Going places - I

Parvez Mahmood describes his life in transition from the crowded inner city to an elite cadet school

Going places - I
In depicting the struggles of my emigrant family in post independence Pakistan – in articles published in this weekly – I had traced my life up to joining the PAF Public School Sargodha, September 1965, in class VIII, and our evacuation on the eve of the 1965 war. I now pick up the threads and carry forward the story from there.

We were called back to school in late October, about a month after the ceasefire. We rejoined our allocated houses and settled down in our dormitories. Our batch, consisting of 63 boys, was distributed over three sections. We were tested in – if I remember correctly – English, Urdu and Mathematics. While I was good in the latter two subjects, my proficiency in English was dismal. I was better than most in grammar and translation but was appalling in spoken English, being unable to speak even one straight sentence. In fact, I had never communicated in anything but Punjabi. I spoke Urdu, too, with a heavy Punjabi accent. Consequently I – with 20 other boys – was allocated section B, with the top 20 going to section A. This was to have an injurious affect two years later when, due to some adjustments, section A was wholly promoted by one year while the rest of the two sections had to continue with their normal academic year.
I had come from Muslim Model High School Lahore, where the class strength ranged from 60 to 90 and where some students had to sit on the dais. A class of 20 seemed extravagant

I had come from Muslim Model High School Lahore – located next to Government College at the junction of Urdu Bazaar and Lower Mall, where the class strength ranged from 60 to 90 and where some students had to sit on the dais. A class of 20 seemed a bit extravagant and sparse. The classrooms were neat, clean and well dusted; a world away from the dirty overcrowded environment where I had been studying.

For me, the life in the Public School was like a dream. Our beds were made and shoes polished by our batmen. Once a week, we would make bundles of our dirty clothes and they would come back ironed. A team of barbers would come to the house once a fortnight for giving us haircut. I was used to showering in the washroom of a mosque before the morning prayers. Here, I could do that at any time of the day. The dining room seemed very impressive. It was a long hall with chairs and tables, divided into four sections, one for each house, where all 300 boys would dine simultaneously. For the first time in my life, I learnt to eat with knife and fork. It was royal treatment – the stuff that dreams are made of. I knew that I had crossed a barrier in life for a better future and was determined to hang on to it.

We followed a strict regime and discipline and I happily settled in the routine of morning collective PT, a breakfast – eggs, sliced bread or paratha and a cup of tea – followed by classes till 1:30 in the afternoon. In the long break, we were served milk with jam and toast. Lunch – curry, lentils and fruit – was followed by an hour of compulsory rest. There was a study period followed by an hour of games. We then had some free time before dinner, which we utilised to play indoor games, to listen to songs in the radio room (there being no TV at that time) or to go to the house library. After dinner –some more curry, lentils and dessert – we again had an hour of studies and finally went to bed at 10 pm.

Being from an Urdu-medium school, I had great difficulty in adjusting to the English medium of teaching. I couldn’t understand the teachers. My reading was slow and I had trouble understanding many of the words in the O-levels syllabus books. My academic performance suffered. By the end of the first term, I had fallen to the bottom of the class and barely survived being terminated with only a warning. I recall that it was the summer break in July of 1966 and I was having lunch when my father came back from his office with my report card and the warning. He was very upset. He had worked very hard to put me in that school. He asked me the reasons for the abysmal results. I was very confident and told him that it was only due to my difficulty in comprehending English and that I would overcome it in the coming months before the next exams. I also told him how I had started tackling the issue.

My reading habits came to my rescue at this critical juncture, as they would in later life. Sensing the danger that the language posed for my survival in the elite school, I resorted to reading English story books with a dictionary in my lap. Later when I discovered thesaurus, I got that too. The school rule of conversing in English also ensured that my language skills improved rapidly. As a result, I started doing well in each exam and never fell below the fourth place in my class. With my language problem over, my expertise in mathematics returned – but more on that later.

My reading habit has continued persistently and there has never been a time when I am not reading one or two books on fiction, history, psychology, philosophy or any other book that I lay my hand on. A long time after leaving school, a friend of mine asked me if I had left any book in the school library unread. It was only half in jest. In my last year at school, I was appointed to be in charge of my house library and my reading desk was placed there. I was literally living among books and enjoying every minute of it. Soon I discovered Russian novelists and British historians, and have been in love with them ever since. I believe that War and Peace by Tolstoy and Vol. I of Toynbee’s A Study of History should be compulsory reading in every high school. I have rarely been more saddened than when I saw all thirteen volumes of Toynbee’s history lined up in the central library of a PAF Base in Karachi and ‘never’ issued, even once, to anyone.

Having read a variety of books on a wide range of subjects, I became completely liberal, progressive and a lifelong agnostic. As a schoolboy, I felt confident enough to correspond with Maulana Maududi, questioning him on some of his concepts.

Sports were a regular activity in the school, and it maintained the most fabulous, spacious playing fields. Prior to joining the institution, the only sport I knew was kite flying and a bit of rooftop cricket. I learnt to play hockey, football and basketball. I also learnt swimming – an activity that I continue with even today. I participated in field athletics. And though I wasn’t very good at any of these sports, I represented my house in debating, swimming and 200-meter races!

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com