In my memoirs titled Learning the ropes in an earlier issue of The Friday Times, dated the 6th of January 2017 – earlier this year – I had mentioned joining the PAF Public School on the 5th of September 1965, a day before the commencement of hostilities between Pakistan and India. I now narrate my personal tale of that war.
Having deposited me in the kind care of the housemaster Mr. Qadeer Baig, my father left for Lahore, taking one of the buses stopping at Chungi number 6. I went up to my dormitory. We each had a cupboard in the changing room for clothes and a sideboard next to our beds for items of daily use. I unpacked my clothes and other belongings. I was carrying a cardboard box of mixed sweets. I ate a piece or two and stowed away the rest in the sideboard. And thus I settled in for the term which was to last till the end of December.
However, as it frequently does, Fate had other plans. While we were into an uncertain asleep in the early morning of the 6th of September, India had launched an attack across the international border at Lahore. The war had broken out and was to soon involve the Air and the Naval Forces.
That day, Monday, was the first regular day of our school. We were being issued pencils and stationary when we learnt that war had broken out. We are asked to go back to our homes. As the School sat next to the vulnerable Air Base, it was deemed prudent to have it vacated. Buses had been ordered for evacuating the students. While waiting for the buses, we went to the radio room to hear the speech by President Ayub Khan declaring the war with India.
With blackouts having been declared, we ate in the dark
Expecting uncertainty of train services and road conditions, the school administration declared that all boys would go to their respective homes; except those belonging to Lahore or south of it – who were to be packed off to Lower Topa in the Murree Hills, to our sister public school. The boys proceeding to Rawalpindi also had to board the same buses and were to be dropped at Rawalpindi Railway Station.
My father was a far-sighted man. While I was preparing for joining the school, gathering up items listed in the joining letter, we happened to pass close to the Do Moriya railway bridge, riding the bicycle with him. This was probably the middle of August. We saw a north-bound train full of soldiers and tarpaulin-covered guns. Seeing the train, my father remarked that if war broke out while I was in Sargodha school, I should go to my Taya’s (uncle’s) home in Rawalpindi and not come back to Lahore, which, being close to the Pakistan-India border, would certainly be a theatre of combat.
When we were asked to go back from classes to the houses, the house masters were preparing lists for the students and their destinations for the war period. I was told that I, being from Lahore, would be going to Lower Topa. I opted instead to go to Rawalpindi. I am not certain how the school ceded to the request of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old instead of following their own plan, but I was allowed to get down at Rawalpindi. I boarded one of the buses going on this route. In my haste, I forgot the sweets in the bedside locker!
The buses started their journey in late afternoon for Rawalpindi. The route to be taken was via Talagang, Chakwal and Gujar Khan. It was a long journey on a rough track. Being prone to motion sickness, I had a difficult two hours from Khushab to Talagang on the steep winding climb. The height change from 700 ft at Katha Sagral to about 2,700 feet at Pail Chowk, from where the road that branches off to Talagang takes just about 15 kilometers. We stopped for dinner at a charpoy restaurant. It was already past sunset when we got off the buses and with blackouts having been declared, we ate in the dark. We stretched our legs and breathed the fresh air before resuming the bus ride.
We reached Rawalpindi railway station at about three or four in the morning. I didn’t know the city very well but, having spent a few days there, I knew that my Taya, who worked as a guard in the railways, lived in Mohan Pura and that my father’s maternal uncle lived in the nearby mohalla of Nanak Pura. During the bus ride I came to know that another of my entry-mates, Zubair Ahmed, was also planning to get down at the station because his father worked for the railways and he was well acquainted with the premises (Zubair joined the Pakistan Army, retired as a Lt. Col and is now settled in Toronto, Canada). As it was very dark with a blackout in force, we decided to wait for the sunrise. Zubair took me to the Assistant Station Master’s office. We were dozing off there on the reclining chairs when the air raid sirens started to blare and there was commotion on the station. Now I realise that except the two of us, everyone on the Station knew that the place was a prime enemy target. We rushed out on to the platform observing the frenzy when we heard the dull thud of the bombs falling quite far away from us. I may now be imagining it but I recall hearing the sound of aircraft flying in the close vicinity. A little later we heard the all-clear siren and went back to our seats.
In the morning, when it was sufficiently sunny, we carried our baggage out to the vast yard outside the Station. Zubair asked me if I knew where I had to go. I told him the name of the mohalla but said that I didn’t know how to go there. As we came out of the station building on to the road, we saw a number of tongas with one of tongawalas shouting “Kashmiri Bazaar”. I recognised this name as the road on which Nanak Pura was located near the Novelty Cinema. I hailed him and inquired if he could take me to the Novelty Cinema, to which he replied in the affirmative. I bade goodbye to my friend, boarded the tonga and alighted at the cinema. My father’s maternal uncle lived just across the cinema on the main road and I found his house easily. Later in the day, he took me to my Taya’s house where I stayed for the duration of the war. I had reached the safety of my close family.
After the first day’s attack, there were no more raids on Rawalpindi to my knowledge, though the air-raid alarms were a daily affair. My uncle had prepared a first-aid box and given it to the charge of my eldest cousin. The family of my uncle would sleep in their beds but would take shelter in the kitchen when the alert sounded. The war passed away rather happily with all children enjoying an unexpected school holiday.
Meanwhile, when my father heard that the war had broken out and the radio announced that Sargodha had been under attack by the Indian Air Force, he was, to say the least, extremely worried. My mother was hysterical. In the absence of telephones, they had no way of knowing my fate. It was only when I reached Rawalpindi and my Taya would use his railways communication network that they received the news that I was safe in Rawalpindi. In fact, I was safer than them, who in Lahore were exposed to all sorts of aerial and ground-based dangers.
We rushed out on to the platform observing the frenzy when we heard the dull thud of the bombs falling
Immediately after the war, I travelled to Lahore on one of the trains that my uncle was piloting as the guard. In Lahore, everyone was in high spirits, having witnessed aerial dogfights, the downing of the Indian aircraft and having heard the firing sounds of ‘Rani’, the World War II vintage artillery gun. We travelled to the border areas east of Lahore to witness the points of Indian Attack. We also travelled to Khem Kzran via Kasur, where the Pakistan Army had captured a railway station on Indian soil and that had turned into a popular tourist site!
By then, I had enjoyed a break of about a month and eagerly awaited the call to rejoin the School that I had worked so very hard to get selected for.
We finally came back to school in late October and were told to occupy the beds that we were earlier allocated. I walked up to my bed and found a thick meandering line of ants moving briskly to and fro between their hideout in the backside veranda to my bedside locker. I gingerly opened the door of the locker only to find the box of sweets swarming with ants.
While I spent the war worrying about the world around me, the ants were having a fun time munching on my Lahori delights!
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at email@example.com