“The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose
was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.”
Julie and I waited for Robyn downstairs next morning. They had been gracious about letting me bunk in with them, since I had arrived with a decent excuse, and my own mattress. I was on my third cup of rich cardamom chai.
“You’d better be quick.” She said.
“Quick?” I asked.
“Quick, mate.” She repeated. “We’re heading off to Quetta on the afternoon train today. You need to decide.” I was about to play dumb, but I could tell that Julie could tell, and there was no avoiding that no bullshit Aussie glare. They were headed to the far western Pashtun capital of Baluchistan. Robyn’s sister and brother-in-law, Debbie and J.B., were heading east across Asia, in the opposite direction, on a cheap Top Deck overland bus tour, and Julie and Robyn were heading for a rendezvous. I had no special commitment, but that was headed for oblivion.
We all arrived at the sliding iron gates of the wild Raj yellow railway station. It seemed like all of us, if you could count that high. I pushed through the mob into the ticket office, and purchased passage on the Bolan Mail to Quetta. I thought the 221-rupee price tag a little steep, until I found out that I had paid for a first class sleeping car. The girls had tickets in third. I pointed out that my Pullman would be air-conditioned. When the train pulled into the station, we ran to peer through the barred window of my compartment, admiring the black velour upholstery. As it jarred to a stop, the flies lifted, revealing the filthy bile green plastic-covered benches underneath. In the West, God had been replaced with respectability and air conditioning, but there was still no such problem in Pakistan. Any carelessness with the exposed wiring of the ceiling fan would get you an immediate audience with Allah. Stark was the nicest way to describe it. I wondered briefly about third class, but suppressed the urge briskly. The first condition of understanding a foreign country was to smell it.
The Bolan Mail had arrived right on time. But it wouldn’t leave that way at all. We waited on the platform, watching the beggars, and the other pajama-garbed locals, watching the girls. There were a thousand young male Moslem eyes staring at Robyn and Julie. I grew agitated at the unwavering intensity of the intrusiveness. It was unacceptable that they should have to undergo the indignity of this leering rabble, but there was nothing I could do that wouldn’t have started an international incident. This was the way it was going to go in Pakistan.
In need of distraction, I began to walk across the platform to buy us some sodas. I will acknowledge that I was wearing shorts. I will concede that they were short shorts. The realization that the thousand eyes had no interest in the girls, and were actually following my short shorts, forced me onto the first class carriage early. Robyn and Julie joined me, without any correction from the conductor.
Two hours late, the Bolan Mail pulled out of Karachi City Station, on its way through the date palm dusk towards Sehwan Sharif, and, playing scrabble with Robyn into the night, towards Shikarpur and Jacobabad, Dera Murad Jamali and Ab-i-Gum, and beyond.
The name Pakistan literally means ‘Land of the Pure’ in Urdu and Persian. Figuratively, it is also an acronym of its five regions- Punjab, Afghan province, Kashmir, Sind, and Baluchistan. There is no ‘i ’ in team, or the acronym, but they threw it in anyway, as in ‘kiss my ease of pronunciation.’ I thought it more accurately represented Poverty, Anarchy, Korruption, Illiteracy, and the suffix –stan, Persian for ‘place of.’
The poverty part came along slow and hard. Because ‘P ’ also stood for pea vetch, used to make kesari dal, poor man’s lentils. It caused poor man’s paralysis of the lower limbs, convulsions, and death, a condition known as lathyrism, or Kalayakhanja in ancient India. The culprit was a motor neuron mitochondrial poison called ODAP, an analogue of the amino acid neurotransmitter, glutamate. And glutamate was waiting for us in spades, in a side junction limbo, in a jar, on the far side of Radhan.
Julie had taken it out of her daypack. It was a big and black, with a red and yellow label, and white letters where the skull and crossbones should have been. Robyn brought out chapatis and a knife. When Julie opened the jar, the compartment filled with the smell of salt, seaweed, and bloody stools.
“Vegemite?” She asked, grouting the cracks in the bread.
“No thanks.” I demurred.
“Its good for you.” Said Robyn.
“No, its not.” I replied. “It contains a ton of glutamate, which, in extracellular excess, causes excitotoxicity as part of the ischemic cascade associated with strokes and epilepsy and lathyrism and autism and ALS and Alzheimer’s. It’s also almost ten per cent salt. So, it’s not good for you.”
“Course it is.” Julie said. And they broke into song:
“We're happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be.
We all enjoy our Vegemite
For breakfast, lunch, and tea.
Our mummies say we're growing stronger
Every single week,
Because we love our Vegemite
We all adore our Vegemite
It puts a rose in every cheek.”
“...and mental retardation.” I finished.
Outside the barred window, roving packs of feral canine skin and gristle, cadaveric to the points of their bones coming through their hides, were hunting their next heartbeat. They would have eaten their shadows, if they’d had the energy to catch them. I took a chapati, already prepasted with black adhesive, and tossed it out into the night. He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich... You better run, you better take cover.
A miniature mushroom dust cloud rose off the desert soil. Wild dogs converged on the commotion from every degree of the compass, biting and snapping at each other to get there first. But ‘there’ was surrounded by an invisible force field that stopped them in their tracks, no less than five feet from the source. They all turned in unison, dejected and defeated, and skulked away slow, tails between their legs. An occasional yelp reverberated out into the darkness. The Vegemite twins were as silent.
“A rose in every cheek.” I said.