False Start: Off To Risalpur

False Start: Off To Risalpur

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

Had anyone only seen my inclinations and student career they would have noticed that I had always done well in languages and literature. I had written poems and essays on my own even from the age of six onwards and these were much above the average. In fact, I too had no idea as to how much better than ordinary students, even those educated in English-medium schools, I was. It was many years later when I discovered essays written at that age by myself that I found out how outstanding in English expression, historical and literary knowledge I actually was at the age of eighteen. If my parents had known anything about the fact that I was an intellectual with a gift for writing, languages and deep interest in literature, history, philosophy and what they called ‘arts’ subjects, they might not have persuaded me to be an engineer. Actually, Ammi wanted me to be a doctor but I refused since patients depressed me. Had it only been studying medicine and teaching it, I would have done it because I liked biology as well as nutrition. But in Pakistan it meant working in a hospital and this I rejected without hesitation. Next, she suggested the civil service (CSP) since her maternal grandfather had been a deputy collector or collector and her mother’s family still went into either the IAS or politics. But we, or at least I, did not know much about deputy collectors or collectors though I did know a lot about swaggering young army officers. I did not understand power, patronage and what value they had for Pakistani society. My own life had been so secure that I could not understand the attraction power has for middle class young men looking for jobs. Hence, I never even gave Ammi’s ideas about the civil service a serious thought. For me getting a commission was the most coveted thing as it was for most of us boys in PMA and Burn Hall (except those who came from business, feudal or princely families such as Hunza, Nagar, Amb or others). Indeed, whoever I met those days sang the praises of the military as a promising career for young men. 

I did not know what a military life actually entailed - being careless, naïve and never one to plan about the future or even care about it. All I knew was that I wanted respect in society, an easy life, horses, open lawns and being served by liveried waiters in grand old colonial buildings like clubs and messes. This kind of life was available in the civil service but I did not know it. I did know that it was available in the armed forces if one was an officer. But Abba insisted on engineering. So, this left me with two options: a commission in the army or the engineering profession which was Abba’s choice for me. I was inclined to the first but then Uncle Shamsie convinced Abba that engineering could be combined with being an officer. His own son Khalid, my friend, was going for this option. So, I was to apply for a commission in the aeronautical branch of the air force which would combine being an officer with engineering. This was fine with me since all I wanted was to be an officer in the armed forces so, if instead of being an army officer I was to be an air force one, that did not matter. I would be commissioned, it was pointed out to me, as a flight lieutenant i.e. a captain which, of course, was highly tempting.

There were, however, gatekeepers. First there was an initial test in the PAF recruiting centre in Rawalpindi and then a preliminary medical examination and I was selected in both.  Then everybody scared me about the ISSB which, it was rumoured, was very difficult to pass. I was aware that all Anwar Bhai’s friends had appeared before the ISSB and failed. Anwar Bhai himself had also failed and was so mortified that he kept crying for many days. One of his friends, Farooq Kiyani, did make it to the education branch of the PAF and rose to be an air commodore. That, however, came later. At this time nobody had returned successful from the ISSB. So, it was a kind of challenge and badge of honour to pass the ISSB. Not being the type who cares about badges of honour nor one who wants challenges in life, I am surprised that I went to the ISSB at all but I did since I also had great confidence in my abilities. I was not aware of my weaknesses then though I am now which gave me an unexamined faith that all would be well. At that time life seemed so sunny and so promising that I started on my train journey to Kohat without fear.

The fabled ISSB Mess was our first taste of a cadets’ mess. Hundreds of boys milled around exchanging horror tales of rejection. The waiters went about deferentially but with an air of knowing secretly that we were not officer stuff. They were rumoured to be spies but that did not prevent people from talking animatedly on all issues. We were awakened by a bearer who brought us our ‘bed tea’ in hoary colonial tradition. Then, dressed in shorts, we ran off to the PT area. But first came the intelligence test after which some people were unceremoniously sent home. Failing this was a great disgrace and I and Khalid were much relieved when we made it. Even I cared for this one because of the stigma of failing it. Then came command tests, half-command tests, discussions and what not. There was even an assault course which I found easy but, judging by the number of casualties, it could not have been apple pie. This grueling series of tests went on for four days and then there were interviews after which results were declared. I could hardly believe my ears when I was told that I had passed. Khalid too had passed. I also remember Ishtiaq but nobody else out of those who became my course mates in the 4th Aeronautical Engineering course (G 4) later.

I came back to Pindi and stayed with Shahid Bhai at night. Khalid went back directly to PMA and found that he would have to catch the train for CMB (Central Medical Board) in Karachi. Shahid Bhai promised to take me back on his trusted Vespa scooter early in the morning. I agreed but only because I didn’t know what early was in his lexicon. True to his word, Shahid Bhai got up with the lark but, unlike that fabled bird, showed much alacrity in locking himself in the bathroom. I did not quite get up with the lark but when I did, I had my breakfast, changed and waited and there was no sign of Shahid Bhai. When at last he emerged, it was ten already. He said his breakfast would take no time but this ‘no time’ was relative (a la Einstein) so by our earthly watches it was an hour when the last cup of tea was emptied. Then a friend dropped by and Shahid Bhai had to talk to him out of politeness. This took another hour. So, by the time we got on the road it was afternoon. I forget where we had our lunch but we must have stopped a good deal because we reached in the evening. Ammi was frantic with the long wait. She didn’t even know where I was and there were no cell phones in those days.  And in Shahid Bhai’s house there was no phone at all so we could not tell my parents that we started for PMA so late.

No sooner had I arrived than I was mobbed by friends. Younger kids such as Sunny, Ehtesham Zeb Raja, arrived with sugar canes by way of celebration. The party stopped late in the night and I had no time for Ammi who was ecstatic. But the next day I was told that I would have to go to Karachi and by air. Nobody among us had traveled by air so I was thrilled. It also gave me another day with friends in PMA. Mother was anxious since she was sending me all the way to Karachi, and that too by air, and alone. But despite these apprehensions, off I went to Pindi the next day though the flight was nearly at midnight since the night couch was cheaper than the day flights. I went to the Flashman’s Hotel in Rawalpindi to wait for the PIA bus to take me to the airport. In the waiting room I saw two men drinking some alcoholics drinks. This was the first time I saw people drinking at such close quarters though I knew that officers did drink in the PMA officers Mess and the Abbottabad Club. I considered these two men depraved and somewhat comical as one of them told the other that they would be in Karachi the day after and were in London the day before. I was not in the least impressed by this glimpse of the jet-setting life. The bus came and off we went to the airport and then got onto the plane with the air hostesses who also wore teddy clothes—or at least tight ones—though not the ones which burst at the seams as Gulzar Rana had told us. They served us with snacks and then we landed at Karachi airport. As I came out in the warm and humid atmosphere, a smiling, handsome, brown-complexioned youth pushed his way towards me and greeted me. This was Khuda Buksh (d. 2019) (KB for short), my uncle’s driver. He took me to a waiting Volkswagen, my uncle’s car, and off we headed for his house in Nazimabad. At home I was greeted most effusively by my uncle, Shafi Ullah Khan, whom I had seen now after the time he accompanied my mother and myself to PMA. My uncle, Chacha Mian as I called him, was the personnel manager of KLM and lived at that time in Nazimabad. My grandmother was also there and Chachi Jan, my uncle’s wife, shuffled in the background. She was a bit shy and Uncle with his hurry and scurry and rather offensive banter was enough to make her even more diffident than Nature meant her to be. I was fussed over and hurried to a bed on which I fell asleep.

The next morning after breakfast I was taken by Khuda Baksh whom Uncle addressed with such choice compliments as bandar ki aulad (monkey’s offspring) and Ghori (mare) which is only an abbreviation of the actual one which is being censored for being unprintable in this puritanical era, and so on. The epithets made KB grin like a Cheshire cat and I discovered later that he worshipped my uncle who was the kindest man he had ever come across. As I sat on the table I saw two children, who turned out to be my cousins Riaz (d. 2021) and Shakeel, giggling over their breakfast threatening to throw it all out of their mouths. Many grown-ups stood there and fussed and Uncle hollered at nobody in particular cracking what appeared to be standing jokes in between. This was pure drama, and comedy at that, compared to the sombre sedateness of my home. I will describe my Uncle’s lifestyle in more detail later in this chapter. At that moment I understood that it was very different from my own. Anyway, I was whisked away to the CMB which was held in PAF Base Mauripur. 

There I met Khalid (later air commodore), Javed Naqi (later wing commander, d. 2021), Javed Raza (later air vice marshal), Aslam Khan (later wing commander), Saleem Iftikhar (later air commodore) and other course mates. All sorts of measurements were taken and tests were carried out. The same thing happened the next day and the day after. But then a worrying thing occurred. My heart was running fast—faster than normal—though there were no other symptoms of anything wrong. This made the doctors check me again and again and my face became longer and longer. On the last day my heartbeat was so fast and loud that I could almost hear the heart as the doctors brought the stethoscopes near. I looked with envy and admiration at all those who had been declared fit and felt the humiliation of rejection already. Then I was called in for my result.

‘You have been declared medically fit. Category A’, said the doctor. I was galvanized as sudden happiness and immense relief surged in my being. Then I came out in a daze and told Khuda Baksh. He too was happy and so we came home in high spirits. That very evening, I flew back to PMA.

The next few month passed in hectic activity and then Khalid received his final call letter from the Air Headquarters but I did not. At first, we thought it would come the next day but many days passed and no call. I decided I would join PMA which had just offered a short service commission in the army. However, that would need a fresh application and I was again in considerable anxiety. Then at last the postman came with the call letter and I shouted ‘Ammi! Ammi!’ and hugged her close—a rare thing in our undemonstrative family—as she sobbed with joy. By then there were only a few days before going to Risalpur and these were spent in getting clothes ready. Cadets had to wear British-style (of about fifty years back) night suits with gowns, Oxford-toe black shoes, mufti (complete with coat, well-pressed trousers and tie), shirts with collar bones and keep clean handkerchiefs in the pocket at all times. So new pairs of these clothes were purchased and I was all set to embark upon this new phase of my life. The children, Ahmad and Tayyaba, were ecstatic and asked me endless questions. Anwar Bhai nodded his head sagely remarking that he had predicted great successes for me a long time back. He gave the impression of being in possession of mystic secrets which he could not divulge and even I hid my scepticism for a change. Then, on the 13th of November 1967, I and Khalid took the taxi from PMA en route to the PAF Academy near Risalpur. Ammi waved me a tearful goodbye saying that I was leaving home at eighteen—I was nine months older actually—and would never return. Then we got onto mini-buses, the most comfortable mode of transport available at that time, and landed at Nowshera. Here were a few others like me: happy, tentative, apprehensive but hopeful! And we hailed a tonga for the PAF Academy. At that time there was a bridge of boats over the river Kabul and the road to the PAF Academy was narrow. Tongas were the usual means of transport and as the Academy came near our thoughts turned to the ragging by seniors we would be subjected to.