Peshawar and Lahore as mentioned in The Great Railway Bazaar

The Great Railway Bazaar, written by Paul Theroux is a travelogue and a personal journey of the writer, thought trains—although he does take airplanes and ships where trains are not available—through Asia. The journey takes him to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and beyond. The book was first published in 1975 and so this is the Asia of the 70s and Pakistan and Bangladesh have just separated and the revolution in Iran is around the corner.

There are two chapters where Theroux passes through Pakistan. Theroux travels from Kabul to Peshawar, via the Khyber Mail, the train is one of the most luxurious rides of his journey and he laments not being able to stay on the famous locomotive longer. But he soon finds, he likes the town of Peshawar just as much.220px-TheGreatRailwayBazaar

“Peshawar is a pretty town,” he notes. “I would gladly move there, settle down on a verandah, and grow old watching sunsets in the Khyber pass. Peshawar’s widely spaced mansions, all excellent examples of Anglo-Muslim Gothic, are spread along broad sleepy roads under cool trees: just the place to recover from the hideous experience of Kabul. You hail a tonga at the station and ride to the hotel, where on the verandah the chairs have swing-out extensions for you to prop up your legs and get the blood circulating. A nimble waiter brings a large bottle of Murree Export Lager. The hotel is empty; the other guests have risked a punishing journey to Swat in hopes of being received by His Highness the Wali. You sleep soundly under a tent of mosquito net and are awakened by the fluting of birds for an English breakfast that begins with porridge and ends with a kidney. Afterwards a tonga to the museum.”

The birthplace of Buddha, is how The Great Railway Bazaar, describes Peshawar. Here is an excerpt from Theroux’s visit to the Peshawar museum.

“How was Buddha conceived, you may wonder. There is  a Graeco-Buddhist frieze in the Peshawar Museum showing Buddha’s mother lying on her side and being impregnated through her ribs by what looks like the nozzle of a hot-air balloon suspended over her. In another panel the infant Buddha is leaping from a slit in her side—a birth with all the energy of a broad jump. Farther on in a nativity scene, Buddha lying at the center of attending figures, who kneel at prayer: the usual Christmas card arrangement done delicately in stone with classical faces. The most striking piece is a three-foot stone sculpture of an old man in a lotus posture. The man is fasting; his eyes are sunken, his rib cage is prominent, his knees are knobbly, his belly hollow. He looks near death, but his expression is beatific. It is the most accurate representation in granite of an emaciated body that I’ve ever seen, and again and again, throughout India and Pakistan, I was to see that same body, in doorways and outside huts and lending a special quality of saintliness to the bony face.”

From Peshawar, the author, buys a ticket worth 108 rupees and hops on the Khyber Mail to Lahore Junction.

“It had not taken long to find my compartment. Only three were occupied—the other two by army officers—and my name was on the door, printed large on a label. Now I could tell on entering a train what sort of a journey it would be. The feeling I had on the Khyber Mail was slight disappointment that the trip would be so short—only twelve hours to Lahore. I wished it were longer: I had everything I needed. The toilet and sink in an adjoining room; I had a drop-leaf table, well-upholstered seat, mirror, ashtray, chrome gin-bottle holder, the works. I could stroll the dining car or idle in the passage with army officers. Nothing is expected of the train passenger. In planes the traveler is condemned to hours in a tight seat; ships require high spirits and sociability; cars and buses are unspeakable. The sleeping car is the most painless form of travel. In Ordered South, Robert Louis Stevenson writes,

“Herein, I think is the chief attraction of railway travel. The speed is so easy, and the train disturbs so little the scenes through which it takes us, that our heart becomes full of the placidity and stillness of the country; and while the body is being borne forward in the flying chain of carriages, the thoughts alight, as the humor moves them, at unfrequented stations…””

“he brought an omelette, tea, and toast, and for the next half-hour I sprawled, reading Chekhov’s wonderful story “Ariadne” and finishing my tea. Then I snapped up the shade and flooded the compartment with light. In brilliant sunshine we were passing rice fields and stagnant pools full of white lotuses and standing herons. Farther on, at a small tree, we startled a pair of pistachio green parrots; they flew up, getting greener as they rose. Looking out a train window in Asia is like watching an unedited travelogue without the obnoxious soundtrack: I had to guess at the purpose of activities—people patting pie-shaped turds and slapping them onto the side of a mud hut to dry; men with bullocks and submerged plows, preparing a rice field for planting; and at Badami Bagh, just outside Lahore, a town of grass huts, cardboard shelters, pup tents, and hovels of paper, twigs and cloth, everyone was in motion—storing fruit, folding clothes, fanning the fire, shooing a dog away, mending a roof. It is the industry of the poor in the morning, so busy they look hopeful, but it is deceptive. The position of their settlement gives them away; this is the extreme of poverty, the shantytown by the railway tracks.”

There is a stereotype of Lahore, as created by Kipling and Theroux seems unable to shake of the image enough to embrace the city and what it offers. I personally suspect, the unavailability of suitable libation may have something to with the ornery sounding review. Here it is:

“The order in Lahore is the architecture, the moghul and colonial splendor. All around it are crowds of people and vehicles, and their dereliction makes the grandeur emphatic, as the cooking fat and cow-dung makes the smells of perfume and joss-sticks keener. To get to the Shalimar Gardens I had to pass through miles of congested streets of jostling people with the starved look of predators. I shouldered my way through the veneral township of Begampura; but inside the gardens it is peaceful, and though it has been stripped of its marble, and the reflecting pools are dark brown, the gardens have the order and shade—a sense of delicious refuge—that could not be very different from that imagined by Shah Jahan, when he laid them out in 1637. The pleasures of Lahore are old, and though one sees attempts everywhere, the Pakistanis have not yet succeeded in turning this beautiful city into a ruin.”

Here’s the mention of Kipling:

“at lahore junction I stepped out (Rashid was at my side apologizing for the train’s being late) into a city that was familiar: it matched a stereotype in my memory. My image of  the indian city derives from Kipling, and it was in Lahore that Kipling came of age as a writer. Exaggerating the mobs, the vicious bazaar, the color and confusion, the Kipling of the early stories and Kim is really describing Lahore today, that side of it beyond the Mall where processions of rickshaws, pony carts, hawkers, and veiled women fill the narrow lanes and sweep you in their direction. The Anarkali Bazaar and the walled city, with its fort and mosques, have retained the distracted exoticism Kipling mentions, though now, with a hundred years of repetition, it is touched with horror.”

Theroux soon embarks on a search for a drink and finds women instead:

 ”Bad girls here,” said the tonga driver when he dropped me in a seedy district of the old city; but I saw none, and nothing resembling a Lahore house. The absence of women in Pakistan, all those cruising males, had an odd effect on me. I found myself staring, with other similarly idle men, at garish pictures of film stars, and I began to think that the strictures of Islam would quickly make me a fancier of the margins of anatomy, thrilling at especially trim ankles, seeking a wink behind a veil, or watching for a response in the shoulders of one of those shrouded forms. Islam’s denials seemed capable of turning the most normal soul into a foot fetishist, and as if to combat this the movie posters lampooned the erotic: fat girls in boots struggling helplessly with hairy, leering men; tormented women clutching their breasts, Anglo-Indians (regarded as “fast”) swinging their bums and crooning into microphones. The men in Lahore stroll with their eyes upturned to these cartoon fantasies.”

Here’s an excerpt from later in the night when he sets out alone:

“I set off in search of a drink as soon as I got back to the hotel. It was still early, about ten o’clock, but I had not gone fifty yards when a thin man in striped pajamas stepped from behind a tree. His eyes were prominent and lighted in the dusky triangle of his face.

“what are you looking for?”

“A drink.”

“I get you a nice girl. Two hundred rupees. Good fucking.”

He said this with no more emotion than a man hawking razor blades.

“No thanks.”

“Very young. You come with me. Good fucking.”

“And good fucking to you,” I said. “I’m looking for a drink.”

He tagged along behind me, mumbling his refrain, and then at an intersection, by a park, he said, “Come with me—in here.”

“In there?”

“Yes, she is waiting.”

“In those trees?” It was black, unlighted and humming with crickets.

“It is a park.”

“You mean I’m supposed to do it there, under a tree?”

“It is a good park, sahib!”

A little farther on I was accosted again, this time by a young man who was smoking nervously. He caught my eye. “Any thing you want?”


“A girl?”



“No, go away.”

He hesitated, but kept after me. At last he said softly, “Take me.”

A twenty-minute walk did not take me any closer to a bar. I turned, and, giving the pimps a wide berth, went back to the hotel. Under a tree in front three old men were hunched around a pressure lamp, playing cards. One saw me pass and called out, “Wait, sahib!” He turned his cards face down and trotted over to me.

“No,” I said before he opened his mouth.

“She’s very nice,” he said.

I kept walking.

“All right, only two hundred and fifty rupees.”

“I know where I can get one for two hundred.”

“But this is in your own room! I will bring her. She will stay until morning.”

“Too much money. Sorry.”

“Sahib! There are expenses! Ten rupees for your sweeper, ten also for your chowkidar, ten for your bearer, baksheesh here and there. If not, they will make trouble. Take her! She will be very nice. My girls are experienced in every way.”

“Thin or fat?”

“As you like. I have one, neither thin nor fat, but like this,” He sketched a torso in the air with his fingers, suggesting plumpness.” About twenty-two or twenty-three. Speaks very good English. You will like her so much. Sahib, she is a trained nurse!”