Boyhood At Burn Hall: Outbreak Of War And Preparing For College

"Boyhood was over—we were college students now. In September 1965, there was a war with India"

Boyhood At Burn Hall: Outbreak Of War And Preparing For College

Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times.
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In 1964, at age fifteen, I came to pre-matric. In Burn Hall, boys who had not done well in studies were sent to the matriculation stream—and these were very few—while others were sent to the Cambridge (as GCE O’levels was called). As mentioned earlier, after topping the class in the 4th standard, I had developed the philosophy (if such grandiose words can be used for it) to work as less as possible. This made me stay in the middle of the class (16 or 17 out of 30) but despite neither studying hard nor doing my homework, I did well in languages. Indeed, I got a first prize in Urdu in the 6th standard—a prize which I never collected for some reason which I have forgotten. I also did well in English and French quite consistently. Hence, Father Scanlon promoted me to Junior Cambridge (JC). My friends Khalid, Abid and Rashid were all going to pre-matric though I do not remember if they had been forced into it or had chosen it on the advice of their respective fathers (Pop’s orders). I was told by my mother, ‘Mom’ as we called all mothers then, to choose J.C. but Pop was all for matric and I pretended that his reasoning appealed to me. What really appealed to me, however, was the fact that whenever I looked out at the matric boys from my classroom, I found them standing in a huddle and gossiping. They didn’t seem to be doing much work and this, I felt, was the ideal condition in life—no work! So, I pretended to obey my father and drummed up all kinds of arguments in favour of my sneaky decision in the name of filial obedience. Thus, much against my mother’s and Father Scanlon’s wishes, I was sent to pre-matric.

Our new teachers were highly interesting people. There were Pakistani teachers whom we called ‘sirs’ and old Scargy. Father Scargon taught us English. I had studied from old Scargy but not from the sirs and that was a new experience. For some reason the sirs kept changing in the beginning. There were new recruits to teach us physics and chemistry. We used to be so difficult that we made them give up. One of them, an old gentleman, whom we nicknamed ‘Sir Buddha’ (Mr. Old) was hired to teach us science. We used to persuade him to take us in the laboratory. He would agree and off we ran to the laboratory. By the time he ambled up, we had escaped over the hill back to the class room. So, this hide and seek went on and we confronted him at a suitable time—indignant schoolboys whose teacher had been avoiding them! Another gentleman’s pronunciation was not considered kosher and Geoffrey Daniels, one of our class fellows, kept correcting him with a sweet smile. He too gave up soon. Eventually the school gave us two veterans—Mr. Jafri (Urdu, chemistry, social studies) and Mr. Hamdani (physics and maths). Both taught us with great dedication but we were such spoilt brats that we made teaching difficult for them because we skipped classes and were great shirkers. Soon enough, both began exhibiting an unsuspected partiality for the cane. They were also not averse to twisting our ears which the priests had never done. Another thing these two gentlemen introduced was talking to our fathers. The priests had never done that unless someone was caught smoking for the umpteenth time or involved in misdemeanors of a very serious nature, this was pure heresy. We were appalled. In those days no school had parent-teacher meeting so neither neurotic parents nor easygoing pupils made life miserable for the teachers. But now our own teachers had taken this terrible—actually I call it terrible even now as parent-teacher meetings in schools feed anxiety and tension and make for misery without accomplishing much—initiative without Father Scanlon being informed. Since he was not, we thought we should go to him but this was out of the question. He would never hear a word against these two veterans. In fact, it was not the norm to complain against our teachers so the boy who had proposed this was merely called a fathead and made to ‘shut his trap’. Mr Jafri and Mr Hamdani actually invited our fathers to meet them in Abbottabad.  My father and Uncle Shamsi were told of our exploits—including the notorious fact that I had started the PMA bus and even put it in gear thus risking an accident—and returned angry and scandalised. 

Even Father Scanlon found out that we played truant; indeed, some like myself were specialists of this adventure. Yet, he did nothing much. Then we crossed some red line since some of us had locked the school nurse—a very young and personable French woman whom we loved teasing though she was older than us-- in the bathroom. At this Father Scanlon expelled us—expelled the whole pre-matric class! Later he relented and we were asked to get letters from our parents that we would behave in future. We got those letters from college students, friends of Anwar Bhai, on the stolen letter pad of the PMA Officers Mess or some other apparently authentic paper. Thus, we were taken back and life returned to normal though we avoided the French mademoiselle like the plague (instead of reporting tummy aches to her every now and then) though her girlish innocence, or naivety, was a recipe for brats being brats. 

Contrary to what I had promised myself, I topped in every subject in pre-matric causing much inconvenience for Chum and the brats (Abid and Rashid Niaz). But this made me even more careless than before and much more inclined to reading Thomas Hardy than I should have been. The matriculation examination was in March 1965 and I got some kind of dysentery which caused so much dyspepsia and indigestion that I got fed up. The trouble had started sometime in 1964 but, despite (or because of) vigorous exercise, it had only increased. And this was not all. I have mentioned how Anwar Bhai’s obsession with white spots on his skin had made me fear the same disease. This increased and from 1964 onwards I would inspect my arms and agonize over imagined white spots. With so much rumination I often got anxiety. These bouts of obsession and anxiety caused me much mental anguish though they vanished after a few days. Later the fear changed form—it was of madness! Then came the fear of hell (salvation anxiety)! This made me study all religious to ensure that I was not missing out on some formula for salvation. Meanwhile predestination, the presence of evil and pain and suffering in our human lives, the incomprehensible enormity of the doctrine of eternal damnation and that too for doctrinal matters, some beyond human control, and not only acts of cruelty and evil—all these caused mental anguish from time to time. I ventured to discuss these issues with my parents but they were scandalized and had no satisfactory answers. However, my father did say:

‘Jahan maal hota hai wahaan chor aate hain’ (where there is wealth; thieves do come there). He meant that the presence of such kind of questions about the presence of evil in the universe and scepticism about conventional explanations of theological doctrines implied that I had faith in some form. Coming from him, a conservative in religion, this was a highly caring, compassionate and wise observation. I was touched. But my father’s behaviour always remained paradoxical. While he could be so understanding sometimes, he could be incredibly rude at others. For instance, there was a very compassionate doctor, a major, in PMA who used to visit my mother when she was ill even at home. One day when he was there, he said something about God curing her soon which, of course, was a perfectly normal thing to say in our society. At this my father burst out that that he, the doctor, had no right to mention God since he did not believe in Him. The doctor was taken aback but he left without a word. My mother remonstrated with my father and his only answer was that the doctor was said to be an atheist which, however, was only a rumour. Much to the doctor’s credit, however, he remained kind and cordial towards me even after this incident. In the same way, much later, my father did not reply to the greeting of a Danish man and a Swedish woman who were my friends and with whom he had talked very warmly during their last visit. His explanation was that he had heard that they were not married and were only living together. 

But as I said, my father could also be very caring and kind. Tariq Ahsan said he gave him hot balu shahis (a sweet made of fine flour) to eat and that he never forgot this kindness. Even more incredibly, I received a letter after his death from a former cadet, now a retired major, saying how my father had actually apologized to a cadet whom he had earlier suspected of cheating. The major said that the PMA officers were so remote, unapproachable, strict and even rude that this completely bowled the cadets over. The cadet in question, indeed, was so moved that he could not control his tears. The same officer also wrote that my father and his friend Brigadier Naseer Uddin were the only officers to leave for prayers even when a military function was going on even if the commandant himself was speaking. Indeed, someone told me that my father did this even when General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan was visiting PMA and Brigadier A. O. Mittha (later Lt. Gen) was the commandant. Such was his moral courage. So, this was my father—basically a decent and compassionate man but sometimes unable to conquer his prejudices and irritation.

But I was talking about the cauldron of questions and ideas of the meaning of life, justice, redemption and the spirit which cast a shadow over my apparently carefree life. I read and thought and ruminated about them but did not, however, discuss them with anybody else except, and that much later, Tariq Ahsan. So, there were bouts of anguish followed by the usual cheerful high spirits. This lasted many years till, by 1973, I transcended these questions. However, I have been haunted with some kinds of anxiety (mostly about being lonely and also what I call ‘salvation anxiety’). The first used to strike me whenever I was alone in Europe. To this I will come later. So, it was under these handicaps that I prepared for the matriculation examination.

Mother did all she could to help me in my illness which she rightly diagnosed as some kind of chronic dysentery which our doctors had failed to treat. She prepared sago pudding for me, washed the entrails of goats since they were supposed to be good for the intestines, sent me to all kinds of physicians and prayed for me. I was very grateful to her but, unfortunately, only showed my worst side to her in daily life. First, I used to argue with her which I have regretted several times in this biography. Secondly, I took to criticizing her for her bad behaviour—for so it seemed to me—with servants. This happened because, when the cooks became too expensive after Baba’s departure, she made do with boy servants. They were young and unskilled and, of course, quite careless because of their youth. Mother did not make allowances for such things and she would scold them and became shrewish. This was very painful for me since I did not like my mother becoming ill-tempered. I also felt so sorry for the servants that this became a bane of my existence. Though Ammi praised me for being kindhearted like her own father, she minded it very much when the same trait of my character went against her. It happened because, being unable to bear my mother’s tirades against the poor boy servants, I tried to correct her and then she turned upon me and this became a major source of friction between us which lasted all life. I never understood that it was wrong and impertinent of me to correct her. It only angered her and she thought I was critical of her personality and not just that aspect of her behaviour. So, all in all, the preparation for the matriculation examination did not take place in ideal conditions.

But the day of the first paper dawned and I and Khalid went to Salty’s house and went with him in his car to the Boys’ Public School—the school where Salty, Ali (Hasan Ali Raza), Bubbly (Hasan Ali Safi) and Tarsan studied then—which was the examination centre. When the paper finished I and Khalid preferred to walk back since Salty could not leave the school before a certain time. So, the papers came and went and we finished our school days. Then came the holidays in which Ali’s cousin Suleiman, whom I nicknamed Solomon, came over to ‘paint the town red’.  This ‘painting’ meant making a big mess bill for cokes and biscuits, respectively from the Officers’ Mess bar and the PMA bakery, which the pops had to pay. My father never objected to this unauthorized extravagance so I imagined that he thought the bills were his own or run up by my mother. Once, much later, Ammi came to know about similar bills and never let me hear the last of it. So, Abba must have known but kept indulging me. He also indulged me whenever I went with him to Pindi where he took me to a good restaurant and gave me some new fancy drink. Another thing which Soloman did was to get his head shaved. I immediately suffixed ganja (which means bald in Urdu) to Solomon so he was known as Solomon Ganjes. Solomon himself, however, called it the Yule Bryner style and both I and Chum followed immediately. Rumour has it that Chum’s Pop gave him a tough time but I was let off Scot free though Ammi complained and was going strong over the wrongs I had committed even three hours later when I returned from riding. She found out later that I had actually missed her vintage upbraiding.

In the spring of 1965 I also went off to Pindi and appeared for an interview of Cadet College Hasanabdal which I did not really want to join since my life was so wonderful. I was rejected, presumably because I had no interest in games and actually showed contempt for them, and felt quite relieved. I stayed with Sagheer Mumani, Uncle Naseer’s sister who was mother’s good friend, since I had escorted her as a ‘responsible male’ (at the age of sixteen) from Abbottabad to her house in Chaklala. Her husband, Sharafat Mamoon, was an engineer and his brother, Shahid Bhai, who had once stayed in PMA with Uncle Naseer, now lived there. I saw Islamabad being built and walked about Pindi a good deal tasting ice cream here and drinking Canada Dry there. I even walked all the way from Chaklala to Uncle Hikmat’s house in Satellite Town—a good ten miles distance. I went to hakims for my dyspepsia and dysentery then, when the college admission was near, came home to the lovely cool air of Abbottabad.

The result was declared and both I and Khalid passed in the first division. Khalid, however, got ten marks more than me which he very much deserved seeing that I had been shirking more than usual after my spectacular success in pre-matric. Anyway, my friends immediately asked for a treat and we tramped down to the PMA canteen and gorged ourselves on sweets. In late August, 1965, I and Khalid were admitted in Government College Abbottabad. Boyhood was over—we were college students now. In September 1965 there was a war with India. In those days we believed what we were told i.e. that we had been suddenly attacked by India for no fault of ours on the 6th of the month. Now I know better (you can see my book Pakistan’s Wars: an Alternative History [2022]) if you like), but then, like everybody else, I too was quite enthusiastic about the war. However, even at that time I was never anti-Hindu as so many others were. I say this because there were anti-Hindu songs all around but I ignored them. Not to be anti-Hindu, anti-Punjabi, anti-Sindhi, anti-black people or anti-European or, in fact, anti-any racial or religious or sectarian collectivity was part of my personal belief system and one for which I readily entered the fray with family and friends. As for the war effort, this extended only to donating some clothes to the college authorities meant for soldiers and digging up a few trenches more for fun than anything else. Indeed, during the rest of the war we played all sorts of games much like schoolboys. As for the war, except for the blackout at night and the radio all the time, it might as well not be going on at all. Nothing happened to PMA. No aircraft bombed us and we heard no firing at all. The war was far away though this was the Military Academy where they prepared the young army officers. After seventeen days it was all over and everybody seemed disappointed. The common belief, at least in our circles, was that Pakistan was winning the war but Ayub Khan got scared and robbed us of victory. I questioned this view much later but at that time I did not know any better.

Before the war we had got admission in Government college Abbottabad as I have mentioned above. It was located in huge spacious grounds in the city. To us from Burn Hall the building was ugly but to the majority of boys from the villages and the small towns of Hazara, it must have appeared grand if not beautiful. There were free periods and if one missed a class, there were no dire consequences. This state of affairs suited me as well as Khalid and Nuri, another PMA boy whose father had arrived only recently. We became past-masters at the art of playing truant which we still called ‘skipping’ as in school. I was averse to staying in the college after 1 p. m and, since the practical lessons (experimental methods for teaching science subjects) were always scheduled after that time, I bowed out of that ungentlemanly engagement. The experimental classes of physics and chemistry were gentlemanly affairs being supervised respectively by demonstrators nicknamed Baba (I forget the name) and Izzat Sahib who was nicknamed Izzatun Kallan by Khalid Chum immediately. The word Kallan referred to his dark complexion as kala means black. This was, of course, a disgracefully racist thing to say but we were not politically correct or sensitive to peoples’ feelings so much as to even realize that making fun of body attributes, especially the colour of the skin, was wrong. And this despite the fact that I had often taken up the cudgels on behalf of Africans who had come to PMA as cadets if they were ever ridiculed which, however, was very rare. Baba, a bearded gentleman was a tough nut to crack and could say things which made even the louts blush. As for Izzat Sahib he let us off quite easily. The joke I had about him was that he came to the class and declared in a sing-song tone in Urdu:

‘You will say that I should let you off. And I will declare that I won’t. And so there will be a quarrel. And so, it is best that you go’. And off we would go chortling with joy.

This was, of course, a made-up story, an allegation, which was based on nothing more than him giving us leave on rare occasions. Izzat Sahib was actually a competent man and despite my missing many classes he did prepare me quite well for the intermediate (12th class) examinations.