Buying a ticket for the Khyber Mail

I was the only woman  at the Karachi City Railway Station. There to get a ticket for a train ride from Karachi to Lahore on the Khyber Mail. There were no lines at the reservation windows, just swarms of men. I got behind one throng, as close as I dared, and waited my turn.
Behind me on the wall, a dusty portrait of Jinnah looked lonely hanging in the center of the yellowing walls of the reservation area. A few fixed rows of steel waiting chairs looked new, otherwise the place looked empty and dusty.

Across from the special car reservation room is the economy class reservation hall, which is much bigger. But the lines were only marginally longer there. Outside the hall on the platform I could see a few people waiting for their train. The tracks, dusty with a few barren empty train cars looked stunningly decrepit—a stark contrast to the chaotic petrol fumed madness of I.I. Chundrigar road, the financial center and one of the busiest roads in Karachi City. I stood there staring at the horizon where the dusty tracks disappeared and then walked back to the special reservation area.
I was directed to a female staff member when I first walked in. She asked me where I was going. I told her. She said take the Mehran Express — its much cheaper. I explained I have to take the Khyber Mail. She pointed to the window with the crowd and refused to answer any more questions. I walked over to the window. A man with rectangular glasses perched low on his nose, wearing a pristine white uniform, asked me where I was going. I told him to Lahore on the Khyber Mail.

“A.C. or non A.C.?” he asked referring to air conditioned or non air conditioned class. I asked about the different types. The crowd of men stuck like flies to the counter shifted and he grew impatient and asked the bearded man in the embroidered topi to help me out.
“Where to?” he said.
“What?” I could not hear him clearly through the glass.
“Where to bhai?” he said much louder. He was like a drill sergeant. Tough, but no unfriendly. He must be asked to shout from the window often. I heard other passengers getting yelled at as well.
He looked up the seats for me on his computer and then told the rectangular glasses man about it. A man in trousers and a neat button down shirt stood next to me. He asked me about my notebook and why was I taking notes. I told him I was a journalist working on a story. His face grew wary. I was sure he had heard about the Declan Walsh piece for the Times. He told me he used to take the train to and from Sukkur and Karachi regularly but had not done so in the last five years.
“But things have improved now” he said.
“How so?” I asked.
“Well we used to have long delays before now they are only a couple of hours,” he said. It sounded like he was trying to be hopeful for my sake.
Just then the ticket machine jammed. I asked him about it.
“Here the whole system is bad. Who knows how its still running,” he said crestfallen. He had just given up trying to give good PR.
I had heard stories. Salman Rashid, who has written extensively on travel in Pakistan, warned me about a couple who were stranded midway for days and had to trek miles to the nearest town and buy very expensive food.
The swarm of men stuck like house flies in front of the reservation window only grew. There was quite a mix of accents. But I heard of lot of exchanges in Sindhi. A couple of young skinny men in tight jeans and t-shirts walked up to the counter and asked for tickets. Rectangular glasses told them that economy tickets were sold in the other area.
“What is this bakwaas” one man groused.
“They are idiots all of them” the other one said and they walked away.
I went to sit in one of the steel chairs. My eyes fell on the small wooden box mounted on the wall that read “criticism and comments”. I wanted to laugh. It looked empty. I thought of peeking inside but did not. An older man  with white hennaed hair and silver frames sat in my row a few seats away, with his young son. He was wore a blue sweater over his cream shalwar kamiz, a version of which I am sure I have seen in one of the Chloe Sevigny collections for Opening Ceremony. He looked at me with his eyes cloudy with cataract. He was going to Attari, a village in the Amritsar district, three kilometers from the Pakistan-India border. It was a three day journey he said. Two days to get to Lahore and then after a security check off to Amritsar. His family was going with him and he had paid 1520 rupees per head.

I mentioned to him a family I had met earlier this year at the registration office in Mumbai, on a visit to India. They looked wretched. A twelve hour journey rom the border to Mumbai had taken them three days, they said. These people do so many security checks and stop the train so much it makes it impossible they told me.

The old man shook his head. No such thing was going to happen to him, he said. I wished him well and got up to brave the swarm of men again. I had been at the station for two hours now. On my right a wretched passenger was pleading with a staff member.
“Mein pehle bataa detaa houn, jagaa hogee tau milegi,” said the man in the embroidered topi and white beard behind the reservation window to the passenger.
“Emergency mein jaa rahaa houn family ko leke,” said the wretched looking man to him.
“Emergency ho ya jo bhee. Jagaa hogee tau milegi naa,” said embroidered hat.

A policeman with very red eyes came and stood at the counter. He looked me and paused, staring at me with unblinking eyes. That happened so many times. Men would come in looking wretched—sweaty, oily faces and shalwar kamizes with wet patches in arm pits and on their butts and would pause when they noticed me, looking at at me with a perplexed look or a blank expression. Even men in staff who spoke to me normally I would catch looking at me in a certain way—eyes wide open as if taking in every detail. They would look away when I looked at them in the eye, but ever so slowly, as if unable to tear their gaze away. I was beginning to feel tired. I had a sudden urge to shirk the idea of the journey and just run away. This was going to be a long trip. The man with the beard just then caught my eye and gave me a nod that meant he was sympathetic to my predicament. I was handed a printed ticket soon after.

‘Symbol of Journey Speed and Safety’ it says on one side of it.