England Years: Tea Time And Dances

I was so Westernised that my family fully expected me to settle down in England. I had even declared that I would marry an English girl to which my mother and sister, so they told me, had resigned themselves

England Years: Tea Time And Dances

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

At last, the day came when my family accompanied me to the airport. I was leaving for what my mother called “the land beyond the seven seas.” To make matters worse for her, though unwittingly, Azam told her about his relative who went to “London” and never came back from there. He added that I too would not. my mother tearfully asked me to return from there and I immediately promised her to do so. Earlier, probably when I was leaving for the PAF or the army, she had recited the following couplet of Ghalib:

Ham ne mana ke tagahful na karo ke lekin

khak ho jaen ge ham tum ko khabar hone tak

(I concede that you will not be indifferent but/ I will be dust by the time the news reaches you).

Somehow, I associate this couplet with my mother’s mental condition at this time even though she had said it when I was going elsewhere within Pakistan and could reach her very quickly. And now that I was going to England, it was true that in those days of landline phones and little money, coming back in an emergency was not so easy. However, while emergencies were problematic, I would definitely come back as I promised her. In fact, I had no desire or intention of staying back in “London” of Azam’s anecdotes.

As it happened, I was so Westernised that my family fully expected me to settle down in England. I had even declared that I would marry an English girl to which my mother and sister, so they told me, had resigned themselves. So, it was a sad mother I left at the airport when I took off for Karachi. In Karachi I stayed during the night in the PNEC in Raheel’s room since I had reached late and no other accommodation could be arranged just then. The next morning, I went to my uncle’s house who had just moved to a big, though dilapidated, mansion next to the Consulate of Bangladesh on Gizri Road near Clifton. This house, as I have mentioned already, was promptly named Bhoot Bangla (haunted house) by me. Riaz roared with laughter when he heard this and everybody started calling it by this name except Chacha Mian himself, though even he would smile indulgently at the appellation. Within two days I was off to England and with only five pounds in my pocket. In those days one was given only five pounds by the State Bank of Pakistan and I was doing the legal thing. In the departure lounge of the airport, however, my cousin Pervez, who worked for the KLM, showed up. Since he worked for an airline, he came unhindered into the lounge itself and surreptitiously slipped me a ten-pound note which was a fortune for me. Then he said goodbye to me as I climbed into the British Airways plane which, however, did not take off immediately and it got so hot that everybody was perspiring. The delay was so inordinately long that we reached London very late at night and the British Council staff had gone away. I came in and decided to spend the night in the lounge. A youth fresh from Australia also came in and we started talking. Then we lay down on the seats and he dozed off while I closed my eyes marvelling at being in London.

Next morning found me excited and exhilarated. I had something to eat and went out to find the bus for the Victoria Station seeing the famous buildings and red busses of London all around me. I had been brought up on English literature and enjoyed going through London roads to the Victoria station. Here I found the British Council staff who gave me the train ticket to Sheffield and some money. Very soon I left in a train bound for Sheffield. As the train left London, I found myself glued to the window gazing out in wonder at the beautiful, picturesque English countrywide. At lunch I found a window seat and kept looking at England whizzing past. When the train stopped at Nottingham I thought of Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood and his merry men. But now there was no great forest though there were groves of trees and sometimes the train passed through what was left of the Sherwood Forest I presume. At last, the train arrived in Sheffield and I was met by someone from the local British Council office. I went in a car exhilarated by the steep roads reminiscent of my childhood in PMA. It was as green, indeed even greener, than PMA during the Monsoon. I loved the city and was thrilled at being in it. They dropped me at a hotel which was next to a huge park. The houses sloped up a steep incline and the air was chilly. It was my first weekend in England and I was in high spirits. That I knew nobody at all did not bother me. I left the hotel in the evening enjoying the chilly but bracing air and the rows of flowers in the park in order to purchase a raincoat. I also purchased a few other things and came back to the hotel with a song upon my lips. I was really ecstatic.

On Monday the British Council officer arrived and took me to the house of Marie Loo. This Filipino lady was married to an Englishman whose first name Peter is all I remember. She kept boarders to augment her income. My room was quite good and the landlady cooked my morning and evening meals which were of good quality. On the weekends we had lunch too. There were a few other boarders and I remember a visit to a coal mine where we went by boat in dark tunnels with a South African gentleman whose ancestors were English. I also remember a lissome young lady probably from Malaysia who initiated a conversation with me. She once offered me an umbrella since I was going out without one. Once Marie Loo held a dance for us in her drawing room. The lissome girl herself offered to dance with me though I told her that I did not know how to dance. However, instead of the drill kind of thing which I hated, they went for close dancing which I actually enjoyed though, except once with Vicky, I had never danced like this with any other girl. But unluckily, a boy kept staring at us and then actually intervened taking her away from me on the pretext that I was handling her inappropriately. Before I could respond she told me that he was her boyfriend and moved away sheepishly. I acquiesced when I saw that she was greatly intimidated by him. We never communicated with each other again. People kept moving in and out of the house but I was a permanent lodger for a whole term.

Our classes were held in the Department of History from 4 pm to 5pm on two days a week. Monday was reserved for the three lecturers and the other two days for the five of us. They delivered a lecture in turn and we delivered seminars on either a historical or a literary subject during the same time. The lecturers were Mr. Christopher Heywood (1928-2021), Senior lecturer in English literature and an expert on African literature in English as well as the Victorians. He had “a first from Oxford” as someone told me and supervised PhD theses though he himself had no research degrees; Dr. Eric D. Mackerness (1921-1999), a wonderful, kind, elderly, old-world don who had “sat at the feet” (as he put it) of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch at Cambridge. He was a Reader in English literature and loved music and Bernard Shaw. Among the historians were Dr. Michael Bentley (1948-) from Cambridge, an up-and-coming young lecturer who had already earned a name for himself as a historian and who is now Senior Research Fellow at St Hugh’s College, Oxford; and Dr. Clyde Binfield, also a Cambridge man, who had written much on religious history. One of his books, So Down to Prayers, was mentioned by us in awed tones though never actually read. He later won the OBE in 1991 and was President of Northern College, Manchester from 2000.

Among the students were myself, David Crichlow, (Dave) Richard (Dick), Sheridan and Elizabeth (always called Billie). When I first met Dave and Sheridan before the class began, I failed to understand them. This was a worrisome beginning since I concluded that my English comprehension was inadequate and almost despaired of ever being able to understand the lectures. Then in came Billie and she spoke in an absolutely clear pronunciation which I understood with no effort. I then went to the class where I understood all the “dons” (as we jokingly called our lecturers). When I confided this to Billie she laughed outright and spoke.

“Tareeq, don’t bother. Dave and Sheridan don’t speak English. They speak dialect.”


“Yes. One speaks Derbyshire; the other Yorkshire. I speak standard English and so does Richard though he does slur it a bit. I hope you understood us.”


“Good. Then that is all you need for the lectures. The lecturers speak like us, you see.”

‘More like you Billie since Richard does slur it more than a bit.”

“Stop being gallant Tareeq. I am a modern girl used to calling a spade a spade and I hope I do not sound like a stuffy old don.”

“No, no, no,” was all I could stutter in confusion.

Soon after the class, Billie marched us to the pub – or so I joked about it – telling me what an important social institution it was. I found the place not very different from the bars of our clubs and officers’ messes back home. When I told this to the others they were surprised. But Billie told them that I was “an officer and a gentleman” in the Kiplingesque tradition. But this compliment—these days it would hardly be called a compliment I know-- did not mean I had nothing to learn from her. One day I got her a cocktail and, having finished it rather sooner than lady-like manners permitted, she asked me to get another one. I went to the barmaid and thundered.

“Another drink for the lady,” pointing with my eyes at a squirming Billie. The drink was prepared and I took it to her.

“Oh Tareeq,” admonished Billie, “one never says: ‘another’ drink for the lady.’ One says: ‘a drink for the lady.’”

“What?” I expostulated. “Not even if she is obviously drunk.”

 “No. Not even when she is falling all over and trying to unrobe herself in the bargain.”

The others grinned and I said something about quaint old customs while Billie finished even this one with the same aplomb and alacrity as the one before. Luckily none of us had more money otherwise it would have been a case of falling all over….

Besides meeting after every lecture – only thrice per week after all – we occasionally visited each other’s rooms which were called digs. We all went to Richard’s house in a little village just outside Sheffield called Dore. We had what everybody called a joint study session. This, I discovered, comprised of much talking about reading and less actual reading of a play by Oscar Wilde. There was no discussion of any sort about such boring things as plot, themes or characters. Since I had never been a student except at school or in the military, I did not know that joint studies were just socialising sessions. Anyway, I enjoyed it. Richard had a nice little house and his parents seemed well off and had a car of their own. However, as we settled down Richard asked his mother for sherry adding that he would pay for it. I was shocked at this and took it as evidence of fragmented family bonds, and all relationships, in the very highly individualistic Western society. I felt this led to rootlessness, anomie and loneliness. I was getting quite disillusioned as the magic of being in England was wearing off. In any case, post-industrial England was hardly the merry England of English literature which I had read about. In fact, there was no such thing as “merry” England as even my reading of Dickens should have proved to me even if I knew no history. This image of England was just something I had constructed from chosen fragments of my textbooks since I wanted it to exist. But now it could remain intact no longer.

In the mornings, though I loved reading which was my major pleasure, I sometimes went for shopping for books. One day when out shopping I saw a singularly pretty English girl going into a book shop. I followed her, something which I had never done till that moment, and somehow opened a conversation with her. She was very friendly and told me her name which was Jill (name abbreviated and last name withheld) and had just joined “the Polly”—I later found out it was the short form for polytechnic—as a BA. student. She was very young (a few months past eighteen) being just out of school and, being from a village, a bit lost in what for her was a great city. Soon Jill became my friend and we went for walks in which I told her about Bertrand Russell and other ideas which I enjoyed. She was always eager to listen to me and was very gentle and winsome in her ways but she made it clear that she was not, and could not, be a girlfriend in the conventional sense of the word since she was a committed Christian who abhorred any physical relations outside marriage. Moreover, any romantic interest which might have been born between us was nipped in the bud as Jill wanted to be a missionary and it was impossible for her to contemplate any kind of emotional bond or intimate relationship with one who, not being a Christian, was probably a pagan or a heretic in her eyes.

My friends saw Jill and were completely bowled over by her young age and innocent charms.

“Now where did you get that English rose you cradle-snatcher?” asked Dave.

“Well, what does that matter?” I answered back with a bit of swagger, “and I am not a cradle-snatcher. She is eighteen and she does know my age, which is thirty-one, but she still goes around with me.”

“Well, there should be a law against barely legal and pretty girls going around with you, Tareeq. You put the rest of us to shame,” drawled Sheridan with much envy.

I told them that she was not my girlfriend at which they laughed raucously since Billie, before whom nobody mentioned girls except in respectful terms, was not there. I then told them that she would not even enter a pub at which they laughed even more derisively. But then I asked Billie to invite her to the pub since, as I put it, the “proof of the pudding is in the eating of it” and Jill declined with a simper and a shy smile telling her that the sect of which she was a member abhorred pubs. She was a strict teetotaller. Moreover, she aspired to be a missionary. So, while Billie said a civil goodbye to Jill, the boys commiserated with me upon finding a girl who was a nun while she looked like a gorgeous girlfriend. She was, they declared, one of those temptresses who should live in the pages of Dr. Binfield’s books and not go about tempting people as if they were real girls.

“But Tareeq you must get rid of this nymphet at once,” said Sheridan.

“But she is a schoolgirl so do it gradually,” cautioned Richard.

“She is a university student and not a schoolgirl to begin with. And why should I do that anyway?” I queried.

“Because no real girlfriend-material girl in her right senses will come near you Tareeq and you will be left high and dry with this nun in girl’s masquerade,” said Dave.

“Come with us to the Student’s Union this weekend and we will introduce you to real girls.”

“No,” I said decidedly. “I hate loud music and I cannot tolerate dancing and I do not even want to learn it. Besides I have promised Jill to go to the chapel with her.”

“The chapel!” they cried out in unison. “So, she wants to convert you. Just refuse.”

I said I thought it was a Christian country and everybody doubled over with laughter till Billie told them to have some manners. Dave told me that none of them went to the church nor did they bother much about religion at all. Billie, whose grandfather was a bishop, told me that, while our friends were lapsed (her word) cultural Christians, there were some real Christians too and that, after all, the Queen was the head of the Anglican Church. And people like Jill were diehard evangelical Christians of the kind Dr. Binfield talked about. These were non-conformists who went to chapels not to the Anglican church. This made me repeat that I had promised to go with Jill and that I would do. And so, I did.

Jill listened reverently to a brief sermon which I thought was what priests said anyway. Then she made me listen to organ music and then laying a hand on my heart, which was probably beating a bit loudly, she asked in a whisper: “Does Christ move in your heart?” I said “no” and she gently withdrew her hand. I thought it might be offensive for her to be told that if a girl puts her hand on a young man’s heart, it might beat a bit faster for reasons other than religion. So, I kept quiet. Then she sat in silent rapture for some time without speaking and prayed silently. I did not join her and we both went out silently. I thought she would be sullen or silent but Jill was her usual cheerful self and I walked her to her flat. But so engrossed were we in conversation that she walked me back to Victoria Road where I lived. However, since one heard horror stories of a serial killer who attacked girls, I walked her back. This, in fact, was something which happened quite often.

One day Jill invited me to her room which she shared with another girl. She said “come for tea” and gave me the time of the evening. I had an early dinner and went to her room. Her roommate, a very fetching girl but not of a mild or innocent kind at all, told me that Jill had cooked some pie and other English dishes with no pork for me.

“But I can’t eat such heavy stuff. I have eaten,” I replied.

“But Jill invited you!” She said in an incredulous and highly censorious voice.

“Yes, but for tea.” I replied.

“Now don’t you go about breaking her heart as men do,” snarled the roommate. “All day the poor girl has been cooking and she bought stuff which she denies herself and here you come to wreck her evening.” She looked daggers. At this moment Jill walked in and I told her that I did not know that “tea” would be so heavy.

“Oh, I am sorry I spoke my village English,” said Jill in consternation. “We call dinner, ‘tea’.”

It was my turn to be apologetic: “Oh Jill I wish I had known. But that is all lied. It is good that tea is actually dinner. I will enjoy it very much as I am hungry.”

 This was a complete lie, though a white one, but it did not make the roommate thaw though I looked at her for approval. So, under the admonitory glances of the roommate we moved in to the dining table which groaned with food. I had no option but to eat but I knew I did not win the approval of the roommate though Jill herself did not say a word of disapproval. I did, however, have two helpings of the dessert at which the roommate beamed for the first time that evening.

Another day I invited Jill to a South Asian (Bangladeshi) restaurant. Billie later on told me that the following conversation, or something on these lines at least, took place between them. She asked Billie what kind of clothes would be appropriate.

“Oh, Tareeq won’t notice no matter what you wear,” said Billie airily.

“I’m sure he will if I wear Asian clothes,” said Jill.

“Try it out dearie. Try it out,” said Billie in a patronising manner.

We went to the restaurant, chattering away about Russell and Jill interjecting about the chapel. The meal ended and as we were about to part, she asked me plaintively:

“Tareeq, did you notice my clothes?”

“What about your clothes?” I was about to say in jest that I did notice that she was wearing clothes but refrained as I thought such levity would be inappropriate for Jill’s unfeigned modesty.

“Well, they are Asian, aren’t they?”

I then noticed them for the first time and said:

“Well, confused Asian – I mean one thing from Japan and one from Nepal sort of thing?” I told her and immediately repented since I now understood that she expected praise not an analysis. I tried to make amends by telling her that I liked her in her English clothes but this did not go down too well either. Then came the parting and I thought she leaned forward so I asked her:[1]

“Anything wrong Jill?”

“No, no!” she straightened herself immediately. “Just saying thank you Tareeq for a very nice dinner but there is no need to go to such posh places,” she said sweetly. Then she briskly walked away.

It was then that I realised that Jill had expected me to give her a peck on the cheek in lieu of a kiss on the lips as is customary on such occasions. She could not give and take proper kisses, as other girls did, but such a chaste peck was cosher even for her. I could have kicked myself especially when Billie confirmed what I had suspected the next day. Everybody laughed at me. Billie, however, told me that Jill had forgiven me since she had told her that in my culture it was bad manners to praise girls’ clothes or their looks and kisses were not allowed either unless people were in love. I did not think she actually believed Billie after all my conversations about Russell’s ideas about free sex—but then, was Jill actually listening to me or reciting hymns all the time?

(to be continued)

[1] Being unable to put in a humorous touch wherever possible, this account is somewhat embellished to make it a joke at my expense.