by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
If there is a thought urgent enough to return to, it came on a train and was cut off at my station. All the rest is an obsessive plan to go back, find the nodes and connect them.
In 1996 when I moved to San Diego with my husband, I was petrified to live so close to the ocean— with its flat expanse, blind depths, and a refrain that seemed to say go home, go home. But then I discovered tree-lined train tracks along the coast and knew I belonged.
Train tracks, long walks, trees; the journey, the hopping on and off. My first home in Peshawar was close to train tracks; tranquil, rich with ghosts and trees.
The Eucalyptus trees with their peeling bark, flesh and russet, their presence like the sculptures in Paris gardens, deceptively human and vulnerable. They grew tall— superior and slender as classical art. I admired their poise but identified better with the oak: tree of intertwined stories, Alif Laila tales, schema of endlessly connecting plots that grew out of each other, a wild cluster— the clumsy, protean shape, perhaps, of the soul.
The train tracks were serene and peopled by invisible journeymen; spirits of the past filling the sharp Eucalyptus scented air with the energy of endless passage. Didn’t Kipling travel to Peshawar on dak-rail as a special correspondent for the Civil and Military Gazette, and Jinnah step out of a train to cheering crowds when he delivered his famous speech at Islamia College? These were the trees, and this, the crystalline valley surrounded by the Safed Koh mountains they must have seen. Kipling invented several characters (in fiction and poetry) belonging to Peshawar. In his Ballad of East and West, his character Kamal says to his son:
So thou must eat the White Queen’s meat, and all her foes are thine,
And thou must harry thy father’s hold for the peace of the border-line.
And thou must make a trooper tough and hack thy way to power—
Belike they will raise thee to Ressaldar when I am hanged in Peshawur.
Ghosts of history and fiction reside in train booths; suppressed questions hanging in corners; scenes from another time and place I feel I have witnessed: Raj trains where the natives were kept separate from the ruling British, Partition trains bringing the massacred, cut up dead; such tragedies but also reunions, wedding parties, great epiphanies, thought experiments of relative motion, poems of others lodged in my psyche.
On my earliest walk on the street that ran parallel to the tracks, I remember a child-sized umbrella, and a box (with a chubby hen on it) that opened, to show as if from a window the multicolored egg-shaped candies inside: things we bought from Town Store, a place of infinite excitement before we were old enough to know Masood Toys, and later Karachi’s Fun Land, or California’s Disneyland. Town Store was our local wonderland we reached at the end of the walk.
The last time I walked along those train tracks, I had a vague sense that things were changing fast and we may not come here again for leisurely walks. My older brother was already at boarding school then, I was a perpetually worried middle-schooler; my younger brother, more pragmatic than me, had less trouble letting go of the past. Peshawar was brimming with Afghan refugees and Western Aid workers; it was dubbed “the spy capital of the world.” We could not remember anymore what life was like before the Soviet war. Walking home, I remember thinking on that quiet December night how much I wanted time to slow down. In those days, the salted corn that smelled of charcoal and hot sand was still sold in small paper bags made out of pages from notebooks; we still listened to Radio Moscow on our drive to school, and my father to BBC at night. In future years I would take trains on three different continents, lose and find thoughts, but this would be the last winter I would wear my mother’s hand-knitted sweaters. That last walk along train tracks in Peshawar ends in halogen street lighting: a dream’s glow.
* * *