Harnai – A lost railway town in Balochistan

chappar riftNot many people in Pakistan are aware that there is place called Harnai. This small town in Balochistan lies 168 km east of provincial capital Quetta and takes about three and a half hours by road to reach. Harnai district was carved out of the larger Sibi district in 2007. Harnai gained importance at the end of the nineteenth century as a railway station on the now defunct Sibbi-Khost railway line. The bridge on the Chappar Rift has a special appeal for railway buffs all over the world. This was an engineering marvel at the time of its construction. The first railway link to Quetta was inaugurated in 1886 via Bolan Pass. A year later another rail route to Quetta was opened via Harnai, Khost, Chappar Rift and Bostan. The gradient of the railway track leading upto the Chappar Rift is 1 in 40 and rises to a maximum altitude of about six thousand feet above sea level. The bridge was opened by the Duchess of Connaught on 27th March, 1887 and came to be known as the Louise Margaret Bridge. This alternate railway route to Quetta was used for about fifty five years until it was washed away by a flash flood on the night of July 10, 1942. Despite the loss of the Chappar Rift Bridge, the 133 km track between Sibi, Harnai and Khost remained operational until early 2006. The track is operationally (but not officially) closed due to damaged bridges. The previous government actively considered making the Sibi-Khost route operational again but presently this project is halted in its track.

Harnai’s other claim to fame are its woollen mills, which closed down in 2004. On the 14th January 2019, the Balochistan Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that the federal government reopen the closed Harnai woollen mills for boosting economic activities and providing employment opportunities to local people. Harnai woollen mills is still registered as a company and has its offices in Karachi.

For me, Harnai holds a special importance. This is my father’s birthplace, where he was born on 25 April 1927. From his humble beginning as the eldest son of a minor railway official, my father made a successful career first in the air force and later as a diplomat; retiring as an ambassador. I and indeed all my siblings were lucky to have him as our father. He was the best of fathers and a real model for all of us.

A visit to Harnai had always been on my wish list. In some small way I wanted to pay homage to my father. This wish was fulfilled on November 29, 2019. It was a cool and sunny day that we moved by car of a relative living in Quetta to our destination.  As we drove past Baleli ordnance depot and turned right towards Kutch, the sun rays glinted on the mulberry trees near Bostan, highlighting their golden autumnal colours. The drive through the windswept steppes of Balochistan is always an exhilarating experience. And this one was no exception. The road follows the gentle turns of a former railway track and after having been upgraded, it has shortened the route to Punjab. It will eventually become part of the CPEC.

One town along the route that caught my attention was Shahrag. Literally the jugular vein, miners had struck a rich vein of coal deposits here. Coal is still excavated here in commercial quantities. One of my maternal uncles was born here. I remember from my maternal grandfather’s autobiography that the place was infested by scorpions. Next of course was the famous Chappar Rift. The pillars of the bridge and the mouth of the tunnel are visible from the dirt track below.

Short of Harnai, an arch over the road welcomes the traveller to Harnai town. On the right hand side is a hotel much favoured by truckers. We stopped and drank some delicious piala chai and resolved to have our lunch there before leaving. The aroma of lamb meat and tandoori naans wafted in the air whetted our appetite. A stream of clear water flowed next to the hotel that added to the idyllic look and the timelessness of the place.

Soon upon entering the town is the the railway station, now sadly bearing a deserted look. A new building stands half done. An ugly structure has replaced the earlier more traditional colonial architecture that typifies railway station buildings all over Pakistan. More painful was the fact that the project had been abandoned by the new government (after sixteen months in power, not so new actually). The station master was missing and his office was boarded up and locked, so I could not check the records to find any mention of my grandfather Malik Muhammad Din (I’m really not sure if the title Malik was entered in the official records). The railway huts were in various states of dilapidation and decay. In one of the still functional rooms, a Sindhi from Sindh had taken up residence. He now sells chickpeas in the streets of the town and earns enough money to send back to his family. I’m sure he uses technology for money transfer, probably easy paisa.

I tried to imagine, which particular railway hut my father was born in. Who delivered the child? Was there a midwife? How did my grandfather inform his family in his native village Maira Akku, near Golra, now next to the federal capital? Did he send a message on the railway telegraph system to Golra junction, asking one of his colleagues, did he write a letter home and was a few years later that his parents saw his parents saw his offspring(s)? Where in Balochistan was his brother in law, the railway doctor? Did he come see his sister and his new born nephews? Did he travel by train? Was it already hot by the end of April in Harnai? What arrangements did my grandfather had to keep his wife and son cool?   A host of questions came rushing to my mind. I had no answer. Perhaps if I had a time machine, I could have travelled back in time to see how the young family was coping with the arrival of their first son, so far away from home in the wilderness of Balochistan.

The town was dusty and had narrow streets like any other small town in Pakistan. We turned back and had our meal (a really tasty one of typical Baloch meat dishes), offered our noon prayers and drove back. Another cup of tea and prayers in Bostan reclining against bolsters lying on the floor and then past Kuchlak, a town that still looks more like an Afghan with tribesmen wrapped up in blankets looking every bit the Taliban that dropped the kidnapped son of the Governor Salman Taseer (he who was assassinated by one his body guard for sympathizing with Asia Bibi) next to Al Saleem Hotel. As a parting gift, they left the Governor son with enough money to buy roast from Saleem Hotel and make a telephone call from the kiosk next to the hotel to his home in Lahore. This hotel now capitalizes on its notoriety and does brisk business.

As we entered Quetta, a setting sun was throwing its light on the surrounding mountains. A host of thoughts struck me: Would I ever be able to go back to Harnai again? I wondered. I once thought of establishing a school library in Harnai and Mastung (my mother’s birthplace). Perhaps I’ll donate some books to the FC School that I saw near the railway station. Would the children read books? I’m told that reading has gone out of fashion, in the age of the Internet. Perhaps someone will read this blog and may be somebody in the government may consider reopening the Sibbi-Harnai railway line?  May be the glory of the railways will be restored?

 

 

 



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