Gap Years: Of Doctoral Studies And Mild Iranian Food

"Life as a warden was easy but it required more physical courage than I had ever needed in the army - there were strong and criminal-looking characters"

Gap Years: Of Doctoral Studies And Mild Iranian Food

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

When I had taken furlough from the army, I had gone on a visit to Karachi. Here, I also met some of my mother’s relatives whom I had never seen before. One of them, Anjuman Khala, had a son called Tipu who gained notoriety when he hijacked a PIA plane and killed Major Tariq Rahim whom I had known in the School of Armour as an instructor. Tipu met me once or twice and I thought him a very passionate and committed youth but I had no idea that his commitment to Bhutto could take such intrepid—or shall we say radical?— forms. He had applied for a commission in the army and had been rejected which he really grieved over. However, he told me nothing about his political activities, if, indeed, he had any at that time in January 1978.

One day on a casual visit to Karachi University I thought I should find out if I could get some breakthrough in academia since my career in the army was coming to an end. So, with no preparation nor a file of degrees or recommendations, I went to the Vice Chancellor’s, PA to request an interview. I was called in and met a smiling, balding gentleman by the name of Dr. Ahsan Rashid. Later my father told me that he knew his father who was a professor at Aligarh. Anyway, I had a talk with him in which I told him that I would soon leave the army and that I wanted admission in some Ph. D programme. He suggested that I should see the Chairman of the English department. I then added that I wanted a place to live as if this were an afterthought. He promptly offered me the wardenship of a boys’ hotel. Such an appointment is given to members of the faculty but I would only be a Ph. D scholar so I was surprised.

‘We want an ex-army officer since the hostels have arms and ammunition and outsiders, who are not students of this university, staying in them’, he told me gravely.

I agreed since the room would be free though there was no salary attached to the post. For enrolling in the Ph. D programme, however, the UGC did give a monthly stipend, which was almost like the basic salary of a second lieutenant in the army (about Rs 600 then) but was much lower than my total emoluments, perquisites and privileges in the army (Rs 1550 plus free medical, accommodation and a privileged lifestyle). However, since I had no other means of subsistence, I was very happy to get even this help.

So, one day I reached Karachi by train and went to my uncle’s house. It was May 1978 and I had only a few rupees in my pocket. I had not told my parents about the state of my finances and the money from the UGC had not materialised yet. When I met Dr. Kaleem ur Rahman, Chairman of the English department, I was as much impressed by the board outside his office as that of the Vice Chancellor. He had a Ph. D from the University of Manchester in England and for me that was a dream I could not even aspire to. I had always looked up to the university as the ideal profession since my father talked of his absent-minded professors – famous figures like Professor Habib (father of Dr. Irfan Habib), Dr. Sir Ziauddin (Vice Chancellor and my father’s mathematics professor), Sir Shah Suleiman and so on – at Aligarh. I had a romantic attitude towards the university considering it the only space for freedom of thinking, new ideas and egalitarianism. So, the encounters with Ph. Ds filed me with elation and a certain awe. As I found unruly students putting pressure on chairpersons and wardens, I decided never to accept the chairmanship of a department when, and if, I became a member of the faculty. As chairpersons had a tenure of a few years only, it was possible to decline the chair. I found that the senior-most academic in the English department was a certain Dr. Hussain, Ph. D from London on the novels of Dickens, who was a full professor whereas Dr. Kaleem, the Chairman, was an associate professor. So, a position like that of Dr. Hussain, being a full professor and the senior-most in the department, became my ideal. I used to pass by his office in which he sat from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and delivered two lectures per week, with a certain hushed feeling of encountering a kind of majesty though I never went in. I was never his student so I also never attended his lecture but I was told it was on the English novel. However, to aspire to some such exalted position where one had the prestige but not the responsibility for anything, was so far away as to be only a dream. The practical problem then was to start on my Ph. D.

Dr. Kaleem ur Rahman smiled at my flowery English when I wrote my first Ph. D proposal on the politics of the English romantic poets. I quickly changed my expression and my proposal on the ‘Political Novels of Joseph Conrad’ was accepted though Dr. Hussain opposed it on the grounds that Karachi did not have the necessary material for a Ph. D. Dr. Kaleem said this was just rivalry and it might be true. But I was in so much awe of such an exalted figure as Dr. Hussain that I said nothing. Moreover, I had made friends with his son, Munawwar, by this time who was also an M.A. student. Most other students did say outright that Dr. Hussain was wrong and he simply did not want Dr. Kaleem to have a Ph. D student. However, now I feel that, though his reasons might have been what the students thought, Dr. Hussain was right. Our universities did not, and even now do not, possess the resources required for a standard Ph. D in English literature. However, despite this opposition, the Board of Advanced Studies finally accepted my proposal and I got the first tranche of money from the UGC and started living in my room as warden of a boys’ hostel.

Life as a warden was easy but it required more physical courage than I had ever needed in the army. There were strong and criminal-looking characters, like Bashir Khan, who ruled the roost. One night there was a loud knocking on my door. I got up with a beating heart as I knew that such characters as Bashir Khan threatened wardens. When I opened the door, a boy stood looking completely distracted with panic.

‘Sir, a boy is ill. He is having a fit’, he said in Urdu. I followed him immediately and we rushed up the flight of stairs and to the small cubicle where a boy lay comatose on a crumpled bed. He was, indeed, having a fit. I gave instructions that he should be given water and taken to the doctor. I offered my motorbike but apparently people had something like an ambulance. Then, of all people, I ordered Bashir Khan to oversee the whole thing personally. Bashir Khan, who looked dumbfounded at first, seemed to be suitably impressed. After that event he did not seem to swagger around so much when I was around. I did not raid the rooms for arms and ammunition as the VC thought I would. Obviously, I could not as I had no armed support at all whereas in the army one has soldiers to obey one’s orders. The VC did not ask me why not but if he had I would have told him that a former officer is but a civilian like any other warden. At the most some students may imagine that I might have friends in the army but they might also be aware that friends do not have the authority to send troops to the campus even during military rule as that is a complicated process. So, though I do support unions, including student unions, in principle, I also feel that something should be done to ensure that they do not get controlled by criminal elements who actually suppress the genuine voice of those they are supposed to represent and threaten, intimidate and even physically harm those in nominal authority like wardens. I must add, however, that in the absence of any kind of student representation, wardens and other authorities exploit students, increase fees without caring for their ability to pay, steal food and allot rooms to favourites. In the end, I wonder what should be done. That, at least, is how I felt in 1978 in Karachi University.

I ate in the Iranian mess. The food was Iranian and I enjoyed it both because it was exotic and because it was bland – chillies caused me stomach problems. We got tea without milk with nan in the morning. In the afternoon and evening there were various dishes out of which I only remember chillu kebab, which was a kebab made of minced meat skewered like our own kebabs served with steamed rice and condiments, and tukhm-e-murgh (eggs). The conversation was generally against the Shah of Iran and within that year the Iranian revolution took place. Khomeini’s portraits came into the hands of Iranian boys but I did not see a great change in their private lives. The only boy I knew somewhat better than others was Taimur whose surname I have forgotten. He was a young, comely lad whose English was so elementary that it was with great difficulty that he conveyed his thoughts. His main interest in conversation with me was to learn English and for me, after the university hours in the morning, he was the only human being I could talk to unless I braved the traffic of Karachi and went to Shafi Ullah Chacha’s house. I noticed that as Khomeini became an iconic figure, even secular- minded Iranians started praying publicly. These pubic prayers were a kind of political statement; a public declaration of support for Ayatollah Khomeini and opposition to the Shah. However, in private, their lifestyles remained the same. Taimur’s roommate, another Iranian, had his usual dose of Vodka as did his friends.

(to be continued)