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The Summer of ’59 …

September 29, 2015

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It was the summer of ’59 when I unknowingly moved into the hitherto unfamiliar but enchanting world of sensuality. I was born in a small, quiet village in the foothills of the Karakorum hill ranges, one of the offshoots of the great Himalayas. Before I knew it, the talk of my going to school had begun. One day, a rickety old jeep arrived at our doorsteps, and my father and I began the long journey on mountain dirt tracks heading South towards the shallower hills where my school, a missionary convent, was located. My father handed me over to Miss Jean Fransfa, the principal, an imperious personality of the likes of Queen Victoria; and quietly faded away. I felt strange because Miss Fransfa behaved like a man but had the voice of a woman. Whether she was a man or a woman was the first puzzle that I had to solve and this dilemma was to remain with me for quite some time.

“Nazar, go play with the children,” she said, making a deliberate effort to be very pleasant. I quietly moved on to the small ground where the children were making circles and chanting something noisily. I stood shyly one one side, comprehending little of what they said. I only knew Pahari, the language of the hill people. When the shadows lengthened, I got worried and looked around for my father. He was nowhere to be seen. Soon, the dreadful realization dawned on me. There was no going home. This was it!

However, so many surprises were in store for me and in such a quick succession, that there wasn’t really enough time to lament or regret this great change in my lifestyle. The next morning, tears rolled down my eyes when the egg was overdone. I began to pick up both the Urdu and the English languages. But I had some inherent other pluses on my side. Besides being accustomed to the brutal cold of the hills, I also knew a little more about the mystery of birds and bees as compared to my city friends. The village provided ample opportunities for witnessing the mating of animals. A game which appeared to be boring though quite funny and which the animals liked to play again and again – one trying feverishly to climb on top of the other. Whether it was poultry, dogs or yaks, it really did not matter. There was the same energy, noise and ferocity.

By now, it had begun to make some sense but not quite. Many odds and ends had yet to be tied up in that jigsaw puzzle. Whatever it was, we all surmised, there was some pleasure to it. Being a taboo subject, the mere discussion of it was exciting. Meanwhile, there were also some changes taking place in us, which we did not quite comprehend. Only Miss Wellsly, it appeared, enjoyed watching us in that confused state. In the swimming pool, as we sat on the side stairs, she would swim to one side of the pool from where she would call one of us for a chat. We would stand on the side and look down at Miss Wellsly in the water. Her fully blossomed body in a tight swimsuit with both of them visible was an uncomfortable sight and the tension in us would soon be uncontrollably evident on our tight swimming trunks. Miss Wellsly would then give a loud chuckle of laughter and then dive back into the water.

And that was not the only sin. There was a small room next to the staircase where all our teachers changed. We used to make a human ladder to climb up and peep through the duct on top to watch them undress. They also knew this and most of them would change close to the wall from where we could not see. Only Miss Wellsly stood against the wall in front and changed in full view knowing well that we were watching her. It was a felonious act but, nevertheless, one that inspired a plethora of emotions in us.

Miss Batool, our class teacher, who taught us Urdu, was the only Pakistani. She was fair, had dark hair, was of a sturdy build and had just graduated. She had a soft tingling voice and was a little shy that made us feel very comfortable with her. She always wore a brooch, as I remember, with a sparkling maroon stone in the center. The way she wore the brooch nesting comfortably on her shirt pocket, it was difficult for us to keep our eyes off it. I would wait for her period impatiently. While she taught, time would whiz past and I would feel sad when her lesson ended. I felt a distinct pleasure in her proximity and enjoyed the delicate fragrance she exuded. I would volunteer for all small errands like taking the workbooks to her office, bringing a new marker for the board and cleaning her table. She never realized that I was in love with her.

And finally, one day when one of us discovered and told the rest of us the facts of life, we were shocked. It was unbelievable to even imagine to what lengths our stately sober parents had gone to have us. But from then on, whenever we saw a couple, we smiled inside with satisfaction and relief as if we knew everything about them and what they were up to. The mystery of Miss Fransfa still lingered. She used to take us to a side hill for play. She used to sit on a high stone monitoring us as we played before her down below. One day we had gone for the evening play and it was quite windy. Miss Fransfa sat imperiously on top as we hustled and ran around below. Suddenly a gust of wind came and as I looked up, I saw the wind embarrassingly ballooning up into air the loose skirts of Miss Fransfa. Unfortunately, she was not even wearing any tights below. The nature had at long last solved the mystery to a great relief. Miss Fransfa was a woman.

And so finally one day our days at the convent ended. We had moved ahead in life and in another time. We had also gotten to know of an incognito world beyond what appeared on the surface – a world hidden in mysteries, puzzles and so totally hush-hush that no one ever talked about it. And yet, one that was powerful, sensational and entertaining. We had stepped into a new exciting level of self-awareness.

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