A Man in Winter

Mehdi Mohsin met Major Langlands, his Grade 8 teacher after decades, and returned with inspiring stories of courage, resilience and professional integrity

A Man in Winter

“Understatement is the essence of a true gentleman.” (Anonymous)

On Thursday, 6th November, I visited Major (Ret’d.) Geoffrey Douglas Langlands SI, CMG at Aitchison’s Bahawalpur House, affectionately referred to as GDL by us school-boys in our salad days. I found him taking his ease in the small portion allotted to him, within the larger premises, which is now known as Langlands House.

I barged in without prior appointment yet this venerable person, formally dressed but coatless, received me cordially and kindly offered me tea and cake.

The colonial architecture of Aitchison College, Lahore
The colonial architecture of Aitchison College, Lahore

I could still detect a twinkle in his eye as he spoke at length about Imran Khan

Although he has to strain to hear what his interlocutor is saying, which is by no means surprising in a man on the wrong side of 97, he was quite alert and I could still detect a twinkle in his eye as he spoke at length about Imran Khan, who I believe drops in on him from time-to-time, his unfortunate kidnapping and his days spent in uniform in service of crown and country as first a Sergeant and then a Captain. I wanted to commit the highlights of this memorable meeting to paper, so that it comes on record for the sake of posterity, since I consider it a distinct privilege to have been in the presence of a man so highly regarded and so widely recognised and respected for his sterling character and invaluable services rendered to further the cause of education in our benighted country for which we will always remain in his debt.

On the intriguing, and now somewhat controversial, subject of Imran Khan, he claimed everyone knew that the former was going to be a world-class cricketer one day. When he was in M1 (grade 8), Major Langlands was his class-teacher and IK was near the bottom of the pile. GDL mentored him tirelessly taking pains over him to raise his academic standing to mid-level ranking but just a year later, in M2, he failed so his father packed him off to Royal Grammar School Worcester, England, which is famous for its cricket, where he naturally excelled at the sport. He returned to Lahore, after a 3 year hiatus, to complete his schooling at a parochial establishment. He was then offered a place at Oxford on the basis of his cricketing abilities.
The Major was approached by the staff and students wishing to commiserate with him over England's loss

Later, when Pakistan defeated England in Australia, during the 1992 World Cup Cricket Finals, Major Langlands, who was listening intently to the commentary of the match on the radio at his school in Chitral, was approached by the staff and students wishing to commiserate with him over England’s loss. With a glint in his eye and in that inimitable, emphatic manner in which he would famously stress some words, redolent of our days studying Maths under his tutelage some 40 years ago, he unequivocally conveyed to them, presumably to their lasting surprise, as to which side he had been rooting for.That was the Pakistan team, of course, because IK was his “STUDENT”. Such was, or is, his undying devotion and loyalty to his pupils. He had every reason to take justifiable pride and rejoice in IK’s amazing achievement who, as per a news item I once came across, “had brought honour to a corrupt country” under his able leadership by striving so hard and for so long for this magnificent win.

Major Langlands outside the Bahawalpur House
Major Langlands outside the Bahawalpur House

I further ventured to inquire about the unfortunate kidnapping incident that took place during his tenure as Principal of Razmak Cadet College in North Waziristan in February of 1988. He narrated the following account:

He was scheduled to attend a conference in Peshawar but the driver of the vehicle, who had other, altogether more nefarious plans, drove him deep into tribal territory, against his will of course, with his cohorts piled over a hapless Major Langlands to prevent him from raising the alarm. They arrived at a village in the late hours of the night and the Major was told they would soon be moving on as the place was not considered safe. The man refused to budge. “I am NOT going!” he quoted himself as having said in his vintage, no-nonsense style.

At that moment in time I reckon neither man nor gun nor any amount of coercion could have withstood the force of this slightly-built man’s moral authority bestowed upon him by the Almighty and by virtue of his own, noble deeds.

When they saw that his hostage was an old man of over 70, albeit still sprightly at that advanced age, the parents of the young Pathan, who had committed the criminal act, admonished him for his foolishness and warned him that “nothing good would come of it.” The next day he was marched for six and a half hours through arid terrain to a desolate spot where stood a solitary straw hut. It was to be his home for the next five, tension-filled days even though he was treated well by his captors. Inside were huddled 3 other abductees from “ordinary, unimportant” - his words, not mine - backgrounds who had been warned in advance to expect a “VIP prisoner” with whom they would have to share their space. They believed he would be released much sooner, through his connections in high places, but he tried to allay their fears and reassure them that they would all walk away from captivity together as free men.

For lunch he and his fellow captives feasted on chicken curry and a goat was slaughtered for dinner in their honour by the recalcitrant tribals. In fact all the guests, naturally of the unwilling sort, were treated humanely by their dubious hosts.

The tribesmen would while away their time taking pot-shots at rocks and stones located in proximity to their dwellings to improve their proficiency with an assault-rifle. GDL was passed a Kalashnikov by one of them, to try his luck. He demurred at first but accepted the challenge upon their insistence. He moved the fire-selector lever to the single-shot option, took careful aim, while his finger gingerly caressed the trigger, and squeezed off a round hitting the target “dead-centre” which, ironically, pleased his captors no end. This reluctant hero, unlike the fictional Hollywood types, happened to be real. He had been the captain of shooting during his school-days so he knew a thing or two about marksmanship, he added with a wry smile. In the same vein he went on to explain, with another chuckle, that there were 15 of them versus one of him and each of his potential adversaries was armed with the same lethal automatic weapon that he cradled in his arms so even if he had uncharacteristically attempted to despatch a few they would have ultimately overwhelmed him with their superior firepower. No, he was not so reckless as to gamble his life when such heavy odds were stacked against him.

All the captives were allowed to roam around without shackles but were cautioned against wandering too far lest the wild dogs attacked them, or someone from a neighbouring tribe singled out GDL for target-practice, taking particular exception to the “foreigner” in their midst. Besides, the border with Afghanistan was contiguous to the agency where he was being held. A violent, grass-roots insurgency raged against the Soviet occupation there so it too was a no-go war-zone.

After 5 days, two men came on foot to accompany him back to civilisation so he could finally walk away, as apparently a deal had been struck to obtain his freedom. He did not, however, delve into the details of the deal. By then two of the other hostages had already been set free and the last one was held for an additional, although brief, period before he too was released from captivity. He was the night watchman of some road-building gang that the tribesmen had abducted for ransom.

As they headed in the general direction of Miranshah, the administrative headquarters of North Waziristan, and to freedom, they crossed a school whose students came out to greet him. GDL shook hands with a few of them even though he was cautioned by his escort against fraternising too much with the locals.

The Aitchison College fields
The Aitchison College fields

In Miranshah, the political agent welcomed him and asked him whether he would like to take a bath, have a meal and/or sleep. He recounted, with another twinkle in his eye, how he opted for each of the three choices, made all the more tempting after enduring captivity even if mercifully short.

Later, the acting-governor invited him to stay at the Governor’s House in Peshawar for a few days to unwind and recover from his ordeal.
In Grade 9 Imran Khan failed so his father packed him off to Royal Grammar School, England

Incidentally, he evinced great respect for the late General Fazle Haq, who was the late General Zia’s military plenipotentiary for the then NWFP, considering him to be a dynamic individual with the well-earned reputation of a doer. (I drew a blank when I elicited his opinion about General Fazle Haq’s tainted name, sullied by allegations of drug-smuggling.)

When World War II broke out he was teaching at a school in Croydon, South London. He at once volunteered his services to the army and soon received his sergeant’s stripes as part of a commando unit. One of the more ignominious allied defeats of the war that he played a small, but by no means insignificant, role in, was the Dieppe Raid of 1942. It was meant to test the resolve of the German Army, prior to the D-day landings on the Normandy beaches in 1944, and to see whether a coastal town in occupied France could be over-run and held by a sea-faring force comprising around 12,000 men. Two Canadian Brigades, plus a detachment from the British Army, were involved in this rather ambitious, but ultimately doomed, operation.

The answer, in his own words - rather in his still booming voice - was “absolutely not” as it turned out to be a complete and utter rout. Only 5,000 of the original invading force managed to survive the intense bombardment from German batteries and machine-guns, making the rest retreat helter-skelter to the relatively safer shores of England with the rest of their comrades-in-arms either killed or captured. A sapper-unit, consisting of 150 brave British souls tried to blow holes in the defensive perimeter-walls erected at the edge of the beach. Only 12 members of the original assault-team survived the devastating fire coming from German lines and managed to reach their objective and plant their explosive charges. The gaps, thus created in the reinforced concrete of the fortified sea-wall, were sufficient for only one tank from the attacking force to squeeze through which was driven around the undefended town aimlessly all day long with the crew finally giving themselves up to the Germans presumably after they had run out of gas, or had fallen victim to boredom during their interminable joyride!

He admired the Germans for their fighting-spirit and for adhering to the rules of war, at least on the Western Front, unlike the Japanese.

In the latter years of this global conflict, GDL was posted to Officer Training School in Central India - “in the middle of nowhere” - although he was spoiling for a fight with the Japanese.

Promoted to Captain, he joined the Garhwal Mountain Regiment in Pahalgam, a small town nestled in the Himalayas precariously perched at an altitude of 7,000 feet plus.

From the balcony of the elegant mess building a spectacular view of 5 neatly-arrayed peaks awaited to greet the visitors and from its rear the shimmering lights of Delhi were visible on a clear, cloudless night.

Nearby was a PoW encampment where Japanese prisoners were interned under guard. It was overseen by a Swiss citizen who invited GDL and some of his colleagues to pit their skills against a 21,000 ft. high peak ,found in the same general neighbourhood but, unfortunately, as their expedition progressed upwards they came across a gaping ravine a quarter mile across rendered impassable due to its massive width. Although they did espy a smooth flank to the mountain in the distance, which afforded comparatively easier access, and therefore a good opportunity to climb all the way to the top, they decided to abort their summit-bid and turn back.

These are some of the fascinating reminiscences that this grand old man shared with me drawn from some rich facets of his amazing life. I wish I could have lingered longer with him, as I am sure he has a treasure-trove of yet more absorbing tales to tell, but I did not wish to tax him too much as I could see that he was quite frail and would exhaust himself quickly. Moreover, I suspect it took some effort on his part to remain engaged although I did get a sense that he was fully immersed in the conversation.

He was soon to go under the knife for some minor procedure from which I pray he emerges fully cured. Thereafter, around 20th November, he plans to fly to London to meet his twin brother 10 minutes older than him. He beamed with delight as he apprised me that an Abu Dhabi-based former student of his was generously paying for his passage. I wish him Godspeed and a great trip.

After signing his visitor’s book, crowded with complimentary comments, and recording impressions of my own riveting meeting with him, I sadly took my leave and bade him farewell. As I was driving away I could see him pausing in the doorway. It was a touching and unforgettable sight to behold a physically diminutive figure (but 10 feel in metaphorical stature), a man of quiet, modest dignity waiting there, with an air of genuine humility about him, at the threshold of his austere lodgings, to see me off. Even though he was approaching hundred, this kind and compassionate nonagenarian and, to my mind, a man for all seasons, thought nothing of extending this by no means minor courtesy to one of his more mediocre students, even whose name he could not recall.

May God always keep Major Langlands under His Divine protection. Ameen.

They certainly don’t make ‘em like that anymore!