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The Great Railway Bazaar : Popular Penguins : Popular Penguins - Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar : Popular Penguins

Popular Penguins


Published: 29th August 2011
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From London across Europe through India and Asia, this was a trip of discovery made in the mid-seventies, a time before the West had embraced the places, peoples, food, faiths and cultures of the East. To visit the lands of The Great Railway Bazaar is an encounter with all that is truly foreign and exotic.

About The Author

Paul Theroux was born and educated in the United States. After graduating from university in 1963, he travelled first to Italy and then to Africa, where he worked as a Peace Corps teacher at a bush school in Malawi, and as a lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda. In 1968 he joined the University of Singapore and taught in the Department of English for three years. Throughout this time he was publishing short stories and journalism, and wrote a number of novels. Among these were Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers, all of which appear in one volume, On the Edge of the Great Rift (Penguin, 1996).

In the early 1970s Paul Theroux moved with his wife and two children to Dorset, where he wrote Saint Jack, and then on to London. He was a resident in Britain for a total of seventeen years. In this time he wrote a dozen volumes of highly praised fiction and a number of successful travel books, from which a selection of writings were taken to compile his book Travelling the World (Penguin, 1992). Paul Theroux has now returned to the United States, but he continues to travel widely.

Paul Theroux's many books include Picture Palace, which won the 1978 Whitbread Literary Award; The Mosquito Coast, which was the 1981 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year and joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was also made into a feature film; Riding the Iron Rooster, which won the 1988 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Pillars of Hercules, shortlisted for the 1996 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; My Other Life: A Novel, Kowloon Tong, Sir Vidia's Shadow, Fresh-air Fiend and Hotel Honolulu. Blindness is his latest novel. Most of his books are published by Penguin.

chapter vii
The Khyber Mail to Lahore Junction

Rashid, the conductor on the sleeping car, helped me find my compartment, and after a moment's hesitation he asked me to have a look at his tooth. It was giving him aches, he said. The request was not impertinent. I had told him I was a dentist. I was getting tired of the Asiatic inquisi­tion: Where do you come from? What do you do? Married or single? Any children? This nagging made me evasive, secretive, foolish, an inventor of cock-and-bull stories. Rashid made the bed and then opened up, tugging his lip down to show me a canine gnawed with decay.

'You'd better see a dentist in Karachi,' I said. 'In the meantime chew your food on the other side.'

Satisfied with my advice (and I also gave him two aspirins), he said, 'You will be very comfortable here. German carriage, about fifteen years old. Heavy, you see, so no shaking.'

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 compartment was large, well lighted, and comfortable, with a 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 was alone. But if I wished to have company I could stroll to the dining car or idle in the passage with the army officers.. Nothing is expected of the train passenger. In planes the traveller 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 humour moves them, at unfrequented stations . . .

The romance associated with the sleeping car derives from its extreme privacy, combining the best features of a cupboard with forward movement. Whatever drama is being enacted in this moving bedroom is heightened by the landscape passing the window: a swell of hills, the surprise of mountains, the loud metal bridge, or the melancholy sight of people standing under yellow lamps. And the notion of travel as a continuous vision, a grand tour's succession of memorable images across a curved earth – with none of the distorting emptiness of air or sea – is possible only on a train. A train is a vehicle that allows residence: dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer.

'What time does the Khyber Mail get to Karachi?'

'Timetable says seven-fifteen in the night,' said Rashid. 'But we will be five and a half hours late.'

'Why?' I asked.

'We are always five and a half hours late. It is the case.'

I slept well on my Dean's Hotel bedding and was awak­ened at six the following morning by a Sikh with a steel badge pinned to his turban that read Pakistan Western Railways. His right eye was milky with trachoma.

'You wanting breakfast?'

I said yes.

'I coming seven o'clock.'

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 on to the side of a mud hut to dry; men with bullocks and submerged ploughs, 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 – sorting 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.

The shantytown had another witness: a tall thin Indian of about twenty, with long hair, stood at the corridor window. He asked me the time; his London accent was unmistakable. I asked him where he was headed.

'India. I was born in Bombay, but I left when I was three or four. Still, I'm an Indian right the way through.'

'But you were brought up in England.'

'Yeah. I've got a British passport too. I didn't want to get one, after all they did to me. But an Indian passport is too much trouble. See, I want to go to Germany even­tually – they're in the Common Market. It's easy with a British passport.'

'Why not stay in London?'

'You can stay in London if you like. They're all racial­ists. It starts when you're about ten years old, and that's all you hear – wog, nigger, blackie. There's nothing you can do about it. At school it's really terrible – ever hear about Paki-bashing? And I'm not even a Pakistani. They don't know the difference. But they're cowards. When I'm with me mate no one comes up and says nothing, but lots of times about ten blokes would start trouble with me. I hate them. I'm glad to be here.'

'This is Pakistan.'

'Same thing. Everyone's the same colour.'

'Not really,' I said.

'More or less,' he said. 'I can relax here – I'm free.'

'Won't you feel rather anonymous?'

'The first thing I'm going to do in India is get a haircut; then no one will know.'

It seemed a cruel fate. He spoke no Indian language, his parents were dead, and he was not quite sure how to get to Bombay, where he had some distant relatives who seldom replied to letters unless he enclosed money. He was one of those colonial anomalies, more English than he cared to admit, but uneasy in the only country he understood. 'In England they were always staring at me. I hated it.'

'I get stared at here,' I said.

'How do you like it?' I could see he was reproaching me with my colour; after all, he was almost home.

I said, 'I rather enjoy it.'

'Sahib.' It was Rashid, with my suitcase. 'We are approaching.'

'He calls you sahib,' said the Indian. He looked disgusted. 'He's afraid of you, that's why.'

'Sahib,' said Rashid. But he was speaking to the Indian. 'Now, please show me your ticket.'

The Indian was travelling second class. Rashid evicted him from first as the train drew in. 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 colour and confusion, the Kipling of the early stories andKim 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.

'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.

'They invite you out to eat,' an American told me. This was at the spectacular fort, and we were both admiring the small marble pavilion, called Naulakha (Kipling named his house outside Brattleboro, Vermont, after it, because it was so expensive to build: 'naulakha' means 900,000). The American was agitated. He said, 'You finish eating and they start eyeballing your chick. It's always your chick they're after. The chick's strung out. 'Gee, Mohammed, why don't you have any pockets in your dhoti?' 'We are not having any pockets, miss' – that kind of crap. One guy – this really pissed me off – he takes me aside and says, 'Five minutes! Five minutes! That's all I want with her!' But would he let me have his chick for five minutes? You've gotta be joking.'

The order in Lahore is in the architecture, the moghul and colonial splendour. 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 vene­real 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.

Ramadhan continued, and the restaurants were either closed or on emergency rations, eggs and tea. So I was forced into an unwilling fast too, hoping it wouldn't drive me crazy as it manifestly did the Afghan and Pakistani. Instead of somnolence, hunger produced excitable, glassy-eyed individuals, some of whom quick-marched from alleyways to clutch my sleeve.

'Pot – hashish – LSD.'

'LSD?' I said. 'You sell LSD?'

'Yes, why not? You come to my place. Also nice copper, silver, handicraft.'

'I don't want handicraft.'

'You want hashish? One kilo twenty dollar.'

It was tempting, but I preferred bottled mango juice, which was sweet and thick, and the curry puffs known as samosas. The samosas were always wrapped in pages from old school copybooks. I sat down, drank my juice, ate my samosa, and read the wrapper: '. . . the shearing force at any [grease mark] on the Beam is represented by the Vertical Distance between that Line and the Line CD.'

There were forty-seven tables in the dining room of Faletti's Hotel. I found them easy to count because I was the only diner present on the two evenings I ate there. The five waiters stood at various distances from me, and when I cleared my throat two would rush forward. Not wanting to disappoint them I asked them questions about Lahore, and in one of these conversations I learned that the Punjab Club was not far away. I thought it would be a good idea to have a postprandial snooker game, so on the second evening I was given directions by one of the waiters and set off for the club.

I lost my way almost immediately in a district adjacent to the hotel where there were no street lights. My foot­steps roused the watchdogs and as I walked these barking hounds leaped at fences and hedges. I have not conquered a childhood fear of strange dogs, and, although the trees smelled sweet and the night was cool, I had no idea where I was going. It was ten minutes before a car approached. I flagged it down.

'You are coming from?'

'Faletti's Hotel.'

'I mean your country.'

'United States.'

'You are most welcome,' said the driver. 'My name is Anwar. May I give you a lift?'

'I'm trying to find the Punjab Club.'

'Get in please,' he said, and when I did, he said, 'How are you please?' This is precisely the way the posturing Ivan Turkin greets people in Chekhov's story 'Ionych'.

Mr Anwar drove for another mile, telling me how fortu­nate it was that we should meet – there were a lot of thieves around at night, he said – and at the Punjab Club he gave me his card and invited me to his daughter's wedding, which was one week away. I said I would be in India then.

'Well, India is another story altogether,' he said, and drove off.

The Punjab Club, a bungalow behind a high hedge, was lighted and looked cosy, but it was completely deserted. I had imagined a crowded bar, a lot of cheerful drinkers, a snooker game in progress, a pair in the corner plotting adultery, waiters with trays of drinks, and chits flying back and forth. This could have been a clinic of some kind; there was not a soul in sight, but it had the atmosphere – and even the magazines – of a dentist's waiting room. I saw what I wanted a few doors along a corridor: large red letters on the window read wait for the stroke, and in the shadows were two tables, the balls in position, ready for play under a gleaming rack of cues.

'Yes?' It was an elderly Pakistani, and he had the forlorn abstraction of a man interrupted in his reading. He wore a black bow tie, and the pocket of his shirt sagged with pens. 'What can I do for you?'

'I just happened to be passing,' I said. 'I thought I might stop in. Do you have reciprocal privileges with any clubs in London?'

'No, not that I know of.'

'Perhaps the manager would know.'

'I am the manager,' he said. 'We used to have an arrangement with a club in London – many years ago.' 'What was the name of it?'

'I'm sorry, I've forgotten, but I know the club is no longer in existence. What was it you wanted?'

'A game of snooker.'

'Who would you play with?' He smiled. 'There is no one here.'

He showed me around, but the lighted empty rooms depressed me. The place was abandoned, like Faletti's dining room with its forty-seven empty tables, like the district where there were only watchdogs. I said I had to go, and at the front door he said, 'You might find a taxi over there, in the next road but one. Good night.'

It was hopeless. I had walked about a hundred yards from the club and could not find the road, though I was going in the direction he had indicated. I could hear a dog growling behind a near-by hedge. Then I heard a car. It moved swiftly towards me and screeched to a halt. The driver got out and opened the back door for me. He said the manager had sent him to take me back to my hotel; he was afraid I'd get lost.

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 pyjamas 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. 'Anything you want?' 'No.' 'A girl?' 'No.' 'Boy?'

'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 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!'

He was still calling out to me as I mounted the steps to the hotel's verandah. It turned out that the only bar in Lahore was the Polo Room in my hotel. I had an expensive beer and fell into conversation with a young Englishman. He had been in Lahore for two months. I asked him what he did for amusement. He said there wasn't very much to do, but he was planning to visit Peshawar. I told him Peshawar was quieter than Lahore. He said he was sorry to hear that because he found Lahore intolerable. He was bored, he said, but there was hope. 'I've got an application pending at the club,' he said. He was a tall plain fellow, who blew his nose at the end of every sentence. 'If they let me in I think I'll be all right. I can go there in the evenings – it's a pretty lively place.'

'What club are you talking about?'

'The Punjab Club,' he said.

ISBN: 9780143566526
ISBN-10: 0143566520
Series: Popular Penguins
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 372
Published: 29th August 2011
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 18.0 x 11.1  x 2.7
Weight (kg): 0.21
Edition Number: 1