I am in two minds with reference to the title of this week’s column from the chronological point of view, as trains made their appearance in our lives before airplanes did. My first memory of a train ride comes from the very early fifties and is a kaleidoscope of excitement, apprehension and noisy crowds. In those days, the Pakistan Railways was known as the North Western Railway and was considered to be a dependable and economical way to travel by all tiers of society.
Most of the trains were pulled by steam locomotives, which had an awesome magical charm for children and adults alike. A few spanking new diesel locomotives had also been put into service with the image of a First World hand wearing stars and the stripes clasping an anonymous one from the Third World emblazoned on them.
Trains were composed of first, second, inter and third class carriages, a luggage van and a dining car. There was no air conditioning (this came a few years later), but first class passengers could avail the luxury of a steel tub full of ice blocks inside their compartment, to ward off the heat. Many of the guards were Anglo-Indians, with personalities that would have put monarchs to shame.
It was the dining car, however, that took the cake. Unlike the food service on trains these days, this restaurant on wheels was like a page of a British Raj picture book, complete with spotless white table cloths and starched napkins placed tastefully in shining glasses and smartly attired waiters. The food was served from menus and consisted of both local and Western cuisine. I can still recall our family favourite in this category - lamb cutlets with boiled potatoes and slices of bread, washed down with tea.
Air travel in the years of our childhood was still considered risky by many and one of my elderly aunts always maintained: “If God had wanted man to fly, He would have given him wings.” My first sight of an airplane was a pair of Royal Pakistan Air Force ‘Tempest’ fighter planes, as they flew low over our house in Lahore, but my first physical encounter with the flying machine has remained indelibly burned into my memory.
The city of Lahore was served by the Walton Airport, which also doubled as an Air Force Station. I starkly remember the day when I walked out, accompanied by my grandfather, to an airplane that had two tandem open cockpits and two parallel pairs of wings – later, I came to recognise such contraptions as biplanes. Standing next to this machine was the spitting image of one of my favourite story book heroes - Biggles. This handsome person was Humayun uncle, who became one of my most favoured characters. The next 15 minutes were the most unforgettable in my life, as I got my first experience of viewing the world from above.
Airports then, were almost two decades away from terror threats and families or friends coming to see off passengers could walk right up to the tarmac. The most celebrated aircraft of the time was the triple-finned Super Constellation that plied between East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan. For us, this machine carried special significance, as it brought huge bundles of dahlias and sweet meats sent by my father from Dhaka.
Then there were the Dakotas that connected shorter routes. This aircraft was a tail wheeler and, therefore, had a fuselage and deck that sloped steeply upwards from the tail to the cockpit. My association with this old workhorse from the Second World War was mainly linked to the handfuls of sweet and sour candy that was doled out by the cabin crew.
I remember the arrival of the first Viscount on its maiden flight from Karachi. There was great excitement, as we drove to the airport to catch our first glimpse of this machine that was, perhaps, our national airline’s transition into the turbo jet age.
A now extinct facet of the airports of yore was the absence of urgency, stress and what can be described as apprehension. Flights arrived on time, airline staff were friendly to the point of recognising frequent travellers by face and addressing them accordingly. On-board meals were delicious and cabin crew extremely pleasant. It is, perhaps, the huge increase in passenger and air traffic, the needs of the modern corporate world and the threat of terror in multiple forms that has transformed airports from what they were, to places that irk and frustrate.
n The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.