This memoir is a continuation of my article titled ‘Picking up the pieces’ published in The Friday Times in the issue dated the 9th of December, 2016.
For those who are mired in poverty, the one sure way out is through pursuit of good education. Though it is a long and difficult route, education is the only enduring and respectable solution to rise from penury to affluence. Socially, it is a great leveller. In a classroom, everyone is a class-fellow regardless of wealth or lineage and the only thing that counts therein is academic excellence.
I said that the route is long and difficult. Long, because a complete modern education through a university takes about twenty years to complete. Even a vocational training leading to a diploma course through a technical institution needs over a dozen years, in addition to internships that consume anywhere between one and two years. Difficult, because it is competitive. Student vacancies in good educational institutions are scarce and have to be won through performance in long drawn out admission tests. Studying is often a boring task, especially when the subjects are not to ones liking; and there are always some detested courses that cannot be avoided.
My father thought Aitchison College was the best school and wanted his children to study there. There was no way he could get us there
To my great benefit, my father was a great believer in education and very serious about the schooling of his children. He would keep regular track of what we had studied in the school and whether we had completed our homework. He also taught me an early lesson in not missing classes. Our school in Gujrat had its weekly holiday on Friday, whereas my father was off from his office on Sundays. I was in class 2 when on a certain Saturday in the summers, my father, very fond of the fruit, brought a case of mangoes for the weekend, as he kept doing his entire life. I was in school on Sunday and couldn’t resist the temptation to partake of the mango feast. During the recess, I packed my school bag and walked back home. My father got really annoyed and led me back to school, where the ever-ready teacher made me a ‘murgha’ for a considerable time. I have never missed a class in my life since then!
He would especially check our progress in mathematics. He was good in the subject and enjoyed teaching it to his children. Correctly judging my interest in mathematics, he taught me how to solve algebraic equations at a very early age. He even bought an old pre-partition era 500 page thick book titled ‘Matriculation Algebra’ that he called ‘Dil’s Algebra’. It had long exercises on basic arithmetical and algebraic methods. I still retain that yellowing book though it is withering away and its pages have become brittle.
My younger brothers started their schooling in Lahore. In 1959-60, two of my younger brothers were of school-going age. Desirous of putting them in some affordable English medium school, my father admitted them to the junior section of Islamia College Railway Road. It was far from our house but it was close to my Nani’s house (i.e. my maternal grandmother) in Gowal Mandi and, if required, my brothers could walk after school from Barafkhana Chowk, through Krishan Bazaar to Bagwaan Bazaar and reach Nani’s house. My father used to carry them in the morning on his bicycle. They would walk through the claustrophobic Gujjar Gali and then ride the cycle through Chatta and Suha bazaars, go past Malik Ayaz’s grave (the famed protagonist of Allama Iqbal’s verse ‘Aik hi saf main kharay ho gay Mahmood o Ayaz’, i.e. ‘The ruler and the ruled stood in one row for prayers’) to Rang Mahal, ride along Shah Alam Road before turning left on circular road and then turn right towards Barafkhana Chowk on Fleming road to reach Islamia College. He would drop them there and proceed to his office on the Mall via Dil Muhammad and McLeod roads. That amounted to a two-way cycling of about eight kilometres everyday.
Our start to good schooling was to pay huge dividends years later when our education took us to comparatively much greater financial and social heights.
When I got admitted to class VI in Muslim Model High School, I could neither recognise the alphabets nor understand a word of English. I was a total Urdu-medium type. The school was adjacent to Government College and opposite the much better Central Model High School. The headmaster of the school was Shaikh M.A. Aziz, father of the renowned economist Dr. Mehboob-ul-Haq. It was a large school. There were ten sections of class VI alone with each section having over sixty students. It was a good school. I still recall Master Nadir (Mathematics) and Master Ehsaan (English), who were true teachers in every sense of the word. It had a big play ground and was known for its champion cricket team. It has produced numerous world class cricketers including Muhammad Ilyas, Mudassar Nazar, Saleem Malik, Azmat Rana, Saeed Ahmad, Younus Ahmed and many others. Yunus Ahmed was the school cricket team captain when I go admitted. Sadly, after its nationalisation, the school was deprived of its ground – where another school by the name of Saleem Model High School was constructed.
I remember Master Nadir for giving me six cane-lashes on my hands after a class test whose abysmal results had annoyed him. After announcing the result, he decided to lash the whole class. When it was my turn to get the stick, a boy shouted, “Master Sahib, He has topped in the test”.
“So you have topped?” he asked in anger, his cane raised.
“Ji, Master Sahib” (Yes, sir) I said proudly.
“How many marks have you scored?” he inquired.
“Master Sahib, 64.” I replied.
“The one who tops should be getting 90 or above and not 64. Extend your hands” He thundered, his cane raining blows.
That was a practical lesson for never claiming to be “Andon main kana Raja”(amongst the blind, the one-eyed is the king).
During this time, I developed my lifelong habit of reading. My Irshad Chacha was fond of reading novels. He used to get his books on loan from the Railways workshop library. The novels were mostly written by M. Aslam Rahi, A.R. Khatoon, Zubaida Khatoon, Razia Butt, Naseem Hijazi and others. I read them voraciously and developed great esteem for these authors. Interestingly, I came across close relatives of many of these writers later in life. I was a class fellow and PAF Academy course mate of my friend Suhail Butt, a nephew of Razia Butt. As for the family of A.R. Khatoon, I was privileged to study Geography from her son Mr Fasihuddin, whose son Shahid Zaheer was my class fellow and a good friend. My wife and I have spent many evenings with Muhammad Ali, husband of Zubaida Khatoon – A.R. Khatoon’s daughter-, who loved to tell me about his expertise in raising lovebirds. Their son, Syed Farooq, remained a good family friend till his death. Syed Farooq’s paternal first cousin, and son of Professor Syed Ahmed Ali (Pakistan’s first ambassador to China, author of ‘Twilight in Delhi’ and a translator of Quran), Orooj Ahmed Ali, was also my class fellow from class VIII to XI in PAF Public School and with whom my friendship continues over five decades. A grandson (nawasa) of Hafeez Jalandhri was also my class fellow in the same school. On a less personal level, a grandson of Naseem Hijazi appeared before me as a candidate for Army at ISSB Kohat. He cleared the tests. I don’t know his current status.
“The one who tops should be getting 90 or above and not 64. Extend your hands!” He thundered, his cane raining blows
I had a special affection for my uncle and his wife and would spend a lot of time in their Barsati, eating and sleeping there. They had a small compartment in the wall, a void space under the turning stairs that was used as storage space. It provided me with a perch where I would climb with a book and stay there for hours reading. Once, my Chacha warned my father that the novels contained love stories. My father said that he didn’t mind as long as I was getting interested in books. Consequently, I developed a lifelong interest in reading and have continued to read especially Urdu poetry, Western and Russian novels, and, above all, history. I am forever grateful to my Irshad Chacha – May God bless his soul – for inculcating this delightful habit in me.
My father had a towering spirit and an ambition to match. He would tell his colleagues that his son would study in ‘Chief’s College’ as Aitchison College was commonly called. He thought that it was the best school in the country and wanted his children to study there. Of course, there was no way he could admit me or any of my brothers in that institution. He neither had the necessary lineage nor the income for us to do so. Then he learned from someone that there is a boarding school run by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at Sargodha that was in every way equivalent to the Aitchison. He also learnt that the admission to the school was purely on merit and the fee was nominal for the wards of low income group persons. Based on my impressive expertise in mathematics and general performance in school, he was convinced that I would pass the requisite exams. He waited for announcement of the admission schedule, filled up the forms and on receiving the date for the tests, took me on his bicycle to the exam site, where hundreds of other candidates had assembled. The test was in mathematics and English papers. My father left me there and went back to his office.
After the mathematics paper, I came out of the testing Shamiana (tent) and compared my answers, duly noted on the question paper, with those of other boys. I found that very few matched with the rest of crowd. I waited apprehensively for my father, fearing that I had not done well in my favourite subject. My father, may God bless his soul, appeared and asked me how I had done. I expressed mixed feelings. He took me aside and went through the paper. Proficient at mathematics himself, he took about fifteen minutes to verify the answers, took a sigh of relief and said, “sub theek hain” (All are correct). Being from an Urdu-medium school and good in studies, I excelled in English-to-Urdu as well as in Urdu-to-English translation, and grammar. These two items formed a substantial part of the English paper and I had not made any significant mistake.
Consequently, I cleared the written exam, the interview and the medical tests. I was finally selected and placed 29th on the merit list amongst the 63 boys selected from the whole of East and West Pakistan. I still had some distance to go before I cleared the hump of mediocrity and hardship but had taken the first necessary steps in the right direction.
On the 5th of September 1965, I, with my father, boarded a morning train for Sargodha to join the school. I was dressed in new pants and shirt. My close relatives had come to see me off. My mother was sad and crying. An aunt thrust a box of sweat meats in my hands. I was garlanded with roses and banknotes. A curious crowd gathered around us.
“Is he getting married?” a fellow passenger asked.
“No, he is going to school.” my father replied.
The questioner was bewildered.
At Sargodha, we were led to meet the legendary Principal, Mr. Catchpole, who welcomed me to the school and assured my father that his son will be taken care of. As we came out of his office and walked to my house through the tree lined walkways, I was over awed by the place. I looked at my father. His face and eyes were glowing with a perpetual smile of satisfaction and elation. He knew what he had achieved.
I was assigned to one of the four hostel houses that was to become my primary home for the next six years. Suddenly, from the backwaters of an Urdu-medium overcrowded school and a fourth floor Barsati, I found myself in the privileged competitive environment of a school that, along with Cadet Colleges Hassan Abdal, Ghora Gali, Sarai Alamgir and Petaro, could only be compared to Eton and Harrow. I was in the company of boys who would later form ‘who is who’ of the Pakistan Air Force and Army. Our beds were made by one batman, shoes polished by another, clothes were washed by the college laundry and food was served on the table by bearers. We had to employ spoons, knives and forks to eat. A class fellow of mine even taught me how to eat a banana with a fork and a knife, a trick he had learnt while dining with the then President of Pakistan during the previous vacations. I had house, class and school mates from all sections of society whose fathers ranged from feudal lords to generals and industrialists, and even the then C-in-C of PAF. Every high office that had always seemed far away and out of reach suddenly appeared just one step away. I excelled many of my class fellows in studies, especially in mathematics and science, subjects that remained my forte for the rest of my life.
I also didn’t have to go to a mosque at 03:30 a.m. for my morning shower.
However, our circumstances were still precarious. For one, I being the eldest was, in some ways, one of the engines of the family. With my departure, responsibility for many of the daily chores fell on the tender shoulders of my younger preteen brothers. My school fee was proportional to the earning of the boys’ guardians and it amounted to around Rs. 400/- per year for me, paid in two instalments. Though this fee took care of my academics, books, clothes, travel and pocket money, it was a lot to spare from our meagre resources. There were many agonizing moments ahead for the family but we never gave up because our reservoirs of energy and fortitude were rich and deep.
Unbeknownst to anyone amongst us in the school that day, the war with India was to start within the next twelve hours. Our school was to become vulnerable being located next to the PAF Base and we were to leave college the next day. However, that story needs to be told separately!
Parvez Mahmood is a software engineer, having retired from the Pakistan Air Force
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: email@example.com