The Lahore Railway Station's lobby was as crowded as I had remembered it to be: people moving in and out of platform no. 2; information desk parked as always; coolies moving back and forth; and weary travelers with the same bored look staring at the kiosks the way they did some twenty years ago; nothing had changed at the station except maybe I was to take a train to Karachi; the train that would take me away from my beloved Lahore for ever or so I thought as I waited for my boys to turn up with my luggage and the ticket.
"Are you traveling with your family?" Hina asked in a matter of fact way. I knew exactly where she was coming from and I looked in her eyes, she was moderately attractive girl, but her sister was absolutely gorgeous. I thought of all those travels when I had earnestly prayed to meet someone like Sheila, or even Hina, and the disappointments, this was my lucky night, and part of me wanted this to be continued, but then all of sudden my better half prevailed and I heard myself say to the girl standing inches away from me, "No, I am traveling to my family, who are waiting for me in Karachi". "How about you?" it was my turn. "We are traveling with our mother and younger brother to Karachi to attend a wedding ceremony", she replied gently. The honest exchange of answers had a sobering affect on all of us; even Sheila wore a more somber look than she had moments before. "Does your mother know that you are out here?" I was concerned that she might come looking for her daughters and last thing I wanted was a suspicious mother spoiling our little assemblage. "Of course, she does not, do you really think she would allow her grown up daughters to go asking for cigarettes from complete strangers in the middle of the night?" Hina said smilingly. 'Right" was all I could say; it was a silly question, and I knew that.
It was not easy for me to take the decision to bid farewell to the streets where I had spent my childhood and the alleys where I had returned as an adult wanting to make a change. I had brought my wife to the place I loved more than the life itself, and despite her dislike for the city, she fell in love with it as well. My child, who was born there, loved the cone ice cream at the liberty and his four-year old mind could not comprehend us living anywhere other than Lahore. But, who said life was fair, and there I was standing in the middle of the crowd waiting for the boys to get my ticket and my baggage to get me aboard a train that was to take me away from my Lahore.
Karachi, the place I was to work and live for the next conceivable future is no stranger to me. I have frequented Karachi ever since I was a little child. The trams that treaded the streets of Karachi are still fresh in my memory and so are the rides to Clifton with my cousin (or so I thought at the moment) she happened to be my aunt as I found out later, cuddled my thoughts every now and then. But that was centuries ago, when we were young and nothing else mattered. Over the years, I had heard so much about Karachi that anything beautiful about the city was simply incomprehensible. I sought the aid of the long lost memories but even that did not help. I was simply scared of moving out there!
I had earnestly prayed for the boys for the office to get late or my employer in Karachi to call me at my cellular and call off the deal, but none of the above happened and I was shoved in the compartment's door by my zealous subordinates who wanted to see their boss off after six years of rigorous subordination. They hugged me; bade farewells to me and said things that a subordinate is supposed to say to his ex-boss. Some of them felt that I had a fair chance of making it back to the company thereby justifying their presence at the station while few genuinely resented the fact that I was leaving them behind; there were a few who were there to remind me of their availability if I were to look for some new people at the new place. I was glad to realize that none of us were there without a reason.
Twenty minutes prior to the scheduled departure the gentleman with the ticket shows up and five minutes later the office pick-up carrying my luggage pulled up. If I was relieved to see the man with my ticket, I was overjoyed to see the office pick-up pull up in the verandah of old Railway Station. It all happened within a few minutes and to the relief of the co-workers who had accompanied me to the station, I calmed down. After all it is only so much you can take from an ex-boss. They all hurried me to the platform lest I change my mind and spoil their hard work. They managed to put the TV, the stereo and the microwave in the little space they could find in the compartment and much to the annoyance of my fellow passengers. With little time to spare we bade farewells and exchanged vows of everlasting camaraderie; like so many of the parting office workers have done it before. I was comfortably seated in my seat at the first indication of our departure.
It is not easy to simply to just barge in a small cubicle full of people knowing that the people staring at you are the ones you are going to spend the rest of the evening and possibly the night with them. I had always fancied myself boarding a plane or entering a cubicle in train and sitting next to the most beautiful girl this side of the equator but much to my dismay I had always managed to annoy myself and cross my fellow passengers who thought of me a nudnik more than anything else. I was determined not to let myself down this time around and therefore walked into the cubicle with a big grin on my face.
"Assalam-u-alikum", I blurted before I actually set my eyes on my fellow passengers who outnumbered me by two to one. A synchronized, almost rehearsed, "wa-alikum" welcomed me in the compartment D of the Non-Stop to Karachi. My heart sank at hearing the all male sonata and had to put on a brave face, as always, as I carefully placed myself on the empty space next to a man who wore a smile similar to my mother's every time she saw me agonizing over a math's problem all by myself' she knew she could not help me either. The man occupying the opposite seat was ancient and a quick look affirmed my earlier findings. The only discernable movement was that of his eyes. I cursed my luck and braced myself for the worst of the times ahead. An old man and a mother look-alike were all that I needed that night!
I wished the fourth occupant to be less intimidating compared to the present company but I guess I had run out of luck that night and moments later I heard a Anglicized "excuse me", and a gentleman in his early twenties walked in and without acknowledging our presence proceeded to climb the berth where he ended up snoring the rest of the journey. I was thoroughly disgusted with what I saw and decided to climb upstairs myself. If I were to travel in misery for the rest of the night and most of the morning, I did not want to make it known least of all my traveling companions.
Staring at the pale lights that hung inches away from my face, I tried to figure out what bothered me the most: leaving Lahore; the new job; or the fact that I was cooped up in this tiny cubicle with four other men. It was a slight effort, as I knew the answer already: I was disappointed, once again, at not finding a beautiful girl traveling with me. Before you moralists out there, try to label me as some kind of fiend or a pervert, let me tell you I simply love the company of women. I am convinced that a woman is the best thing that ever happened to mankind and it is really unfortunate that years of cohabitation has not taught the men to appreciate God's most stately creation. I for one am the greatest fan a woman can ever have, of course, there are exceptions and not all women qualify.
Lying up in no.3 berth of compartment D aboard Karachi bound Non-Stop, I tried imagining what would it be like if there was a woman present in that cubicle that evening. I was convinced that the man opposite me would not be just lying there spread-eagled snoring; the old man would not be there as that seat would be occupied by the lady and the man on the opposite seat would have something to look at besides the lavatory, and I most definitely would not be as disappointed and miserable as I was then. But that was wishful thinking and would not change anything. So I decided to roll over and shut my eyes trying my best to sleep it all off. However, one bad thing leads to another, and the as train gained momentum the young man's snores got louder and louder to a point that all other sounds ceased to exist. I got up and looked down, the old man sat there and was not at all bothered by the sounds of phlegm moving up and down the young man's nasal tracts; the other gentlemen was definitely perturbed and looked up as if imploring the sleeping man to be gentle but his demeanor was still apologetic. Something pleasant was definitely the need of the hour, I thought as I descended from my berth to take a stroll in the corridor. I needed some air!
The corridor was empty and awfully quiet. The waiters had served the dinner and there was hardly any movement. I slowly moved towards the far end of the car and closed the door behind me. The temperature in the vestibule was much comfortable than that of the compartment. It was an ideal place to smoke a cigarette; so I lit one up. I don't know who ever came up with the idea that smoking helps you relax; it had hardly helped me in that department. Instead, I have always been more taut after finishing a cigarette with the knowledge of robbing myself of ten minutes of my life. The cigarette that evening tasted no different and hardly helped me. The snores still resounded in my head and the disappointment persisted. I looked at the cigarette with contempt and threw it down in disgust. I needed someone or something to lift my spirits.
I was looking out of the cubbyhole trying to figure out where we were when I heard the door open behind me. It must be the attendant making the rounds, I thought and kept looking out in the dark. But attendants don't have to whisper in the foyer and the fragrance was definitely not masculine; must be the figment of my imagination, as I thought of female company at the most unusual of the places and that time of the night. I must be imaging things, I thought as I shook my head. The voices however did not disappear and the fragrance grew stronger. There was actually one or more women standing behind me; I gulped for air. "O God, let it be real, please", I prayed silently as I slowly turned around. Much to my disbelief I found myself standing a couple of feet away from two young women looking out in the dark. They must have heard the movement behind them as one of the two stole a peek over the other's shoulders and a slight nudge sent some sort of signal to the other who had not moved yet. The two women then turned around and we stood facing each other.
They were both in their early twenties and well dressed. The older one of the two looked defiantly in my eyes while the younger one looked sideways averting my eyes. A few minutes of awkward silence went by, and it was the defiant one who broke the silence. "We came out here to smoke, since you cannot smoke in the compartment, can we have some privacy please", she asked me still looking in my eyes. It all happened so quickly that I hardly had time to gather my thoughts, and without thinking I heard myself say "oh sure, excuse me" and I started walking towards the corridor. "But we need the cigarettes as well", she said calmly as I brush passed her.
"What? I mean excuse me", I paused to ensure that if I had heard her correctly, "can we bum a couple of cigarettes, please", she said with a mischievous smile. I was completely lost, I mean there I was yearning for female company and now that luck had provided me with an opportunity to be with two fairly good-looking women, I was acting like a complete nitwit. She was most definitely enjoying her dominance and was in no mood to let me off the hook. "I am Hina and this is my kid sister Sheila", she continued stretching her hand looking for mine for a handshake. Her hand hung there in the air unnoticed for a while as I furtively searched for the pack of cigarettes in my pockets. She let a loud laugh escape her lips and slapped my shoulder gently, "it is not polite to let a lady wait", and winked at her younger sister. I had made a complete fool of myself and I was acutely aware of that.
Finally I managed to do one thing right: found the pack of cigarettes in my hip pocket and with great difficulty pulled one out and offered it to Hina, followed by Sheila. I held out the light for the sisters who lit their cigarettes. That brief exercise allowed my mind to pick up the pieces and by the time I had one lit up for myself, I had the butterflies in my stomach under control. "Now can we have the privacy as well", she mocked me. "I would love to grant you that, but I don't think the hallways of the trains are safe for unaccompanied ladies in general and good looking girls like yourself in particular", my tone reciprocated hers. "Oh really, and what makes you think that we would feel safe with you standing here", it was Sheila's turn now. "You outnumber me two to one, and I should be the one thinking of my safety and not the other way around", I looked at Sheila who was prettier than her sister. She turned crimson.
By the way, "I am Sheraz and it is very pleasant to meet you young ladies", I bowed my head a bit. The exaggerated courtesy had the desired effect; Sheila was most definitely impressed and Hina eased up a bit. "Now, can I stay", I looked at Sheila who seemed more interested than Hina. "Sure", Hina had sensed that too and was not willing to give her sister an advantage. Sibling rivalry; it was amusing. "It is going to be a long night", I thought, as all of us took turns at sucking on our cigarettes. "Why do you smoke Mild Seven", it was Hina who broke the awkward silence that was threatening to end that little get-together. "It is the only genuine imported cigarette I can afford to smoke", I replied. "It is lighter than most other light cigarettes", she continued. It amazed me that a girl hardly twenty years old could tell one cigarette from another. "And what kind do you smoke", I asked her. Sheila who had been sidelined for a while could not wait any longer and interjected, "any kind as long as we don't have to buy them, normally we steal our father's, and when he is not around, we steal from anybody who happen to smoke while we are around", only youth is capable of making that honest a statement, I thought as I looked at Sheila who was oblivious of her sister's stares.
"Sheila, that is an unusual name?" I decided to take Sheila on this time. "Why is it unusual, names follow no religions, they are simply names, Sheraz was a Persian name long before it became "Muslim" name, don't you agree, Mr. Sheraz", I was dumbfounded, the girl spoke with authority and passion. And I thought she was just another girl! "Right", was all I could say, and decided to change the subject.
We shared three rounds of Mild Seven Lights during our conversations; Hina and I. Sheila it seemed had developed a sudden disliking for cigarettes. She kept on staring at the door and reading the warning signs admonishing passengers not to travel on the roof of the train over and over again. The harder I tried to get her involved the more she recoiled. She was however, civil enough not to spoil the evening for us as she calmly listened to our babbling. We talked of politics, of women emancipation, of deteriorating law and order situation and the merits and demerits of arranged marriages, and she just stood there. Never saying a word. I could see that Hina was a bit uncomfortable because of her sister's silence. She had done her bit to get her attention to no avail, and she was getting a bit edgy.
I decided to take charge of things and confront Sheila; she was just a kid and maybe like myself she had wished to meet a handsome stranger while traveling, and now that she had found someone ( may be not as handsome as she would have liked) who had turned out to be a disappointment. I knew I was ingratiating myself, and the girl standing across may have other reasons for her silence, but the thought was definitely a morale booster. "So Sheila tell me why have you been so quiet?" I paused to look for some reaction and found none coming, so I continued, "Is there something you would like to share with us?" she barely blinked an eye. "Hello, earth to Sheila, come in please", I waved my hand across her face. She pulled her face away without saying a word. Only when I had thought I had enough, and was about to say something silly, that she broke the silence.
"What are you doing here", she looked right in my eyes and said it in a very matter of fact way. I was startled, that was hardly what I had expected. "What do you mean, what am I doing here?" I was astonished, what kind of a question is that? "You are a married man, probably have kids as well, and here you are in the middle of night, trying to flirt with us", "that's what I meant", the girl fired at me. "Flirt, who said I am flirting", I was on the defensive knowing well that she was right. "No one forced you two to be here, definitely not me", I was being childish, and I knew that. "Admit it Sheraz", she spoke with passion, "you are flirting and so were we, and there is nothing wrong with it, except that one of us has taken it too seriously, and I think that it is not fair", she ended her sentence with a slight smile. Right again. She was getting right through my defenses. " Who do you think is taking it seriously?" I asked another foolish question. She lifted her head slightly and looked right in my eyes and said nothing; but then she did not have to say anything. I knew that I was done. I surrendered immediately and lowered my eyes. "Come on Hina, let's go, mother would be waking up soon", I heard her calling her sister as she moved toward the compartment's door.
Hina followed her quietly without saying a word, and I, well there was nothing left for me to say, so I stood there silently. The train raced forward leaving our words behind in thin air. All three of us knew that it would end there in the vestibule of the Karachi bound Non-Stop, which once comes to a stop would send us in different directions not allowing us to gather again in its antechamber the way the fate had us gathered there that night. The exchange of words that took place between two complete strangers and overheard by a youth of only ten and nine years of age may not take place ever again in that passageway.