Boyhood At Burn Hall: Wrapping Up Schooling

"Sometimes, while struggling with metaphysical and deeply philosophical issues, I would again have a bout of anxiety all related in one way or another with the vexed question of salvation"

Boyhood At Burn Hall: Wrapping Up Schooling

Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times.
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We were taught English by a number of lecturers, one being Qadir Hayee. He was in the college for a short time because he joined the police and retired as an inspector general (IG) later. The most competent lecturer was the one who taught us Urdu. I and Khalid studied ‘easy Urdu’—a special kind of Urdu available only to boys from English medium schools. Our mathematics instructor too was capable but the others could not explain things in English—something we English school boys found very amusing for no other reason than our linguistic snobbery.

Soon after the war of 1965 we heard that all academic subjects except English would not be taught in PMA. The Academy would offer short service commission after a course of six months in which academic subjects were missing. This meant that Jetho’s father, Uncle Fazal and Uncle Hayee (head of the modern subjects) retired immediately. My father, however, was posted to the GHQ as a civilian officer. He left immediately and I was to follow the family after my examinations. I spent this time in Uncle Naseer’s house. There was an air of nostalgia and mourning—as if the end of an era was nigh. But it was not that we were not in high spirits. We looked forward to our life as if only good could befall us. But, at the same time we felt keenly that PMA, which I and Tariq Ahsan fondly called our ‘village’, was a special place; a paradise upon earth; and that we had to leave it behind.

One December day I boarded the bus to Pindi and arrived at the address I had been given. This was a small house in a street in the B-block of Satellite Town which was a lower-middle class residential area then as it is now. It had small houses and I had never lived in a small house adjoining other houses and without lawns. I was given to understand that this was a mohalla, an urban neighbourhood, where everyone kept an eye on everyone else. The fact that there was no garden and no lawn, not even a strip of greenery, jarred upon me. But I was young and soon started enjoying—or rather tolerating—this mohalla life. Ahmad and Tayyaba were really thrilled. They had never seen costermongers and hawkers doing the daily rounds on streets and it seemed incredible to them that they could buy sweets and ice cream right at their doorstep. Soon Ahmad was discovered buying things like a little lord. Suspicions grew and he was watched and finally discovered! The poor boy had stolen some money and that was the source of his benevolence. The consequences were dire but in camera and the party ended.

In those days Tayyaba and Ahmad, being only children after all, quarreled a lot. I used to declare that they should do so but only at Chandni Chowk. So, one day when she had just begun to start a big fight with a shriek and I said this, Tabbi paused and asked me innocently:

Bhai Jan wo to dur hai. Yahan na kar len ?’ (Dear Elder Brother that is too far, can’t we do it here?).

I said no so she just pouted out her lower lip in pain but resignedly gave up much to the triumphant simpering of Ahmad. Later, however, this trick failed and she declared war without any ultimatum.

I joined the Boys’ Intermediate College in Satellite Town. At a walking distance from there, near the Holy Family Hospital, our own house was being constructed. I was happy to find that it would have lawns in front and on the side. I often walked to it and found it being constructed brick by brick under the dedicated supervision of the faithful mason, Babu. Anwar Bhai was also there doing useful work in the accounts section. The college was like the college in Abbottabad. The lecturers were of the same quality—some good, some not so good—but there was one very inspiring lecturer among them. This gentleman taught us Urdu. As there was no ‘easy Urdu’ here, I too had to study Urdu literature. It was this at which this gentleman was an expert. He lectured while walking from one end of the room to the other and sometimes he would sit on a table. His voice never stopped and verses, Urdu and Persian, flowed out with a clarity which held me mesmerized. I quickly developed an affection for Urdu poetry, the ghazal, which only grew with time and it might be at least partially responsible for my writing a commentary in English on the Urdu poetic collection of Ghalib later. Unfortunately, I have forgotten his name but he was probably the most inspiring teacher I have ever met. The only one like him was Professor Jean Aitchison who delivered a lecture in a course I attended at the University of Cambridge much later.

During these years, besides Urdu and English literature, I also read a number of books on nutrition, sexology and as many of Bertrand Russel’s writings as I could find. These books came from the British council library of which I was a member and to which I went, all the way to the Saddar, on my bike. I also went to the crowded Raja Bazaar on the bike. This was mostly an adventure though sometimes I saw lepers on the streets. This brought my obsession with leprosy back and I would pass the next few days in dread and anxiety. Sometimes, while struggling with metaphysical and deeply philosophical issues, I would again have a bout of anxiety all related in one way or another with the vexed question of salvation. Mostly, however, I was reasonably happy though I missed PMA a lot. I did have a few friends, all boys from English medium schools, but they lived in the posh A Block which I found somewhat frustrating and embarrassing. Once I went to Shaheen’s house whose father had become a major general and whom Abba went to congratulate on his promotion. Here I found the same kind of house, surrounded by lawns, which I had been used to. I decided to join the armed forces since that was the life I wanted.

Within six months my father was posted back to PMA, this time as the Head of the Mathematics Department. I was wild with joy and, indeed, all of us rejoiced. So, in the summer of 1966 we found ourselves once again in a half hut. The cool maintain air went to my head. I was very happy. But PMA was not the old PMA since Jetho and Tarsan had both gone away. The latter’s father was now in the Foreign Office. He retired later as a Director. However, Salty was still around as were the two Shamsie brothers (Khalid and Abid) and so was Mahmud Kiyani, son of PMA’s chief librarian, Mr. Ashiq Kiyani. His younger brother, Talat, was now much in evidence as were the ‘kids’—children of my younger brother and sister’s generation. There was also Shuja, Major Ahmad Kamal’s brother, and a few others. The first memorable event was my fight with Shuja out of which I came out with enhanced prestige though, in fact, he was younger and I should have been booed not cheered. Again, I joined G.C. Abbottabad and rode about on horses, especially difficult ones.

Later Arshad Taj, son of Major Taj, an officer decorated with the Sitara-e-Jurrat who retired as a brigadier, came to PMA and became a good friend of mine. He was good natured and fun loving and loved watching movies, bunking school, smoking and eating. I joined him in most such activities but I did not smoke. I also read a lot which seemed a rather useless activity to Arshad. My interest in nutrition and literature increased so that I spent more time on them than on my studies. Just near the exams I crammed a good deal but only got a second division. It was a very good second but a second nevertheless while Khalid had a first. I was sorely disappointed and sat far away near a hedge in our hut eating endless amounts of good food and drinking a kilogram of milk per day. This was supposed to be mourning. But this well-fed mourning was rather brief since life was such fun. I soon joined the boisterous groups of friends on the roads. Thus ended my boyhood in idyllic PMA from where I embarked on the business of earning my keep. And the first career path I chose, or rather blundered into since I was most unsuitable for it, was the military. First, the air force and then the army.