False Start: The Road To Adulthood

"In Lahore I had to confront the unpredictable. There was no cadet’s mess with food laid out and bearers getting my clothes ready. I had to fall back on my own resources"

False Start: The Road To Adulthood

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

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The bus journey to Lahore has stayed in my mind for some reason. I remember the bus hurtling itself into the darkness of the Punjab. I remember the dosing nondescript passengers and myself thinking of the unknown which lay ahead. But I was not apprehensive. I was very positive. Unfortunately, I did not remain positive when I was in that city. Lahore was the city of colleges and fun but sadly enough it had no fun in store for me. Indeed, in Lahore I had to confront the unpredictable. There was no cadet’s mess with food laid out and bearers getting my clothes ready. I had to fall back on my own resources which were nil. I first stayed with Rahat, a lecturer in F.C College, who was Anwar Bhai’s friend. Understandably, he did not want me to be a permanent incubus so he shooed me out after a few days. Then I stayed in Shaheen’s little cubicle in the Punjab University Boys’ Hostel. We used to eat our dinner—the popular pota curry (stomachs of chicken cooked in a curry)—in a hall humming with activity. One of Shaheen’s friends specialized in cracking jokes which were such riddles that one had to laugh for fear of being taken for a fool. Then, when the joke sank in, one had to suppress one’s giggles. I gave up the whole thing since I always hated being measured. So, I told the friend to stop his riddle-like jokes which worked. Then I moved from Shaheen’s room to a place in Gulberg where I had taken a room as a paying guest.

It was a fairly spacious room in a big house with a big lawn. But, except for the lawn, I appreciated nothing about the house except the demure and rather shy and pretty girl who brought me my meals. However, my conversation with that bashful maiden was in monosyllables of where to put the food down though both of us knew there was just one place for it. I did not appreciate the meals themselves; the disreputable people—or so they appeared to me—who occupied other such rooms; the anonymity; the loneliness. Indeed, I hated Lahore though I also felt it was a colourful place for others. I had to travel, generally hanging from the door, to the old campus of the Punjab University from where I went to the new campus to catch the bus. It was a tiresome journey both ways. I liked the classes, however. Professor Sirajuddin, who taught us Shakespeare, was a most famous lecturer and I marveled at the way he could stretch out a single point for a whole hour (‘Which country, gentlemen is this?’ from ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’). He was also the chairman of the department of English literature at that time. Then there was a very competent gentleman who taught us Chaucer and had what I took to be a medieval English accent. Naveed Rahman (later Shahzad), who had just joined as a young lecturer, taught us something—I forget what. And a tall lady, Mrs. Aslam, taught us Milton. I called her the Duchess. A tall young gentleman, gentle in his demeanour and with what I thought was a near-British accent (RP) called Mr. Riaz, taught us Aristotelian criticism. On the whole the standard of the teaching was high and none of the faculty shirked classes. Among the students, since there was no such thing as attendance, one could bunk classes but probably most students did not. I, however, disappeared off and on to PMA as my parents had gone on pilgrimage to Mecca and Madina.

As mentioned above, I was quite lonely, uncomfortable and maladjusted in Lahore. My parents, along with my little brother and sister, passed through Lahore railway station when my parents were going to Karachi for Haj and I went to meet them. I felt so miserable that I broke down and my mother spent the whole time in consoling me. My sister tells me that she remembers this very vividly. Everyone must have been disconcerted and Ammi asked me not to leave the Punjab University permanently. I was, however, thinking of leaving my studies and paid scant attention to my classes. Perhaps that is why I do not remember my class fellows except a very attractive, olive-complexioned girl who once asked me for my notes when we got off the bus together in Gulberg. I had no notes so this affair never took off at all. That day I was so lonely that I took off for a few days to PMA. Later, I would love to tell people that the girl had scared me away with her unseemly demand for notes but no such thing happened. This time I came back after a few days of truancy in PMA where my life of roaming around with friends, all younger boys now, and riding horses did me a lot of good. I used to stay with Uncle Naseer who, as a colonel and HOD of English, had a nice bungalow. However, upon my return, I again started feeling miserable and took long walks in the hope of freshening myself up. However, after one or two visits to Uncle Naseer’s house in PMA, I took the drastic decision of getting my admission cancelled and leaving the Punjab University and Lahore for good. I reasoned I could appear in my M.A as a private candidate later just as I had for my B.A.  I did not see that it was necessary to attend classes and listen attentively to lectures. I thought that the books were enough to pass any examination and lectures were totally unnecessary.

When my parents returned from haj they were disappointed and mortified and this time they showed it. My father did not say much but my mother was bitter in her disappointment. However, I do not remember being punished by them or being told to join a college or something. So, I resumed my fun-filled life of having long talks with Arsalan and playing with the other PMA boys. As always, I also climbed mountains and rode horses and sometimes swam in the swimming pool. But English literature had not been forgotten. In fact, I started writing a history of it just as I had written a brief monograph on English history when I was eighteen on the assumption that this is the best form of learning. It was only by assuming that I was learned enough to write a literary history, that I could carry out the intense reading which was required of a good student. Since I had nobody to guide me, I read much of what was not required in the examination and left out things which were. But I enjoyed the writing. It made me feel good and much of the reading for it stayed in my memory. I also wrote short stories and a few poems which I did not publish till much later. I even wrote a novel which, being a mushy imitation of Thomas Hardy, still lies unpublished and a novella in what I thought was an épater le bourgeois style. On second reading of it, however, I was forced to admit that it was nothing but honest to God erotica—or, if one wants to call a spade a spade, mushy pornography-- of the worst kind. S,o even I had to tear it to shreds and confine it to the wastepaper basket.

I spent most of my day, however, in vigorous physical activity. There were two pine hills which I climbed myself and also led the other boys to them. I remember one such excursion in which Tariq, Arsalan’s elder brother, told endless jokes and we laughed raucously. I also went to Thandiani with Arsalan and Ahmad, my younger brother, who behaved wonderfully not rushing down the slopes as Arsalan did. But there was a reason Arsalan disobeyed me so willfully. He was getting fed up of me. The fault was mostly mine. I was trying to monopolize him too much. He was interested in ideas and that was the first time in my life that I enjoyed talking to someone who talked about intellectual issues. But I forgot that boys are also fond of organized games, such as hockey and football, and not just witty and intellectual conversation or horses and mountains. So Arsalan started avoiding me which made me miserable. It was this which marred the Thandhiani trip rather painfully.

Another trip with Arsalan was to Kaghan and Naran. It was in the summer of 1970 and PMA cadets as well as Lieutenant Hamid (later colonel, d. 2021), who became my friend later, were with us. I also knew, though not very well, the younger brother of Major Shabbir Sharif, Raheel Sharif (later general and COAS), who was also with us. We stayed in the Naran rest house and walked to lake Saiful Maluk. There I did something very foolhardy. We went rowing out on the lake about which there was a rumour that an octopus or other strange creature—maybe a kraken which echoed in my mind since John Wyndham’s Kraken Wakes was taught at Burn Hall--came out and pulled in any would-be swimmer. To prove this old wives’ tale wrong, I jumped overboard and the icy cold water almost froze my limbs. I vigorously tried to swim but my limbs were going numb and, in any case, I was not very good in swimming which should have deterred me from such a folly. The boat, which was only a few yards away, seemed impossible to reach. But reach it I did and was hauled in with difficulty. Then I realized that it is difficult to swim in this icy water from the glaciers around the giant-like mountains precisely because it freezes the limbs. The trip was pleasurable on the whole though I spent part of it in interesting ideological disagreements with Lieutenant Hamid, always a man of religious and right-wing opinions, and the usual witty and intellectually exhilarating conversation (though sometimes marred with complaints) with Arsalan.

The year 1970 was the year I turned 21, the age of adulthood in the West. My 21st birthday on the 4th of February was celebrated with a box of biscuits and cakes I had with Arsalan after a wonderful movie. It was cold but I was young and I loved life. After all I was in PMA—the place which gave me the sense of an indescribable communion with Nature. But early youth had finished. I was now a young man.