Gap Years: From The Naval Engineering College Back To Burn Hall

"General Zia was hiding behind the façade of Islam to consolidate his hold over the country - some officers and midshipmen were visibly sorry on 4 April 1979 when Bhutto was actually hanged"

Gap Years: From The Naval Engineering College Back To Burn Hall

Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times
Click here for the second part

While in the Karachi University hostel, I saw an advertisement for an English instructor at the Pakistan Naval Engineering College (PNEC) at PNS Karsaz. I applied and was called for an interview. The officer who interviewed me told somebody that he was sending a really competent fellow to the College. I was then sent to the PNEC where a gruff but nice commandant, a captain in the navy, welcomed me and I was appointed to teach cadets. There were only a few cadets in my class and it was fun to teach them. I was also given a room in the under-training officers’ mess called gun room in naval parlance. As it was a new room, the building itself being new, I was comfortable in it. However, the gun room had very odd timings for the meals. Breakfast would finish before I got up and I did not have the freedom I was used to in the officers’ messes I had lived in. I, therefore, requested the authorities to make me a member of the officers’ mess, the ward room as it was called, which was a picturesque little building on top of a small hill. As I was an ex-officer, I reasoned, I had the right to dine with officers. Luckily, they agreed and I became a member of the ward room. Here we were served by stewards—the equivalents of the waiters in the army—and the food was good. Alcoholic drinks were on the way out though officers did have them in their rooms. 

As I was called ‘Captain Tariq’, some people mistook me for a naval captain who is equivalent to a colonel. I never misled anyone deliberately but I used my rank writing ‘ex’ before it as it conferred privileges which were denied to a civilian. For one thing it was my way of not being humiliated by the hierarchy (caste system?) prevailing in the navy which seemed to be even stricter than the one in the army. Even the staircases were marked ‘officers’ and other ranks and civilians had to use the latter. I always used places marked ‘officers’ though I knew this practice was, in principle, quite unjust. I was strongly in favour of an egalitarian, democratic, society and did not in principle support such manifestations of inequality and snobbery. However, I saw no sense in being humiliated by a system which I rejected anyway. Hence I behaved very much as other naval officers did and nobody questioned that except once to which I will come later.

I read a lot of English literature and finished the available novels of Joseph Conrad and even wrote a few chapters. However, I knew nothing of research methodology nor did I have access to research journals. In 1979, while on leave from the Navy, I applied for a British Council scholarship to study English literature from a British University. For this real breakthrough in my career, I am grateful to Colonel Kiyani, the gentleman who did his M.A. with me, and praised me no end. I would have missed the scholarship had he not brought me the forms right to my house in Satellite Town. He was such a sincere man and a well-wisher. My interview was held in Karachi and I did very well. I believe they selected only six candidates out of the many – at least in hundreds – who applied. I was short listed in early 1980 and applied to the University of Sussex which gave me admission. Why Sussex? Because I still had the dream of combining the social sciences with English literature and the former gave me an opening for the war studies research I still wanted to do. The dream of doing something for peace had not died altogether and Sussex offered an M.A. in English literature and politics. That is why I had chosen to apply to it and to no other university.

While all this was going on, life in Karachi was running its normal, pleasurable course. I went to Karachi University on the days when I had to do something. On other days I took my classes in the PNEC. In the evenings I studied or went to my Uncle’s house where I had long conversations with my cousins Riaz and Shakeel who were studying to be doctors. Even more often I spent the evening with Raheel, a naval cadet who lived near my room, or with the naval midshipmen or young officers. There midshipmen – Ghalib, Tirmizi, Jafri etc – were also my students. I taught them Pakistan studies and after classes they chatted with me on all kinds of subjects. They also asked me for my motorbike which I sometimes left unlocked. Once, as a joke, they put grass in front of the motorbike as it was, so to speak, the donkey of the whole gun room. I laughed about it and told them to eat the grass themselves since it was not good enough for the bike. One day my students invited me into the hall of the gun room. When I entered everybody rose and clapped and wished me a happy birthday. They had a cake and everybody was shouting with glee. I was truly overwhelmed because, did not think anybody would remember my birthday. It was the 4th of February, 1979 and I was thirty years old. The evening was one of unique pleasure. Raheel too gave me a gift when I was back in my room. It was a happy occasion.

While my personal life was happy as I was blissfully unaware of what was happening in the country, there was much which was amiss. General Zia was hiding behind the façade of Islam to consolidate his hold over the country. Some officers and midshipmen were visibly sorry on 4 April 1979 when Bhutto was actually hanged but there was not much talk about it. Most of us were not aware of the other changes Zia had brought in: the suppression of dissent with censorship, public flogging and incarceration of activists; the systemic changes in laws to discriminate against women, religious minorities (especially Ahmadis) and blasphemy. The last one was used to take revenge, pursue personal vendettas and persecute religious minorities. All this I learned much later as it was never discussed in the navy.

Unfortunately, I left the PNEC after an unpleasantness which I had not anticipated. The gate of the naval base and college had a guard on it. This man would ask me for an identity card which, though I did have it, I forgot to bring since I was not used to carrying ID cards. What I found unjust was that he did not check my students, even when they were with me, since they were in uniform though the rule was that everybody, whether in uniform or not, must present an identity card to the guard. I argued that he knew me and was checking me because they had no respect for civilians even when they were instructors. Their officer in charge, Commander Ajaib Khan (not his real name), called me in and I argued with him. He lost his temper and shouted at me. I did the same. I then went and resigned from the PNEC. The commandant called me to his office and asked me to stay on. I wanted Ajaib Khan to apologise. The Commandant, however, asked me to waive this condition but I did not relent. I insisted upon it. As this did not happen, I did not take my resignation back. Before I left, I gave a big dinner to all the young officers, the midshipmen and cadets, who were my students as well as the middle-level officers in the ward room. Some of the officers, probably Commander Dowlo who was from the navy of some African country and Lieutenant Commander Humayun, also gave me dinners and then, probably in May 1979, I left Karachi and came back to my house in Pindi. By this time as we were living in the big house, everybody had a nice, big room to live in. When I came my brother Ahmad had to vacate his room. I took this for granted at that time but now I am grateful to him for having vacated his room with no fuss, not even a mention of inconvenience, every time I came home.

I arrived in May and in June I went to Burn Hall as a teacher of English for the Senior Cambridge (O’ level) English class. This happened because Brigadier Naseeruddin, our family friend, visited our home and I mentioned I could teach in Burn Hall for a month. My reason was only that I wanted to live in the Abbottabad valley and my school at least for a month as a kind of quality vacation. He jumped at the offer since they did not have a suitable teacher of English literature for the Senior Cambridge class (I don’t know if it was called O’ level then or not but I knew it only as SC). As the army had taken over my old school, he was the sole decision-maker being the Director of Army Education so this was done right then and there. The principal, Brigadier Bashir, was informed about it and I was told that he was delighted. Within a week I set off for Burn Hall where I was first given a room near my own matriculation class of 1964. However, I did not like the room with was far away from the main building so I requested Mr. Yameen, one of the housemasters, for a room in his house. He gave me a room which was also used as an art studio. There were windows on three sides and it was cheerful and full of life. The view before the room was that of the hockey ground and the huge chinar trees. The sound of boys playing or running around gave me a sense of life and activity. When it was night, I could gaze at the starry sky which I had watched as a child. When the sun came out there was the citadel of the mountains which were among my childhood memories. I was back to the semblance of my childhood home. I also went back to my school though now I sat on the high table where my catholic teachers, the fathers, used to sit. I was submerged in a feeling of quiet pleasure. The pull of one’s roots is strong. I was very happy.

I conveyed this happiness and enthusiasm for literature to my class. While most of my students were boys, we also had three girls—Salmina, Rozina and Rubina—in our class. While the girls went away after the classes, the boarder boys talked to me whenever they got a chance. Niaz, Farrukh Afzal and Shahryar Ameerzeb never left an opportunity to meet me. Niaz painted me a picture – the dove of peace hanging upside down from a barbed wire – which I kept with me till 2003. Farrukh told me that his father had had losses in business so that his younger brother, Sohail, and sister, Afshan (or Afsheen as she called herself later) could not afford to study in an English-medium school. He also requested me to teach them. I told him that I was not interested in private tutoring and had never wasted time on such things. Then, seeing his crestfallen face, I said I would do it free of cost as soon as my one month in Burn Hall was over, provided they came to my house in Satellite Town. They came to my house and I did teach them and they did well in their examination. Later, the whole family immigrated to America. Afsheen keeps in contact with me by writing to my wife since both are on Facebook which I am not. She came to meet me too which I will narrate later. While I was in Burn Hall, I did not restrict myself to classes since I also directed the annual play of the school. The boys learned their roles very well and performed admirably though the girls, despite my requests, declined shyly to play the feminine roles. These had to be performed, as in Shakespeare’s times, by boys who, however, performed them admirably. Thus, on the whole, the play was very successful and I was very happy.

(to be continued)