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Flashbacks of Sargodha school …

March 15, 2016


Flashbacks from Sargodha

It was a summer afternoon of 1959 and the sky was clear blue when I first landed on the soil of Sargodha. My father dropped both of us, me & sikandar, my other twin, in front of `Attacker House’. I remember we wore maroon corduroy shorts. Our parents bought everything in two. He was thin. I was fat. And once Mr. Catchpole remarked, in his inimitable humour, that an average of we both would be a normal person.


It was a new strange world and we did not speak the local language – English. The first impression of the school was of its grandeur and an aura of authority. The place was so quiet that one could listen to the silence and everything was as neat as a hospital. That eerie silence was only occasionally broken by the constant `Hook Hook’ of the nearby flour machine. The hedges were trimmed, the lawns were mowed and there was not a soul in sight. The trees looked very tall, the roads looked very straight, the playing fields seemed to endlessly stretch and the buildings looked imposing. We were now in the safe custody of Mr. Fasihuddin, our House Master of `Attacker’.


And so from an easy irregular home life, it was a transformation to a tightly controlled life style. Suddenly, one had to cope up with all kinds of time tables, schedules, dress codes and behaviour patterns. A few new activities, such as the morning PT, evening games, Prep and marching down for all meals, had entered our daily lives. There were also some ego-lifting compensations such as the issue of new uniforms and a college blazers with a badge. Our PT master, Sergeant Hussain, was talkative and with a good collection of dirty jokes. Some of his jokes, like the one `with legs on the shoulders’, we understood twenty years later. Gymnastics was the baby of Sabre’s Sher Mohd and his crowning moment was the dive through the firing ring on the Founders’ Day. On the Founders’ Day, Mehboob Alam of the Tempest was the last to march past in front of dais and as he did his `Eyes Right’, one could notice his lips moving counting five.


The House was a home, so to speak, and a place to wind down. Our local mafia bosses were the Prefects and the Head boys. They got additional perks such as an exemption from marching or, once a while, skipping the tie. As for us, we were controlled like the lab mice by the shrill sounds of the house bell. The bell got us out of bed. The bell put us back into the bed. The bell ended the commotion in the dormitories when it rang for Preps. And during Preps, opening the book was mandatory; and some cheated the system by stashing a comic inside the book.

The House Mutka (pitcher) went with the seasons – hot water in summers and cold water in winters. That wiped out all our false pretences, got us down to earth and smoothened out our rough edges, if we had any. With the result that now I can eat a cold chappati or a frozen porridge without any hesitation. In fact, I have developed a taste for these and get amused when I observe others going into tantrums over such petty issues. My cook likes me for it and my wife is happy about it.


Back to the theme of water temperature – the water taps also maintained a consistent temperature – too hot in summers and too cold in winters. So in the winters, it was a full-fledged project to get a shower by cutting through the logistical maze of the house heating apparatus and your turn for the bucket. That also reminds me the Master Jee, our hair stylist on the cycle with a tool box at the back. He ran his operation on an assembly line concept. The victim took position on the chair, scissors moved, some hair cut, others hair pulled out and it was all over before you knew.


The House had its cozy corner too – the Ante room. I wonder why it was called Ante room. It was a quite a friendly room. The needle shivered over the records with Saigal coming out of `His Masters Voice’ bhoompu. Those old songs are still called old songs. Maybe they now fall in the class of very old songs. Radio Ceylon was the epitome of our entertainment with its Binaca Geet Mala and the Farmaishi Program. Mohd Rafi was on the tops and so was Lata. I wonder where Radio Ceylon has vanished now or perhaps we have not listened to the radio since a half century. In those days, there were no distractions like the TV or the computer. Music, games and story books were all that we had until Tahseen introduced the first tape recorder to us. It was the latest break through in technology.


It was also not a fashion then to install exhaust fans in the toilets and so the toilets smelled just like the toilets. And our entire domestic chores revolved between one cupboard near the bed to another cupboard near the community showers. The WCs were of `Indian Style’ (not Pakistani style!). It was the elasticity of youth that got us in that acrobatic position. Now, most of us humpty-dumpty, would tumble off doing this most innocent ritual of the day. Humpty-dumpty also reminds me of Mr. Magoo, another cartoon character of those days.


The days were long and hard. And bed was a welcome escape from the harsh realities. But the those layers of blankets were heavy and tightly snuggled below the mattress. We had to almost penetrate ourselves into the bed like shoving a ball pen in a smaller cover. And by the time our feet reached the other end, the morning bell rang ruthlessly pulling us out of bed. It was always a race to catch up on sleep. The tough part was yet to follow – the Morning PT in winters. Cold pierced through the bones as we ran and jumped while half a sleep.


The hot-cold theme persists. Hot breakfast in summers and cold breakfast in winters. No. 1 and the waiters wielded a great authority. They gave you the egg of their choice. I cried on my first breakfast and thought of home when a half-fried egg was plonked in front of me and I was helpless. I am an established omelets man. Now after 40 years, much worldly wise, I think I could have easily resolved this life-death issue with a little persuasion by the `green Quid-e-Azam’. Not all was bad. There were goodies too like the pulao and kabaab manu on a Saturday night and the halwa-puri on Sunday mornings. Then our metabolic rates were high, we churned and burnt food at phenomenal rates and there always remained a lingering sensation of hunger. We absolutely had no idea of what salt, sugar or oils do to the body. For us, all meats, sweets and oils were good. And all Palaks, Kudoos and Phindis were bad.


The royal aspects of this prisoner’s life were that we never had to polish shoes, press our clothes or make the bed. I picked up these habits for life.


The school was a truly classless society with an equal opportunity for all. We never ever thought on lines of race, religion, region, belief, background, ethnicity.


I think the best part was the studies. Mr. Catchpole’s class got us going with the commas and full-stops and a familiarity with Ali Baba and Esop. He took English Language period of the whole school in Room No. 10 and checked our work books to the last detail. Try getting an extra comma from us now! Much had to also do with the user-friendly and practical approach of the Senior Cambridge. Doing the first year with the Pakistani syllabus was a rude shock. Everything kept passing over the head. There was no logic or link with the real life. Luckily, Air Force came and pulled me out of this tight spot. The midnight shrieks of the F-104 and the thundering `pitch out’ of the F-86 formation were good motivations. Add to that the descending of the `old boys’ cadets from Academy during the Founders’ Day in their glittering uniforms and their `officer style’. But now, after many decades and with gray hair, I think I would have liked and enjoyed the creative learning experience of a good university. But the parents in those days were always in a hurry and they had only heard of – Doctor, Engineer and military professions.


The excitement of flying was a passing romance and at the end what you got in terms of knowledge were the memories of a few manuals and a few check lists. But the school had done the damage. It put us into a reading and a learning mode for all times regardless of the environment. I remembers Mr. Hussain’s 20 guess questions. His guess was rarely out because he had made the paper himself. Mr. Hafeez’s physics, especially the sound calculations, were simply too delicate for me to grasp. But I got a good handle on Mr. Jabbar’s chemistry formulas though his salt analysis required too much imagination. Mr. Catchpole exuded an aura of his own which moved along the route that he moved setting everything in order as he moved. Despite his naughty smile and a sense of humour, he ran a tight ship. His message was simple but very effective – `Do anything but do not get caught’.


He was an icon and came to the British India to teach Urdu to the British soldiers; and then stayed on till his last breadth. After being a Principal of Dera Doon and Hasan Abdaal, he took over Sargodha. His personal life simple had minimum details. He came to the morning PT on a motor cycle and smoked pipe. He rode on cycle to the education block. In the evenings, he smoked cigar. In winters, I always saw him in a gray trouser, a blue blazer, a light blue shirt and a dark blue tie with polka dots. In the summers, I can only visualize him in a gray-green trouser and cream-cloured bush-shirt.


I once had a close shave with him. We were discussing him in the education block veranda and I called him `Tadpole’. I did not know that he was crossing just behind me. Everyone froze but he smiled and went on. The other close shave at the school was of a more physical nature. The roof fan in carpentry class fell down and missed me by inches. Since then I am a fanphobic and can not sleep in peace directly under the fan.


Those were also the days when we grew by an inch a month and the body chemistry was changing rapidly. Our voices changed and hair began to grow at odd places. Unfamiliar powerful forces, of which we knew little about, were building up inside us much faster than our ability to handle them. The rapidly multiplying hormones showed up as pimples on the faces. We could not fathom them and only got confused. Then somebody spread the knowledge about the birds and the bees. That was literally a shocking discovery but seemed to exude some kind of pleasures to it. I remember some faded poor quality black-and-white pictures going around showing the human consummation of love. Those tiny pictures which could hardly be deciphered made us hit the roof with excitement Those pent up energies also came out in different behaviour patterns. The hormones worked out their effect in the form of strong friendships, intense infatuations, fixations and jealousies. Gradually, we grew out of that phase and got a greater hold of ourselves. Obviously, the times have now changed requiring much more convincing and persuasion.


The school was a total patriarchal society. And we had no idea how to handle the female species. Certainly, we were curious and interested but fumbled in confusion, hesitation and fear knowing little how to interact with them. They looked alien, different, unpredictable and perhaps even dangerous. We had yet not synthesized the various inputs we were getting on issues such as the gender, sex, morality, culture, society and religion. So it was rather late in the day that we learnt and experienced things that non-hostel boys go through in their normal growth cycle. Our wives were only too glad to get goofy, innocent, malleable and simpleton husbands like us.


Back to the hormones, the evening games provided the best outlet to those unchanneled furies. In the games, two teams were made – the `shirts’ and the `Skins’. The team that removed its shirt was called the `Skins’. I was fat and hated to be a `Skin’. My excess flesh shivered embarrassingly as I bounced on basketball court. Let me get this inner-phobia out of my system after forty years. After the games, our little pleasures included a cup of tea in the canteen. That was easily the worst tea in the world. But for the connoisseur of the tea, there was an outlet just outside the school gate near the place we hired cycles. They made a thick concoction milk, sugar and tea. And you could top that off by sampling a few home-made biscuits trapped in tall bottles. The stolen oranges from the nearby farm, much like the stolen kisses, provided the same chill and thrill. But the biggest offence, almost at the level of bank robbery, was the French Leave to the town to see a movie. That adventure was not for the faint-hearted like me. Only the reckless and brave took up that challenge. The secret route ran behind Mr. Messey’s home. Surely, we all remember Mr. Messey of the hospital, another big source of dirty jokes. He was short, stocky and very hairy; and a joke went around that he had to shave his entire face except the eyes.


As for the city, there was not much. The contrast was too stark. While the F-104s `pitched-out’ overhead, the city below still lived 100 years back. Since then, it has not changed either except that it is more dusty, more dirty and more congested. It is same cycles, tongas, bullock carts and the qulfi wallas. The Pehelwan’s descendents still sell `Dehi’ and `lussee’. The `Ketchery Bazaar’s’ root beer is still going strong. And the simple village folks still carry on doing their shopping of ropes, plough, seeds; and the steel trunks, jewelry and the Joras for `jahez’.


Back to the school. The hospital was an island of quiet and isolation. In fact, the entire area of Aero Modeling club, Gliding Club, Cricket No. 1 and hospital were the haunts of the philosophers, thinkers and romanticists. The closest I came to a felony was when on a dark night, I had the courage to take a late evening stroll to the hospital with a lighted cigarette hidden behind a towel. As we walked, Mr. Zafar Alam crossed us. And as he was crossing, my cigarette fell down giving out sparks as huge as the New Year’s eve. Obviously, I was totally shaken since my entire future was on line. Mr. Zafar Alam completely ignored it. Mr. Zafar Alam still looks exactly the same as he looked 100 years back.


My biggest faux paus in school was in one of the variety programs in Attacker House. It was a small skit and a satire on the Urdue films. I was the hero and Farooqi was the heroine. It was suppose to be a moonlit night and we were to exchange the standard romantic phrases of Urdu films. As the curtain went up, our dialogues began. Soon after, my robe fell down on the floor and I was there on the stage in a state that I was born. The whole audience roared with laughter and the curtain was quickly dropped down. Under-wear is another invention that had not been introduced to the mankind till then.


Our other little happiness’s were those lotteries for the CSD items where we thought that we had conned the best value for a minimum price for a tooth paste. And queuing up to get those 3 Rupees of `pocket money’ from the House Master on Saturday afternoons. Wearing the coverall for Gliding was another ego booster. And after we got the gliding wings, we began considering ourselves accomplished pilots. But nothing can match the joys of the lazy Saturday afternoon with games excused, marching excused, an exotic dinner of pulao & Kabaab; and all these luxuries followed by a movie; and, finally, the lights out excused. Some movies of those days still haunt me. Movies like the Tender in the Night, The Magnificent seven, Bridges on the River Kwai, Cat on a hot tin Roof, Roman Holiday, For whom the Bell tolls, Les Miserables etc. Our heroes were Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, Robert Taylor, Burt Lancaster, Yul Bryner. Our sweat hearts were Gina Lolobridgida, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardener, Audie Hepburn. Our sweet hearts are now Aunties and fall into the category of getting the life-time achievement awards. The Urdue films were then as bad as they are now. We also had our fair share of Elvis fans fully equipped with guitars, style and clothing.


More than the movies, there were those happy occasions like the picnics at Kalar Kahar. The open truck which looked vary big in those days, Kalar Kahar rest house made during the British Raj, the adjoining lake and boating, the lush foliage through which ran the water channels and the dancing of the Peacocks. Some other collective occasions were the House going out for a Sunday matinee, the Founder’s Day hoopla, games Championships and their victory celebrations, eating of Paya’s at Mr. Naseer’s house under the garb of mathematics practice, the bon fires at the end of a term, the pillow fights and it goes on.


But the most I miss now is the part of our Bengali friends. They were the biggest contributor to our social activities. They had a certain delicate and a sensitive touch to them that we lack. They spoke of Rabindarnath Tagore, of music, art and drama; and of places far away with names like Chittagong, Dacca and Khulna where it rained incessantly, the environment was lush, there were coconut trees and occasional tidal storms. Warsi’s unflappable 100-meters dash and Amir’s boxing. We lived in fear of him.


So what are the remains of the day. What I got from the school was not a degree of Senior Cambridge. Or my ability to play some hockey or Basket Ball. Or even my ability to understand and speak in English. I think what I got from the school were some intangible, immeasurable, unquantifiable and unidentifiable traits, habits and value systems. Some are good. Some are bad. As I said, I can eat cold food. If it comes, I can take a cold shower. But shower I must. I can co-exist with the rich and poor alike; and financial status is meaningless to me. Also the physical possessions do not get me crazy. The Model of the car, the size of house and so on. I have no gender issue and I am not a prisoner of any ideology. I also have no fear of the `Jhonses’ – what others will say. I can forgive my servants and let my wife boss over me. I am the same on the inside as on the outside. My boss gets the same of me as my subordinates. Persons, personalities, individuals fall below the principles, issues, ideas, systems and thoughts. Sargodha also gave me the strength and courage of tolerance. I can live in peace among all cultures, beliefs, races, ethnicities and ideologies and am certainly not holed up in some medieval cage. I like the variety and differences in people and yet have a pride in my South Asian identity. I can feel for a human being and suffer his suffering. Simplicity, fairness, justice, honesty and truth have a place in my scheme of things.


The bad habits that I picked up from School are that I still hate to polish my shoes, press my clothes and make up my bed.


I clearly remember the first day when I entered the School. I can not recollect the day I left the school. I do not think that I ever left the school …….





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