False Start: Of Fasting, Feasting And Punishments At Risalpur

False Start: Of Fasting, Feasting And Punishments At Risalpur

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

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When the tonga stopped before what looked like barracks made of bricks, we saw the seniors in the distance. They hovered like vultures over dying animals except that the animals were us. ‘Name’, shouted someone who looked like he was having an apoplectic fit. I shouted my name. There was a loud bellow of voices shouting ‘sweeper, mali---what?’. Meanwhile I was told to stand at attention and a few feet off one of us was hopping about clutching his ankles. These were the dreaded ‘frog jumps’. The chorus went on as smartly uniformed seniors—little more than boys but mighty seniors for us—descended upon us. Some of us were trying to land on the road so that their bottom hit the road at the same time as their crossed heels. These were called ‘three pointers’. I was told to carry my luggage and run. 

Then we were allotted our rooms. I was in number-2 squadron. Khalid and Azharul Haq Javed (later group captain)—I called him Yahoodi (Jew) just to tease him since he was said to be a bit stingy—were my room mates. I must apologize for this racist joke since it is based on the demeaning and erroneous stereotype of the parsimonious jew so notoriously purveyed in literature (Shakespeare’s Shylock) and folklore. I know now it is not true and even at that time I did not believe in such generalizations and stereotypes. However, while I rejected and aggressively opposed the stereotypes of Hindus my own family believed in, I unthinkingly used an equally offensive stereotype of the Jewish people. In my defense I only want to say that at age eighteen I was not culturally as sensitive about it as I am now. It seemed a bit of fun so I indulged in it and others followed my lead). In the side room were three seniors. One of them, Naeem Durrani (later colonel in the army), was from PMA since his father was then serving as the deputy commandant. However, he had been a cadet so I had not met him earlier. The ragging in the PAF academy, though much talked about in air force circles, was not so dreadful as that at PMA where it went by the name of ‘bullshitting’. This, however, I found out later. Later, when I had experienced the real thing at PMA, I could say that the air force seniors ragged us a little bit for form’s sake but mostly let us alone. In the army, both the PAF and the Naval life are treated as something akin to mollycoddling and not the real, macho, tough, military life which one finds in PMA, the SSG at Chirat or during exercises and wars in fighting and supporting units (i.e. infantry, armoured corps, artillery and engineers [sappers]). 

At that time, however, we were somewhat overwhelmed by the ragging we got and the life we had to endure. The beds allotted to us were narrow ‘bunks’. The one I shared with Khalid had two levels. Khalid immediately appropriated the lower, normal, level leaving me high and dry. I had to climb up to my level but had the satisfaction of throwing things down at him if I pleased. Every morning Azhar ul Haq and Khalid, nicknamed Lullu in the Academy, had a fight over who would have a bath with hot water. One put in hot water in a pail, mixed it with some cold one and used a mug to pour it upon one’s body. However, while these two argued and I yawned in my perch above not deigning to get up and bath myself, the seniors went in and the water ran cold leaving the gentleman hot. I myself bathed—that is what this exercise in pails and mugs was called--only at the weekend so that I could afford to get up later than the others and did not even shave properly since I used an electric shaver because of which I was punished whenever I was caught. However, that did not bother me much though, when collective punishment was given because of me, my course mates never spared me their vitriol. We were sixteen in all I believe and divided, like all courses, in two squadrons. I loved visiting Javed Raza in No. 1 Squadron. He was gentle and friendly. His roommate Naqi was a hilarious character whose vocabulary of indecent invectives, was superb. He is no more in the world having passed away after a heart attack in 2021. His memories are with me and at the moment he seems to stand before me speaking in impeccable English about something I should not have done! Then, there was Aslam Khan whose choice of invectives, though small, was lethal. One of his eyes never fully opened and he was accused of winking at the more personable of his seniors—a charge he hotly denied but was nevertheless punished for.

We were ordered to run and never to walk anywhere and the seniors held assemblies behind the squadron to give us collective punishment. These went on for hours with the seniors shouting constantly and ordering new forms of torture. Asif Hussain (later wing commander), the tallest among us, stood so rigidly at attention that he fainted several times. I made a joke of it saying:

‘Sayed Asif Hussain Khare hain; Syed Asif Hussain pare hain ‘[Khare hain=is standing; pare hain=is lying down].

I myself was used to physical exercise and never fainted. However, I was terrible at drill. My limbs could not move in coordinated movements and I failed my saluting test several times before passing it eventually. This meant that I could not ‘book out’ i.e. leave the PAF Academy. This, however, I did not mind because I liked the academy on holidays. This was the time when even the seniors did not bother one too much and one could relax. The food in the Academy was excellent and we were ravenously hungry at meal times. I ate so much meat and so many omelettes that, unknown to me, I put on some weight—muscular density--within two months. We also bought pastries from vendors though there was no need of them. In the evening I loved to go to a small cafeteria where one got hot and cold drinks and biscuits. As we wrote chits to pay for these we always overspent. However, the monthly pay was adequate and, though I never saved much, I always had enough money to buy what I liked.

Then came the Ramazan and I fasted. I did not think it was difficult at all though my mother was worried and kept asking the ulema whether I needed to fast or not. For me the hassle of lunch was best avoided. Sahri, eaten before dawn, was a time when the seniors left one alone, was adequate. When Eid came near, we all wanted to go home and the excitement of being let off was so much that we got punished for ‘grinning’. The evening before Eid we were given leave to go and rushed to Nowshera. I and Khalid got nothing but army trucks going to Haripur. They were in a convoy and went so slow that it was night when we reached Haripur. There we had a hurried meal from a shack which called itself a hotel and got on to the top of the bus because there was no vacant seat in it. So, in the bitterly cold winter of the Hazara mountains, we climbed up the mountain passes all exposed to the wind which numbed us till I felt my hands would fall off. It was by sahri that we reached PMA and Ammi folded me in her arms and made me get in into her warm quilt because there was no time nor inclination to sleep now that I was home. The next day she looked at me curiously and told me that I was in good health. The children clustered around me and I gave them the sweets I had bought for them. Then came Eid and it was one of the best Eids I ever had. I felt happy that my mother was so proud of me. The colleagues of my father, all the uncles, complimented me and everybody thought I was doing very well. Moreover, I felt that I learned useful things about walking with an erect military posture, being confident, feeling socially advantaged as ‘officer material’ and wearing what I thought were the right kind of clothes and feeling that civilians did not know how to dress up properly. While the downside of such perceptions in the officer corps of the armed forces in Pakistan is probably uncalled for arrogance, which is regrettable, it must be conceded that the self-confidence and sense of self-respect they confer upon a young adult of eighteen is a quality which stands in good stead throughout life.

As it happened, there was a pretty girl in PMA called Sara (not her real name) and I used to admire her from a distance. However, she had other admirers too and one of them was Abid. So, when I reached home, the PMA boys told me that Sara was seeing Abid. Abid, my rival, had apparently beaten me in establishing communication. I could do nothing about it though this time I did somehow muster enough courage to perambulate her house to catch a glimpse of her. Later I met Abid who gave me knowing looks and remarked that I had unfair advantages being a PAF cadet. I did not fully understand what he meant but now in retrospect it appears that he might have been told that I had the honour of having spoken to Sara which was untrue. If this was the case, it appears that none of us actually got down to exchanging a single word with her. In fact, she probably did not even know that she had such admirers who, far from being knights in shining armour, were too afraid even to be seen around her house.

Anyway, the Eid ended in the wink of an eye and we reluctantly went back to Risalpur. The assembly that night was so sadistic that Syed Asif Hussain left the later part of it mostly in the pare (lying) position. But then things became easier as we got inured to this life. Saleem Iftikhar became my roommate and he later accused me of not doing my bit of cleaning the room making us the target of the seniors. This could be true because I was very careless and did not bother about the punishment which the seniors could give us. He said that because of the unfair advantage I had because of my fair complexion I could, like goras (the English), get away without even washing my face. This was mostly calumny and he got as good as he gave though I was very fond of him and he is a good friend of mine even now. As we became senior, we got bikes and life became more comfortable. We studied administration, law, English and history. I loved the law classes because Flight Lieutenant Anwar ul Ghani was a very good instructor. He made law interesting. I also discovered in the English class that I loved public speaking. I had more confidence when making a speech than I had otherwise. We also learned about firing P.T and drill. One day I got injured as the sten gun’s spring sprang back and hit the flesh just above my eye. I was rushed to the hospital where I passed a few days in great ‘luxury’ which my course mates resented. They called me a great ‘scrounger’ (i.e. a shirker). In a short story of mine called ‘The Kid’ I have narrated this incident but there I have introduced a beautiful young lady doctor, a flight lieutenant, who never, in fact existed and was invented much later only for the story. In reality there were only nursing attendants and a doctor who pronounced me fit much to my regret and I was sent back to the course. When the six months were over, we were passed out in a parade and were transferred for engineering training to the college of Aeronautical Engineering (CAE) at Korangi Creek, Karachi.

The holidays passed in the wink of an eye and we were off by train to Karachi where I was received at the CAE at Korangi Creek which I describe below. However, I will first digress a bit to describe my uncle’s house which I have done far too briefly earlier. Coming from a disciplined household with only four or five people and isolated from relatives, my uncle’s house was colourful and confusing for me. His way of life was very extravagant since, if told that something was short or missing, he brought it in such large quantities that it went waste. His driver Khuda Baksh was like a member of the family and told us tales about him which could only be taken with a rather large pinch of salt. One of his favourite stories was about my uncle’s secretary, a smart Goanese young woman, whose skirts were rather too short for Chacha Mian’s puritanical taste. So, says Khuda Baksh, he asked her point blank whether she could put on some kind of shorts. Later, when I visited my uncle’s office, I met her and found her still wearing short skirts but not so short as to invite comment. Moreover, I do not think Chacha Mian ever commented upon her dress. This story was pure fabrication based more upon KB’s fantasies than anything else. Another of his stories was about my grand uncle, the eldest brother of my father and uncle, Rafi Ullah Khan who was called Bare Abba by us. He had no formal education as was the wont among the sons of the landowners of U.P. However, whereas these sons did have informal schooling at home, as my grandfather himself did, Bare Abba did not have even this. He knew no Persian nor did he have the urbanity and finish of a member of an ashraf family. Perhaps the reason for this was that my grandmother, who was only sixteen when she became my grandfather’s second wife, came from a humble Pathan family. Apparently, my grandfather did not give her or her sons the importance he gave to the children of his first wife who belonged to his own higher socio-economic class. So, being neglected, Bare Abba, played with the children of a lower social class and his maternal relatives. This gave him a style of behaviour which made him alienated in personal grace and culture from his brothers and other educated males. He did, however, know how to read Urdu. This skill he displayed by commenting on the heroines of the Urdu novels he read daily. These comments were about the heroines’ virtue and, being romantic novels, it turned out that they were no better than they should be. Hence, when Bare Abba commented loudly about how that hussy had eloped with her lover –whom he called yar which was a tabooed word in my family--- my grandmother would upbraid him as the girls (my cousins Khurshida and Surraya who were the daughters of my Aunt Feroz, my father’s sister) were listening. That, however, had no effect on the outburst of Bare Abba no matter how much the girls tittered and Chachi Jan, my aunt, walked about demurely with her eyes cast down. Another thing about Bare Abba was that he was not religious at all. He neither said his prayers nor fasted and apparently did not go to the mosque at all or maybe only on the Eid day. Khuda Baksh, who had colourful stories about everyone, said that toward the end of his life Bare Abba fell down and broke his leg when he was once forced to go to the mosque. He then had an open and loud altercation with God on a daily basis on the subject of the broken leg for which, said Khuda Baksh, he held the Almighty responsible. However, I cannot vouch for this story since, when this happened, I was no longer in Karachi. And as KB’s yarns were not all based on gospel truth, I do not know which of them is true. 

Another thing about this house was its warm openness and generosity. Many people stayed there to study or work or something or the other. Among the list are: Arshad Bhai and his two sisters Khurshida and Surraiya Bajis, Anwar Bhai, Akhtar Bhai (later a senior officer of the income tax group of the civil service) and many more. I too stayed in this house of life, confusion, perpetual drama and Micawber-like inefficiency and imprudent (mis)management. All this I learned in about a year’s stay in this house and then several visits to my uncle’s other house at Gizri road which was a huge sprawling bungalow aptly named the bhoot bangla (ghost bungalow) by me. I now come to where I landed immediately upon arrival at Karachi. It was, as I mentioned above, the CAE.

(to be continued)