“I fly kites, sir!”

Parvez Mahmood recalls how his skills at kite-flying and his 'kapi' (copy) for stamps got him through the most important interview of his life

“I fly kites, sir!”
In the issue of the 6th of January 2017 for The Friday Times, I wrote my memoirs titled ‘Learning the ropes’, where I had mentioned my selection for the PAF Public School Sargodha. Here I narrate the story of the interview - that was a part of the selection process - to pay homage to two of my most cherished and respected teachers in life.

I was selected for PAF Public School Sargodha in 1965 at the age of twelve-and-a-half years. Having completed my primary education from Urdu-medium schools, I got admitted to Muslim Model High School, Lower Mall, Lahore and was studying in class eight. As a part of selection process the applicants had to appear in written tests followed by an interview and a medical examination. The interview before a panel of school teachers was to be mainly conducted in English. My command over spoken English was very poor - almost nil - because I had never had the occasion to communicate in the language. I could converse with confidence only in Punjabi and spoke Urdu with a heavy Lahori accent.

Hugh Catchpole, founder of Cadet College Hassanabdal, was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz

The following narrative about the interview is fundamentally correct though the words within quotation marks are not exact; but close to what was actually said. The sequence of questions may have been slightly different as I have relied on my memory. As will be evident, my recollection of the events is quite vivid because I have often reflected upon the entire episode and narrated it to many of my close relatives and friends. As my school roll number fell in the first half of the selected boys, I must have scored high marks but have wondered what traits caught the deft eyes of the two great teachers sitting in the interviewing panel.

Lahoris have a common trait of being brash, exuberant and boisterous. People living inside the walled city behave as if the Mochi-Bhaati Gate axis lies at the centre of the universe and that they possess the best cultural traditions of the world. This feeling has arisen because of the city having been the capital of the empire during the reigns of Mughal and Sikh rulers. Having grown up in its lanes, I was naturally self assured and confident and this aspect was to play a major role in the interview.

I had appeared in the written tests a few weeks earlier and was delighted to receive the call for the interview. The interview letter expected me to present myself at a certain time and on a certain date at the PAF Information and Selection Centre (I&SC), Abbot Road Lahore, an area otherwise known to me as the street of cinema houses. My father sat me on his bicycle early in the morning on the said date and we rode from Gumti Bazaar to the Selection Centre. My father left me in the care of the staff and rode off to his office on the Mall. Other boys started gathering and we were ushered in for the Intelligence/Psychological tests. It took a short while for the staff to compile results and we were told to wait for the interview, that would be conducted one by one. We waited on the benches in the lawns of the Centre.

Mr. Catchpole being honoured on his 20th death anniversary, on 01 Feb 2017

I even showed him my badge of honour, a cut on my index finger of the right hand that I had then recently acquired but is discernible even now, fifty years later

When my name was called, I walked into the interview room and observed that there were three persons sitting behind a large desk. I was somewhat intimidated that one of them was an angraiz (Englishman), the other being, as I latter recognised, Mr. Naseer, who subsequently became my favourite teacher. I was asked to sit down and the interview began with the routine questions of names, family details and education.

As I stated above, I could read and write English but had never conversed in the language. While I could understand Mr. Naseer better, Mr. Catchpole’s accent made it extremely difficult for me to comprehend anything. My answers were mostly in heavily Punjabi-laden Urdu and a precious few English words - that I am certain Mr. Catchpole hardly understood. Gratefully, Mr. Naseer came in handy with helpful and timely translations or transliterations.

"He will grow," Mr. Catchpole told Mr. Naseer, and then looking towards me said, "You may go"

After a few questions Mr. Catchpole asked me what I did in my spare time. As I had lived inside the walled city since my childhood, there was nothing better for me to do than flying kites. Though only 12-13 years old, I knew everything that there was to know about kites; their types, the aerial performance of each type, the types of strings and their characteristics, the effects of low or high wind speeds and direction, the intricacies of aerial combats, etc. For me, it was the sport to indulge.

Therefore, very confidently I replied, “Guddian urata hoon” (I fly kites.).

Mr. Catchpole looked askance towards Mr. Naseer, who grinned broadly and offered his translation.

Mr. Catchpole, his face lighting up with an amused smile, said, “And why do you do that?”

“I like it,” I replied, as if this was the most natural thing to do for a young lad.

“OK. So you like it. And why do you like it,” he said with a grin.

“I enjoy paichas (aerial kite combat),” I replied in Urdu.

He again looked towards Mr. Naseer, who now appeared in slight discomfort and gave his translation with some explanation. I, of course, didn’t understand what the fuss was about and sat smugly.

Mr. Catchpole, appearing amused and bewildered, asked, “How many type of kites are there?”

I began naming all kinds of kites I knew, “There is a guddi and a gudda.

“What is the difference between the two?” he asked quizzically.

“Sir, the guddi has a split set of loose paper strips as its tail whereas the gudda has a square tail,” I was feeling assured in my favourite domain.

And why we do you have them different?”

Gudda has better control in high wind but Guddi is better in low wind.”

“What other types are there?”

“There is patang and a Kupp?

“How are they different?”

“The former is more stable but the latter has a narrow lower portion that makes it more maneuverable,” I explained with pride.

And on and on it went. He kept asking me questions that I answered with complete mastery of the subject. I was getting the hang of his accent, while he was speaking one word at a time to lighten the load on my aural efficacy. My replies were a mixture of broken English and Urdu with a heavy splattering of Punjabi, which was the expert language of the serious issue under discussion. I even showed him my badge of honour, a cut on my index finger of the right hand that I had then recently acquired but is discernible even now, fifty years later.

The author at the grave of Mr. Catchpole

He kept pressing on the subject and spent about ten minutes on it before moving on.

“Do you have some other hobby?”

“Yes Sir, Stamp collecting.”

“Oh, you collect stamps too!” he said skeptically.

I had been into stamp-collecting since my early childhood, perhaps since I was about nine or ten years old. My father had been an avid stamp collector and, over the years, had gathered a large collection. I had become custodian of that treasure.

“And where have you got this collection from?”

“My father had a collection that he has handed over to me. I also take stamps from anyone who I see with a post letter,” I conveyed.

“How many different countries are your stamps from?”

“I have stamps from Pakistan, India, England,”

“What do the stamps from England have printed on them?” he cut me off.

“The picture of the Queen or the King,” I responded.

“What is the most interesting stamp do you have?”

“The Indian and Bahawalpur State stamps with Pakistan embossed on them.”

“If a stamp says Polska, what country that would be?” he inquired.

“Poland”, was my prompt reply.

“And Magyar?”

“Hungry”, I responded without blinking.

“What is a penny post?” he smiled.

“Sir, the first stamp issued in England costing one penny,” I blurted out.

“Do you have one?” he grinned.

“No sir, there are not many of these and they are expensive”, I said.

His interest was evidently piqued and he kept pressing questions one after the other. What is the oldest stamp I had, what was the most interesting stamp, why some Indian stamps have Pakistan stamped on them, etc. He grilled me again for about ten long minutes. Mr. Naseer was now feeling easy and comfortable in explaining Mr. Catchpole’s English for me and translating my pidgin into English for him, with an occasional question of his own.

Finally, Mr. Catchpole asked, “And where do you put your stamps?”

I had a proper Stamps Album from Ferozsons, one of the best bookstores in the town, presented to me by my maternal uncle but as I used to call it ‘Kapi’ (notebook) and I couldn’t recall the word Album. I thought for a few seconds, scratched my head and finally said, “I have a copy for stamps with name of countries printed on each page. I have pasted my stamps on it!”

“What is this copy called?”

I again pondered but couldn’t recall the proper word and told him so.

He then went into inquiring about the nature of this ‘Kapi’. How were the pages arranged, what was the title of pages, how many pages for one country? On and on he went. Every second or third question would be, “And what is the name of the copy?”

I was aghast, thinking hard and deep, trying to recall the damned word.

Finally, when he had tested my knowledge about stamp collection to his fill, he raised his chin, a twinkle in his eyes, with his typical trademark grin and whispered, “Album.”

“Yes sir, it is called album,” I took a sigh of relief.

Then Mr. Naseer, taking note of my small height, whispered something to Mr. Catchpole, who asked me to stand against the wall behind him and measured my height. He took my fingers in his hand and twisted them.

“He will grow,” he told Mr. Naseer, and then looking towards me said, “You may go”.

When all the interviews were over and the result was announced, I learnt that I had passed and was given the papers for medical examination.

Later when my father accompanied me for joining the school, we were ushered in to the Principal’s office. I saw Mr. Catchpole behind the desk and whispered to my father, “Yeh wohi angraiz hai.” (He is the same Englishman).

That angraiz, who earned lifelong respect of all his grateful students, now lies buried in a graceful corner of Cadet College Hassanabdal, an institution that he served as the founding principal. On the eve of his twentieth death anniversary on 1st Feb 2017, his numerous old students from Cadet College Hasanabdal, PAF College Sargodha and Abbotabad Public School, the three institutions that he served in Pakistan, and Air Marshal Asghar Khan, his sole surviving student from Royal Indian Military College Dheradun, gathered at his burial place to pay homage to their beloved teacher.

As for Mr. Naseer, who taught us mathematics, he was one of the most dedicated teachers that I have come across in my life. Due to my expertise in his subject, he made me feel proud by treating me as his protege. He has also completed his worldly journey and rests in the heavens above.

May God bless them both with his eternal blessings!

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

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: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com