Act One: The Multan Railway Station

Abdul Aijaz 

Stories tend to have fascinating ways of traveling and intersecting with each other. They spill over, merge, or flow side by side on their subterranean paths, or jostle as torrents to be entangled in each other’s flows. Like travelers at a railway station, they squeeze past each other to continue on to their desired destinations, together, apart, in all directions, perhaps to come together again, or drift apart forever and ever more, or continue to jostle from a distance. We live in a complex weave of stories that makes our world. On an early January Friday evening in 2020, Richa Nagar was one of the travelers on Multan Railway Station, waiting for the Karachi-bound Tezgam to take her to meet her old and possible new friends. Multan is a busy junction where multiple lines connecting southern Pakistan to its central and northern parts intersect and so do the multiple stories that travel with and through these lines. I was there to see her off.

Let’s linger on a bit longer at Multan Railway Station as it throbs with multiple intersecting stories of things and beings.

The train might take a little longer to arrive than its scheduled time anyway, as is the norm! Richa and I had arrived in Multan the day before. On our way we had stopped for a moment at Harappa, one of the centers of the ancient Indus civilization. The place would have been eternally buried to its loamy grave, had the construction workers laying down tracks for the Lahore-Multan Railways not discovered the ancient bricks that sparked some colonial archeologists’ interest in the site.

We marveled at the way the stories of the Railway Station at Multan and the ancient city of Harappa intersected through train tracks, colonialism, and modern technology. In their intersections, fragments, bits, stories survive.

Some say in the name Multan survives the story of the ancient Mullu, or Malli tribes whose sacred place it was—Mullistan, the abode of the Mullus who worshiped Surya, the sun god, and built a magnificent temple. The dilapidated building of the temple stands today mourning the loss of Multan’s Hindu community whose love and conviction nurtured its ancient being. The tomb of Bahauddin Zakariya in the close proximity outshines the temple, pushing it into a slow oblivion as the lau of Multan’s hot summers chips away at its ancient walls.

Photo by Medha Muskan

Richa herself had brought Lucknow, Minneapolis, Zanzibar among a million other places to breathe for a moment at the foggy Multan Railway Station. While I grew up nearby, less than four hours towards the south-east, it was my first time in Multan, too. Richa had brought her curious daughter Medha and I was with my wife Gwen; we all came from different worlds together at Multan Railway Station to drift apart until the next time. Gwen and I had accompanied Richa and Medha as their previous host bailed due to continuous pestering of police and the secret agents who are rarely a secret anymore in Pakistan. As I booked Richa a hotel room under my name, I received a few anonymous calls asking who were the people staying in the room? Why were they here? How long would they stay? Would you guarantee they were not Indian agents? You would be responsible if something happened?

This is how the state (within the state) keeps a check on your mobility, bounds your social worlds, forces borders, fears, disciplines, and keeps certain stories from mixing.

At the station, as we awaited the train, I was simultaneously sad for them leaving so soon but anxious that they leave the place safe and sound. As in my heart, I knew sometimes those threats are real. For the past two decades at least, there are thousands of people who went missing and were never recovered, though we all knew where they went to fade into a slow and gradual obscurity. Their absence haunts the political and affective landscape of Pakistan.

The heavy, hazy cold air of January was made a little chillier with fears and farewells.

Amidst love we feared for each other, without saying it. Silently, chup chaap.

The train finally came and took Richa to Karachi where she met Fawad Khan who shared his Urdu play Chup with her. The play would hitch a ride with Richa to Mumbai, Lucknow, Dilli, Bloomington, Saint Paul as they continue to grow and come together and apart.

It sucked me in, too.

As I reflect on my journey with Chup, I think of Multan Railway Station as the node where my own story intersected with Richa, Fawad, his Chup, and Parakh Theater and its lovely artistic peoples. A professor from Minneapolis, born and raised in Lucknow, had to cross borders—literally and metaphorically—and travel through a landscape of fear and oppression to have me meet Chup.

Stories have surprising ways of coming together.


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