The great green dome of the shrine looms overhead as I enter with a group of pilgrims. It had been segregated a few years earlier. Other than some men selling rose petals inside bright pink plastic bags, the women pilgrims are separated from the men by a glass wall. While we wait to enter the grave of the saint, a woman in a burqa sitting next to me asks what I am writing in my notebook. I tell her I’m a writer.
“Are you a writer as well?” I ask her.
“I am a married woman,” she replies. “What have I got to do with writing?”
Another woman joins our conversation. She has come to pray for an ID card, she says. Confused, I ask her what she means. Her husband, who passed away two years ago, had been a railways electrician. She had gone to the railways to collect his pension, but when she was asked for her identification she had nothing to show. She’d never had an ID before. When she went to get one made, the men at the government office told her that there was someone with her name and fingerprints already in the system. They asked her for three thousand rupees to resolve the issue, but she did not have the money. After trying for years, she says, she has come to the shrine in the hope that the saint will get her pension from the railways.
I meet another woman named Mehmoona. She’s been attending the urs for years and comes often to help keep the shrine clean. Mehmoona says she does it to gain the good graces of the saint. “It’s incredible,” she explains. “Ganj Buksh was the student of Makki Ali Shah [a much older Saint, also revered for his teachings]. Shah’s shrine is nearby but it is Gunj Baksh who draws hordes every year.”
I ask her why there were no female saints.
“That is God’s way,” she replies. “He knows best.”
A nearby food stall displays goat testicles and kidneys
As midday arrives, I decide to head back to the station and wait for the next Khyber Mail continuing onward to Peshawar. It seems that life around the station has formed its own economy to serve the coming and going passengers. Tacked to the low fence of the railway park is a sign advertising ear-cleaning services. Strange, somewhat painful looking implements, are arranged in a neat order on a wooden crate under the sign. A scalp massage costs 100 rupees. Shabbir, the masseur, has carefully spread a bed-sheet out on the grass, upon which one can receive a vigorous massage while taking in the chaotic Lahore city traffic around the park. He has two customers at the moment, a police constable and a hawaldaar, a junior constable, from Kashmir who are touring Lahore. The massage is the highlight of their day, they tell me.
A nearby food stall displays goat testicles and kidneys on a plastic sheet. Small billboards advertise lodging for the night inside impossibly small looking buildings. Mattresses and quilts can be rented for the night. Families sleep inside what look like vacant shops. In one corner, a man lies unconscious next to a woman seemingly oblivious to the syringe sticking out of her arm. Addicts and vagabonds mingle with the tired passengers.
The heat is oppressive, so I finally make my way back inside the station where creaky fans whirr ineffectually. But the shade is welcome. The railway cafeteria on the main platform is empty and the lights are off when I peek in. In the bleak afternoon light, a server is waving flies off the samosas. There is a waiting room for the passengers, but it has been leased to a private contracting company and turned into a VIP waiting lounge. A little further along, eight families sit on the platform, or on the few available seats. They are all waiting for the Samjhota Express that is scheduled to arrive the next morning. The train will take them across the border to India.