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Fantasy Romance Fiction

Khushiya boarded the Jaffar Express from Lahore. Usually, six people would easily fit in a compartment, but these days only four were allowed, because of the pandemic. The family of six had a split. His adolescent children and wife took over one compartment, while he settled in another with his companions; the luggage.

It was his habit to scrutinize everything closely. He had been keeping in touch with the events happening in Balochistan, the notorious habitat of Quetta Shura of the Taliban. Because of cross-border infiltration from Afghanistan, the situation in that province was dangerous. Though kidnappings and bombings were rare after the American withdrawal, the fear was still there. He did not want to go to Quetta with his children. 

But they had been to every nook and cranny of the country other than Balochistan and insisted on visiting Quetta.

Khusiya returned to his compartment after having dinner with his family. The train was jam-packed with his family and strangers, yet he was lonely, and when he was alone, memories flooded back. Listening to the clickety-clack of the running train, laid down on the berth, lit a cigarette, and smoked, staring into the haze. Then appeared in front of his eyes, the same ephemeral figure in the swirls of cigarette smoke.

He had visited Quetta before, years ago, when he was still a student. The situation in Balochistan because of the influx of refugees was terrible, as Russia had invaded Afghanistan. They were all scared, but at the start of the journey, at Lahore railway station, they got into mischiefs and pranks. When they passed just beyond Kot Radha Kishan, the train broke down in wild and stayed there for several hours. Here, for the first time, he got a glimpse of that girl, the same ephemeral figure that still flashes in his eyes, on cold, lonely sleepless nights. 

Sitting in the window of a compartment, she looked like a delicate, sublime image mounted on the wall, in a frame. At every station till Quetta, he visited her, and a bond grew between them just in one day’s journey. She hailed from Quetta; on reaching there, said goodbye to him and left forever. Today, after so many years, the same beauty, the same lissome belle who had invoked a vivid fantasy in him, now sequestered in the abyss of thoughts, was emerging as a nymph in the spirals of smoke. Today, he wanted to make that journey by wiggling her pleasant memories out from the depth of his mind. While revoking and recollecting within himself, inculcating those sweet memories in his conscience, the entire night passed. 

Rail squeal forced him to wake up. The sun had just dawned, and the train had left the Rohri Railway Station. While negotiating narrow-radius curves and switches, with a high-pitched screeching noise, in between the hillocks, it was heading slowly towards the Indus River. He ran towards the door, opened it, and started beholding the magnificent twin bridges of the Indus. 

19th-century rust-colored (Viceroy, lord) Lansdowne Bridge completed in 1889, the largest cantilever bridge in the world at that time, spans the Indus River between the cities of Sukkur and Rohri. Its ornamental padlock was designed by J.L. Kipling, father of the famous writer Rudyard Kipling, which was unlocked in the opening ceremony to release the iron gates that restricted access to the bridge. Remembering this padlock and its key, local people call it Chabi wala pull (Bridge with a key). 

About a hundred feet apart stands the steel gray Ayub Bridge, built in 1962, which was the world’s third-longest railway arch span and the first bridge in the world to have the railway desk slung on coiled wire rope suspenders. 

Gray and rust-colored twin bridges, standing in conjunction, were giving the impression that the beauty of the horizon had worn a two-colored crown on her head. In an exquisitely beautiful riverscape, the delightful rays of the rising sun, interspersed with iron pillars, beams, and arches, were coloring the clear water and vegetation of the Indus as if the diffused twilight has filled the entire atmosphere. 

The train was slowly heading towards Sukkur. Befuddled in picturesque, sublime scenery, he realized that someone else was also standing behind him. He turned around, 

Oh! My God, she was there!

Oh! No.

How she can be?   

She may not be! 

The same cute, luminous, charming girl.

The same well-formed Pashtun body, reddish-white pretty look, calm and serene, like a fine portrait, with four rounded black tattoos on the right cheek, ‘sheen Khalai’.  

She was standing, both hands and feet colored with henna, the left side of the face covered by an edge of the shawl pressed between her teeth, gazing up at him with dazzling eyes. The train stopped at Sukkur Station. As she stepped forward, he dropped back to allow her exit to descend slowly onto the platform. Khushiya was closely monitoring the movements of her body, with the thick curly hair falling on the back, the swing of her waist, the span of her hips, and the stride of her steps. Everything was the same. She disappeared. He became upset, but was sure that her destination was Quetta and that they would meet again.

He kept looking for her in Shikarpur but could not find her. The car stopped for a long time in Jacobabad. On having a glimpse of her at the platform decorated with multicolored Sindhi tiles, the varicolored rainbow light flashed in front of his eyes

The train crossed the borders of Balochistan and stopped at a deserted railway station, Dera Allahyar. He had forgotten that there were dangers in the Bloch areas. Frontier Constabulary personnel came while checking the compartments. Two trained dogs also sniffed his luggage. He was sitting on a seat outside the cabin when the adjoining door opened, and he saw a glimpse of her sitting with two veiled women. 

Now, most of his journey was to continue sitting in the same seat. 

He was purchasing the food for lunch from a stall at Sibi Station when she also came there. 

He glanced up at her. In response, she gave a faint smile with twinkling eyes to mesmerize him.

Without preamble, he asked, “Where are you going?”

“Quetta.” The answer was the same as what he expected. 

Now the train was slowly rumbling up in the desert's desolation and its wonderful landscapes. More than a century-old railway track from Sibi to Quetta and the border town of Chaman is one of the greatest engineering feats of British rule in India. During the Great Game of expanding powers in Central Asia, the British decided to lay this track all the way to Kandahar, so they could send their troops to counter the Russian forces.

During this gorgeous ride, the train entered the Bolan Pass in which the railway line quickly gained an altitude of 5400 feet. The 89 km historic Bolan Pass, whose rocky mountains and waterways had witnessed the ruination of warriors and caravans for centuries, was still dangerous because of the possibility of attacks by anti-state elements. This fear was stopping him from the journey. Police and FC personnel were seen everywhere in the area.

The train with a push-pull configuration was chugging along slowly through tunnels, narrow gorges, and stretches. Passing through a long tunnel, darkness fell on all sides. He realized her presence behind him again. 

He turned around, she was looking at him with a smile. 

“What a beautiful journey!” She exclaimed. 

“But fearful, also.” Khushiya expressed his concerns. 

“No. Nothing to worry about. Railway workers continuously maintain, patrol, and man the track and installations. The FC personnel provide full security, then the train is allowed to leave.” 

She replied with full confidence. “They will stay with us till Quetta."

“Where are you coming from?” Khushiya asked.

“I also rode from Lahore.”

“Are you alone? Aren't you scared?”   

“This is my country. Why should I be scared? I often travel on this route, which is a one-of-a-kind rail experience anywhere in the world. 

Don't you know this route has the lowest number of accidents in the entire country? Occasional incidents gain more prominence for political reasons.” She continued her arguments with great credence.

Despite three locomotives, the speed of the train was so slow that some people were climbing in and getting out of the moving train. The train entered a dark tunnel, again. Wheels were screeching, engines were thumping, and along with it his heart as well. Khushiya, feeling a tingly sensation in his abdomen, snuggled closer and hugged her. Her arms, arms of past and present, gripped him tightly. 

As soon as the light came on, they separated from each other.

The train stopped at Machh station. He wished it may stay there for the rest of his life or just travel back, to come again.

That's what happened. After a slight jerk and the train started moving back.

In a surprise, he screamed, “O! My God, It's going back, why?”

“The curve of the mountains and river is so sharp that the rail track could not reach the station directly, therefore train first goes ahead, stops, reverses, changes the track, and then it comes back on the platform.”

He smiled.

“What’s your name?”

“Aramish”

“Who are the veiled women with you?”

“They are not my friends or relatives, but I am here because of them.”

“What does it mean?”

“I can't tell right now.” She replied.

“Quetta is coming. You will leave now. Where can I meet you again?” Khushia asked

“Shela Bagh.” She replied.

“Shela Bagh? In Kojak Pass? On Quetta-Chaman highway, it’s a very dangerous area.” 

“Nothing to worry about. I will be there, waiting for you.”

The very next day, the family planned to go to the border town, Chaman.

Pakistan's most beautiful railway station, Sheila Bagh, 113 km from Quetta, is named after the dancer, Sheila. According to legend, which can’t be verified, but the locals swear by them, every evening she used to entertain the laborers that worked tirelessly building the 3.9 km long Khojak tunnel. She, along with her lover, the architect-engineer of this tunnel, committed suicide as because of his faulty design the project could not be completed in time. 

Work started from both ends but due to surveying error when both tunnels met in the center, it created a very distinguished hump (crest) in the center of the tunnel. An automatic bell was installed at this hump. As soon as the train crossed this hump, this bell used to ring and the train engineer would know that he had reached the center of the tunnel.

This land of fairies is situated in the lap of Khwaja Imran mountain range. The two-story building is made of yellowish clay bricks and red cement. The descending curved path was decorated with the same colors.

The small rounded stones along the trail were also painted white and red. Although it had not rained for weeks, the entire building and platform looked washed out. It seemed that preparations for the reception had been going on for several days, although no one was aware of their arrival. He was thinking, “it’s true that the locals were always looking forward to welcome guests.” Khushiya had visited many countries of the world, but he had never seen such a lovely and clean railway station, anywhere. From the platform, the distant opening of the Khojak tunnel looked like a red moon arising from the horizon between the high rising mountains.

After descending numerous stairs, they reached the platform. Two workers were waiting for them on a rail push trolley. The younger children ran and sat on the wooden bench, their mother accompanied them. The older boy and he stood behind the bench. He looked around but could not find Aramish anywhere. The signal was down. One worker sat behind the cart and the other started pushing. It took a lot of hard work and skill to get so many people on the trolley and push them away, especially in the first ascending part. Both workers were pushing one by one. Then they reached the center of the tunnel. Aramish was under the pole of the automatic bell, with her companions, the two veiled women sitting nearby. On hearing the bell, the laborers, who were pushing the cart, jumped on it. In the darkness, he had only a glimpse of her. After this hump, as the descending part of the track started, the speed increased, the triangular red flag of the railway on the trolley started waving even faster, the children started screaming with joy, and the four-kilometer-long tunnel passed in the blink of an eye. Then came the Shanzla station, and the speed of the cart increased even more. The signal was down, and the signalman was waving a green flag. The railway line was going to Chaman passing through sequential tunnels and ridges. Far away, the road to Kandahar running straight in Afghanistan’s Registan desert was visible. After traveling a couple of kilometers more, the two drivers started applying the brakes, the speed slowed down and the cart stopped in front of the Garang Post.

Khushiya's heart and mind were tangled there. Their car was parked at Sheila Bagh. He got seated his wife and children at the Garang Post cafeteria and hired a ride to go back. 

Once there, instead of the station, he took his way towards the Khojak Tunnel. He had gone a little in the darkness that he found Aramish coming from the front.

“You are alone! Where are the women who were with you? ”

“I have buried them.” She answered in a very cool, calm, and collected mood. After a little pause, she asked, “But you, too, are alone in this tunnel! Are you not afraid of this area and the darkness of tunnels?”

Khushiya laughed. “I am not scared anymore. This is my country. Why should I be afraid of anyone? But why did you bury them? Who were they? ”

“I bury them all there. They were your fear, your phobia.”

“And who are you?” He asked, staring dazedly at her.

“I am Aramish, your wit, your endurance. 

Look! You have nothing to fear about in this area. We are hospitable people. Go! Visit the entire area with your children.”

“And where are you going now?”

“Back to Lahore.”

Following him, the railway employees were also coming into the tunnel with a torch in their hands. They found Khushiya sitting on the track, with a cigarette in his hand, the swirls of smoke above his face, and staring into the haze. 





October 16, 2022 08:46

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4 comments

Naheed Qureshi
03:52 Oct 28, 2022

Vow

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03:53 Oct 25, 2022

Absolutely lovely 😍

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Abdulsamad Jimoh
06:35 Oct 24, 2022

Wow... This story is lovely. I enjoyed reading it 😊

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Kamran Saeed
22:47 Oct 22, 2022

Loved reading it, romance, feelings and travel documentary. Syed is master of language, one can almost feel to be seeing when he describes,

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