of this Stupa as he stopped on his way to Kabul. He wrote a comprehensive note about the Stupa. Subsequently, General Ventura, the baron of Fauj-e-Khaas, (Special Cavalry) of Ranjit Singh ordered excavation. In 1830, he found a golden ring with the inscription of Zun God and the coins dating back from 153 AD to 685 AD, the gold ornaments and crockery. These coins were from different kingdoms of India and her trading partners. The palace of General Ventura (the civil secretariat of Lahore), still holds the man-eater and mint coins albeit in a changed form. In 1891, a British regiment restored the Stupa and constructed the staircase. It is now prohibited to climb the Stupa due to the repeated complains of local populace about the invasion of privacy – an example of our mindset to blame others rather than correcting ourselves.

On the other side, the village of Sagreela beams with a story of Asma. The brave heart who, for 12 years, followed the rigorous routine of crossing the river on a boat, entering Kashmir, climbing back to Pakistan and attending her school. Her determination was the sole reason when she decided that being the first high-schooled woman, she could change the world around her. She now undertakes this daily adventure again and teaches the girls in the same school. A few miles away from the capital, the Pakistani future awaits Pakistan.

The historical village of Mohra Bhattan is located at a distance of two kilometers from the railway station. The village was famous for the old school, which existed before partition and was a major educational institute in the area. A historical old temple also added to the antiquity of Mankiala. The area was lush green and rich in produce owing to the six ponds in the surroundings. The centuries old banyan trees on the sides of the ponds provided shelter regardless of religion, caste and creed. The recent boom in property has transformed the ponds into multi-storey buildings, rent-a-motorcycle shops and private schools. About the trees, the ruins remain for the non-archived moments of non-descriptive emotions. Probably, their roots were too stubborn to give in. The new mosque raises its head besides the old temple. The money for the mosque was flown in by rich expatriates. The lavish interior of the mosque indicates that there is no dearth of money.

A few years back, an Indian origin doctor from England came to Mankiala. He first went to the railway station and then walked to Mohra Bhattan. He tried to discover what little was left of the ponds. With wilderness in his eyes, he roamed around the alleys and corners of the village. He visited the school, went to see the temple and then left. Later, it was known that his grandfather Balak Singh was the head master of the Mohra Bhattan School and he had spent his childhood there. The association that could not stop Balak Singh from leaving Mohra, did however bring back the doctor.

Unfathomable Sea! Whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality!
(Percy Bysshe Shelley)