Boyhood At Burn Hall: Books And Friends

"We could put ink stains on the shirt or simply take off the necktie - as there was an assembly from 1962 onwards, the uniform was inspected by the priests"

Boyhood At Burn Hall: Books And Friends

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

At home I played with Ahmad and Tayyaba (nicknamed Tabbi) as well as Anwar Bhai who came to live with us in 1961. With Ahmad our favourite game was pushing him fast on my tricycle, in his use since he was four, from one end of the verandah to the other. Tabbi, however, was more adventurous so she also climbed the trees to which I had tied ropes in imitation of the assault course for which cadets were trained. She used to climb high and even pluck the ripe apricots while Ahmad, ever cautious, stayed down in the lower branches to devour as many apricots as she threw down. Another game, which Anwar Bhai introduced, was Cheel Jhappatta—literally the kite’s swoop on its prey—in which we laid down our share of some delicacy and went around in circles till the umpire shouted ‘jhappatta’ and we swooped down and got away with as many goodies as we could. The umpiring was done mostly by Anwar Bhai and he made sure that Tabbi lost her goods. This was his favourite joke upon her.

The centre of all meetings and games was Javed Athar’s (called Jetho) house. How Javed’s parents tolerated gangs of kids running in and out of their house; jumping from their roof thus risking life and limb; trampling the grass till none grew in the upper lawn and screaming at all hours of the day—I don’t understand. And how Munni, the young woman who ran the house, put up with their servant boys not doing much work because they were busy playing with us remains a mystery. I do remember one of these boys whom we called Bunny. He was our boon companion and was especially adept at dodging Munni’s clutches. My mother told me that Munni too did exactly that which she wanted to. The lady of the house, Aunty Athar’s, philosophy was charming—why bother to tell anyone anything since nobody would listen! With such a philosophy, Javed’s house had to become the ideal children’s club in PMA. One of the activities I favoured was climbing the trees in that house going from one to another and holding on to frail-looking branches which could have broken giving me a nasty fall. So adept did I become that Wajid Ali Shah, a new boy who was my neighbour and class fellow, called me ‘monkey’ which epithet I considered a rare compliment.

Another adventure was riding trucks which brought stores for constructing officers’ bungalows instead of the old picturesque wooden huts in which we lived. The trucks went lurching dangerously on narrow and rough roads up to the quarries where they were loaded with stones. I and a few adventurous others climbed up and went with the labourers on this rough errand. One night when I was coming down alone on a truck, a rough labourer approached me and tried to make advances. No sooner had he said something about my fair complexion that I understood and shouted at him. He slunk off intimidated. By this time the truck entered the gate of PMA and I felt safe. Then I banged at the driver’s cabin and told the driver to stop so peremptorily that he obeyed immediately. I got down and ran off home. They were celebrating the Shab-i-Barat at home and we went through the charming custom of asking pardon for our excesses from each other. I loved it when we had to ask the servants to pardon our sins.

My usual activities involved getting myself and others into scrapes since I was quite foolhardy and took unnecessary risks. Once I walked over a big pipe over a deep chasm. As I reached the middle, I found the deep, dark, stony cavernous depth on both sides. The pipe was only wide enough to support just one foot at a time and it was wet and slippery at places. On the other end stood Javed and someone else obviously worried. Slowly I shuffled my foot not daring to place one and then the other and so drew near the end. At long last, the end came near and I jumped at the tall grass, caught it in desperation and hauled myself to the bank of the deep gorge. Another time I climbed the science observatory going up and up a ladder till the boys standing below became Lilliputians. When I looked down, I found a toy world and the wind whistled past me and I felt suddenly lonely and vulnerable. Then I was right at the top and started inching myself down the steps one by one. Javed narrated this incident much later to my wife impressing upon her that just having me safe with her was something of a minor miracle. He keeps telling me that he is still impressed by the feats of my childhood. At that time this kind of praise brought me prestige since boys mistake foolhardiness for courage.

As mentioned earlier, I got the prestige of a brave fighter on the strength of nothing more than fisticuffs and a haphazard throwing about of kicks. After one such display of my dubious skills I was praised for a good fight with Zarar Kitchlew in the class. This puffed me up so that I even stood up to Gulzar Rana, easily the strongest of all of us, who avoided to take me on. Had he done so I would have been found out but I was spared this ignominy. I had several fights with Khalid whose only ideology of picking up fights seemed to be that they should be for no reason at all. But Khalid shot up so fast that he towered much over me. His last fight with me was after he was much taller when we were both about fourteen or fifteen. He just walked over to my house and started the fight in his time-honored way of giving no reason nor using a harsh word. Being so much taller and stronger he gave me a terrible knocking up but must have learned to respect my determination or tenacity since he never fought me again. I also had a small quarrel with Shahrukh and a near-fight with Shaheen. I was thoroughly miserable with this fall out with Shaheen whom I considered a dear friend and sat pensively on a bench in the park adjacent to Jetho’s house. Suddenly somebody pushed me and I tumbled down. I looked up clenching my fists for a fight when I looked into green eyes shining with mischief in the smiling face of Shaheen.

‘Friends’ he said stretching his hand.

‘Friends’ I replied feeling immensely relieved and joyful. So that was the happy conclusion to that near-fight.

We were generally friendly and never cruel with each other. The only ones who tended to tease one to exasperation were Abid Niaz and Rashid Niaz, sons of Major (later colonel) N. D. Hassan. They were given the nickname of ‘the brats’. Once when they had teased me in the school—I forget whether they had stolen my fish or what—I fought both of them at the same time. This was long remembered as a gladiatorial fight and it was the only one in which I was really angry—so angry and indignant that I was in tears. I beat them very much and then drew out a sharp compass to attack them so that all the boys rushed over to hold me down and Father Ford came to separate us. I was sent to Father Scanlon’s office but the headmaster did not scold me. He saw my torn and blood-stained shirt and quickly gave me a handkerchief to clean myself. After this the brats never teased me and the other boys were happy that they had been put in their place. Of course, it goes without saying that both are friends even now and I keep interacting with Abid from time to time.

From 1962 onwards till the end of 1964 when I was in Burn Hall, I loved to play truant. I was joined in this activity only by Gulzar Rana and Khalid Shamsie whom we called by a funny name which was later abbreviated to Chum. Gulzar, whose relatives through Lt. General Bakhtiar Rana I met in Lahore, told me that Gulzar is settled in the USA. None of my other PMA friends joined me in playing truant though once or twice Abid and Rashid did come along. ‘Skipping’, as we called it, was easy since our parents never found out and the school thought we had never come from home. All we had to do was to duck down in the PMA bus and, with the connivance of the driver and the conductor, wait for the bus to drive out of the school. Then we would get down and walk back to PMA through the lovely, green countryside and the crystal-clear rills by which sat all kinds of birds feasting, no doubt, on worms. We loved to raid the apple orchards of president Ayub Khan or the plum trees in the bungalows around the Mansehra Road. We even went off as far as the Boys Public School on Mansehra Road where we robbed the orchard of the principal. When the PMA bus came back, we too got on and were driven back home—innocent schoolboys indeed! Sometimes we decided to ‘skip’ after the bus had gone back. This was not difficult either. We could put ink stains on the shirt or simply take off the necktie. As there was an assembly from 1962 onwards, the uniform was inspected by the priests. So, the father would notice the stained shirt and say in pained tones:

‘Ink on shirt. Go away and don’t come back. Tareeq’, shaking his head mournfully. We would slouch off. Others sat down on the chairs in front of Father Scanlon’s office and were allowed into the classes by the break. We, however, slunk out of the school and took off for the wild. We then passed the time in wandering about and Rana, ever the corrupting influence, even got cigarettes (called fags) and bravely smoked them before the rest of us who were complete greenhorns as far as ‘fags’ were concerned. I tried to take a puff once or twice as did Khalid Chum but coughed it out and never tried again. I believe even Rana did not actually smoke much though he pretended to do so. The rest never took even a puff and none of us smoke to this day though our fathers did.

Despite all this ‘skipping’ and carelessness in school I read a lot. My own course books I read once when we got them in March but paid less attention to them throughout the rest of the year. Nor was I always conscientious about doing homework—the ‘skipping’ made it possible to shirk homework sometimes. However, I borrowed books every Saturday from the school library even though it meant standing in a queue and walking back home. I read all the adventures of the Famous Five (Enid Blyton) and a number of other novels. I also borrowed books from the PMA library and these included the classics of English literature as well as books on history and philosophy. My father brought P.G. Wodehouse’s books home and I got addicted to them. He also brought G. B. Shaw’s plays and books in Urdu for Ammi and religious books. I even read the Bible and Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi’s Bahishti Zevar—a book which made one despair of salvation since the Maulana pronounced everything enjoyable as a sin! I also read Anwar Bhai’s course books on history and English. 

While I was such a voracious reader of all kinds of books and magazines in both English and Urdu, I did not bother about the school subjects so much. For instance, I did not bother about mathematics despite the inconvenient fact that Abba taught this subject to cadets. He also taught it free of cost to anyone who came to him. This service was availed by Uncle Fazal’s sons (Zahid and Shahzad) and then my friends Khalid and Shaheen. Abba did not even ask me to join his free class with my friends nor how I was faring in school. I wonder whether he even knew which class I was in since he was quite satisfied that I was doing reasonably well. He also did not beat me or if he did it must have been so rare an event that I do not remember it. As I have mentioned earlier, since he was irritable and shouted at me (or anyone for that matter) for very little reason, I resented him. That he also took the greatest provocation in his stride including my dissident and shocking opinions: that his family exploited peasants, that they were usurpers of Hindu property, that Urdu was not superior to Punjabi nor, for that matter, were Hindustanis more civilized than Punjabis etc. etc,--these things did  not register with me. Apparently, Abba must have taken some passing interest in Ahmad’s education or he may have been egged on to do so by my mother. This I say since he did once run after the scapegrace (little Ahmad) with a stick because he was reported to be dodging his studies. However, since Anwar Bhai stood guard, the little imp gave Abba the running of his lifetime and was never caught. On the other hand, Ammi did give me beatings, and sometimes even with a switch, but this too was rare. She usually punished me by a tongue-lashing which was like water off a duck’s back but at other times she stopped talking to me and this made me really miserable. This is the only painful, really painful, punishment I remember. Otherwise, my parents were easygoing and were not too concerned with academic excellence, religious observance, sartorial inappropriateness, general carelessness or other vagaries of youth. They did insist on good manners before elders though, rather paradoxically, in our house we did indulge in debates, arguments and talked about all issues including intellectual ones and I was perhaps the most argumentative of all. In such arguments—though I regret them now—I violently disagreed with my parents and could talk the hind leg off a donkey. This can be called bad manners or rudeness if you like, but otherwise I was quite mild though hardly obedient.

I do think now, however, that mother’s tongue lashings must have hurt Anwar Bhai very much because he was older and also because he was separated from his own mother. Anwar Bhai, whom I have mentioned earlier, had been sent by Rukhsar Khala to her sister (my mother) to study in Pakistan. She felt, and rightly it turned out, that he would not have a good career in India. He had passed his matriculation and so he got admitted to Government College Abbottabad. His friends—Zahid, Shahzad, Farooq Kiyani, Shahid Bhai and others—were somewhat boisterous while mine were mild and very good mannered. I had an excellent relationship with Anwar Bhai and he praises me even now for never backbiting or being mean to him or even of exchanging hot words with him. I am quite sure, however, that his contribution towards this amicable relationship must have been immense. Moreover, though he seems to have chosen to forget it, I did indulge in my favourite pastime of arguing with him too. However, I do not think my arguments with him got as bitter, rancorous and invidious as they did with my parents. We did, however, indulge in boisterous games. One of the games we played was a mock fight with bamboos. Tariq Ahsan saw us at it and ran off to scandalize his mother by telling her that we were about to kill each other. 

Anwar Bhai did enjoy himself with his friends who did not confine themselves to putting each other down and boisterous horseplay as he portrayed in his accounts of them. In fact, they also indulged in such highbrow activities as staging a play in which Shahid Bhai, brother of Aunty Naseer, and Shahzad Bhai, uncle Fazal’s son, played uproariously funny roles. However, Anwar Bhai’s life was not all fun. Firstly, he was acutely aware that he was staying in his aunt’s house and this must have made him feel inferior. Secondly, he had had a traumatic past with a father who came from a violent, feudal background which I have referred to earlier. And, thirdly, because he hardly visited his family in India because of the politics of the two countries and also because, for what I can only call excessive caution perhaps bordering on paranoia, he concealed the fact that he was from India. Instead of it he tried to pass off as a Pathan or a Punjabi. I never saw why one should do such a thing especially since one’s accent betrays one’s first language to perceptive people straightaway. On top of these ongoing and past traumas, he had some white spots on his skin about which he worried incessantly. But all the cures he tried not only failed but also made blisters on his skin which were agonizing for him. The downside of his obsession with this skin trouble was that I too got neurotically concerned about my skin. But to this I will come later. 

Only one incident involving him I regret to this day. Anwar Bhai had decided to go for a picnic to Thandiani with his friends. I kicked up a big row that I should be taken along. His friends, being teenaged youths, did not like to take a twelve-year old boy since their talk would presumably be unfit for a youngster. So, Ammi decided that Anwar Bhai and Baba, the cook, would take me to Batrasi on the same day. So off we went by bus but Anwar Bhai, quite rightly, complained bitterly, and even Baba felt that the whole thing was unjust. And unjust it certainly was. In fact, I do not quite understand how my mother, basically very loving towards her nephew and a decent woman, actually condemned him to accompany her brat of a boy to a picnic he hated. Was she blinded by her love for me or anger at the refusal of Anwar Bhai’s friends to indulge me? I do not know. I must have been a brat indeed to do this but now I am thoroughly ashamed of it and have never pardoned myself for my intransigence. The point of this story is that, contrary to the saintly image of me constructed by Anwar Bhai now, I could be as spoiled and nasty as boys can be unless they are taught to be better behaved.