False Start: An Educational Detour

It should have been a trauma for me but the truth is that it was not. I was neither disturbed nor sad. Indeed, I was rather relieved at not having to face an empty sheet of engineering drawing again

False Start: An Educational Detour

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

Click here for the second part.

The CAE Cadet’s Mess was an imposing building, four stories high, in a semi-desert of a lawn. Half a mile away or less was the CAE itself and from the lawns behind some of the class rooms one could enjoy the sight of the sea. It was a beautiful view though we were always too harassed by work to enjoy it. In the mess we again became ‘bloody juniors’. Once again, the mighty seniors pounced upon us to rag us. Once again, our lives became a series of ‘fall-ins’, front rolls, three pointers and double mark time (consisting of static running).

The bracingly cool sea breeze blew in all the time and the rooms were modern and beautiful. But the seniors saw to it that we did not enjoy it at all. I, however, started enjoying this life soon enough. Indeed, I even began to tease the seniors. For instance, I would roll the bottle of a soft drink in my room which disturbed the senior, Baig I believe, just below my room and he darted up fuming and punished me and my roommate—Sohail Shahbaz. Sohail however, enjoyed the whole drama. He especially liked when I teased Shahab Rizvi, a PIA scholar, who repented having punished us since I won a duel of wits against him. The subject of it is best not described. Whether Shahab heard about how this joke on him was doing the rounds among his juniors, I do not know. However, he stopped sending me for errands. 

Another of my room mates was Mazhar Hameed, a PIA scholar like Sohail. He was very quiet and much panic-stricken in the beginning. I do not know how much he suffered on account of me but he never complained being a thorough gentleman. As for the actual business of studying itself, I soon discovered that I had no taste for engineering subjects and, instead of forcing myself to study them as I had done during the last three months of my F Sc. I just neglected them. They seemed, I suspected, too much like work which I abhorred even now. Instead, I did what I enjoyed as a hobby which were intellectual pursuits but of another kind.

I had just fallen under the spell of literature and history. It was a romance with subjects I later spent my whole life studying and, like all romances, it was heady and it blinded me to such things as my duty towards my parents or my own reputation. I bought a number of books including the complete works of Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare and Maupassant’s short stories. I remember that I was reading Wilde in the summer break from CAE in PMA and found it fascinating that a new world of imagination, romance and beauty opened out before me. I was intellectually intoxicated and I did not put down the book till late at night though I always went to bed early. The pleasure of reading was indescribably vivid and intense but I did not know it would make me a captive, an addict, for life and change my life in an unforeseen and revolutionary manner.  

The immediate change was that I all but gave up my formal studies. In the engineering drawing class, I stared out at the sea. And in the workshop, I talked to people busy in hewing out a T-shaped thing from a piece of iron. As for the other classes, I did go to them but it was only in the English and the history class where I was considered outstanding and got straight A grades. In all others I barely attempted to finish my homework and did not read what I was supposed to. Forbidden fruit in the form of what I was not supposed to read beckoned to me. These were: Mohammad Sadiq’s History of Urdu literature; Farooq Fuad’s biography; Fernandes Henrique’s history of prostitution—all sorts of books dealing with literature, history and philosophy. And as I read more and more, I began writing too. I wrote my first short stories in English, my first poems in Urdu and English and biographical account of my teens which disappeared later. 

The author in 1971

I was given warnings of being thrown out of CAE if I did not improve my grades. The principal, an American colonel, interviewed me and said that I was being given another chance because I had done so well in some subjects. But why had I failed in drawing and in workshop? I did not tell him that I spent the drawing period wondering at how the seagulls dived and sat on the waves and I couldn’t draw a straight line to save a dying grandmother anyway. As for the workshop, the only iron ‘T’ I ever made was actually done on the sly by one of my Bengali friends after having finished his own. It had to be rough.

Actually, I did not know it then but I cannot do most practical things with finesse anyway. Whether I have some mild form of undiagnosed dyspraxia I do not know. However, I was never good in things like drawing nor had any skills in mending things or tending machinery. More to the point, I never put in any effort in any such things either. In fact, rarely in my life did I put in any effort in anything I did not like—these came under the label of WORK! Thus, there could not have been a more unsuitable profession than engineering or flying for me but in those days we knew nothing about aptitude.

Not being aware that I cannot even park a car correctly, I requested the American colonel to send me into the GDP. He said he would find out. The new term came and I became even more indifferent towards engineering on the assumption that I would be sent to the GDP. They did not send me to the GDP, however, presumably because they did not want to create a precedent which would encourage other cadets to avoid their studies. In retrospect, the Air Headquarters' decision was wise because, given my lack of practical skills, I would have had an accident destroying the plane and killing myself in the bargain.

Thus, in February 1969 I was given the discharge from the PAF. I was told that I could join the army if I so desired. It should have been a trauma for me but the truth is that it was not. I was neither disturbed nor sad. Indeed, I was rather relieved at not having to face an empty sheet of engineering drawing again. Nor did I feel that this would be a disappointment for my parents. In fact, to be honest, I did not really bother about the feelings of my parents nor did I even feel I must make them proud or even that I should not be a burden upon them. I just assumed blithely that I had a right, an unquestioned sense of entitlement, to my parents’ house and its amenities. 

Having been released from what appeared to be a very unsuitable way of life, at least as far as studies were concerned, by good luck, I came to my uncle’s house. Here, as always, I read books lying around in dark nooks and crannies. One of them was by Andre Gide and it gave me new ideas about individualism, personal freedom and Western liberalism. Apart from that I played on the roof with my cousins and some other boys. I do not remember why I did not go home immediately but eventually I caught the train home.

I arrived in PMA in early March. It was spring and I was delighted with the weather. I do not know what my parents said but it could not have been much since I remember nothing but a feeling of being very happy as if I was on a holiday. I met Akbar Bilgrami, son of the new commandant, Major General Bilgrami and Shad, brother of the doctor, Captain Bangash, who was Anwar Bhai’s friend and a couple of new people. Anwar Bhai gave me the idea that I should appear for the B.A examination of the Peshawar University as a private candidate. This meant that I could take the examination as an external student after paying a fees. I was delighted since I could study what I wanted to. I chose philosophy, English literature and sociology and my optional subject was the history of science. The examination was to be held in June and it was March already. I had less than four months for the two-year B.A course.

Anwar Bhai had full confidence that I would not only pass but even do well. My father had no such confidence in me and his friend, Uncle Naseer, told him that I should not be so foolish as to risk appearing in this examination as it was bad to have the stigma of a third division with one’s name. My mother was undecided and unsure but she encouraged me to bet on the exam in the end. I myself was resolved to try it out since I did not even think of the possibility of failure. Anwar Bhai went to Peshawar and deposited my examination fees and even this happened because he knew someone in the right place. Then I started studying. I really enjoyed the preparation for the B.A. I read the prescribed books as if they were novels and solved some questions. The drama, ‘Macbeth’, was also taught in the GCE ‘O’ level (Senior Cambridge) in Burn Hall and Akbar was studying it. So, I discussed it with him. But mostly I dragged Akbar to the nearby hills and exhausted him. I also rode horses and walked about the roads of PMA with anyone I could find. I was in my element and having a wonderful time.

One day, when I had gone to Abbottabad only for fun, a terrible incident occurred. As I was sitting in the PMA bus on my way home in the afternoon, it stopped at a bus stop where a Government Transport Services bus bound for Kakul was already parked. Shad shouted and leapt out saying there was a fight. I leapt out behind him and we entered the GT bus and there I met a monstrous sight—a man stood doubled up with a knife in his stomach. Blood was gushing out of his stomach and all-around people stood either petrified or shouting. Then we all rushed out of the bus and Shad had his cousins around him. I do not know where the cousins had come from and I did not even know them at that time.

I learnt later that one of them had stabbed the man, a lawyer from Kakul, in the government bus. Then people attacked Shad and his cousins and I ran to save Shad and was in the middle of a fight. I do not know how I fought but I remember that we were trying to get into the PMA bus and they blocked our way. Then I got into the bus and so did the others and I noticed that my hand was bleeding. Either a knife had cut it or it had come in the door of the bus. I remember myself shouting to the driver to go and kept standing in the door with the blood gushing out of my hand. I was exhilarated and the boys and girls watched me as if I were a hero. And so, we came to PMA.

By that evening I was not exhilarated at all. Shad’s cousin had been jailed pending trial. Shad too had volunteered to share the blame so he too was in jail. Dr. Bangash and my father had met to keep my name out of the case. My mother was on the prayer mat and everybody was scared. By the next day I was apprehensive and the day after found me sick with anxiety. I was so anxious that my heart would palpitate when I heard heavy steps outside the house. I could not sleep much and stayed only at home. I could not even study philosophy, otherwise a subject which consoled me and which I considered something of a game. This state of my mind passed slowly and after a fortnight or so I started going out and meeting my friends. Nobody said much about the case and slowly things returned to normal. Then the examinations began.

I must have done well because I got a first division in my B.A which was a rare distinction in those days. I got exceptionally high marks in English literature and stood first in the bachelor’s examination of the University of Peshawar in 1969. I also got good marks in philosophy but only mediocre ones in sociology. But overall, it was a first division after all which was considered a rare distinction at that time. This news must have cheered up my parents who must have suffered loss of face when I had come back from CAE—something I did not realise then.

Anyway, I now decided to do my M.A in English literature. I would go to Lahore and study in the Punjab University. My father made a rare gesture of care and tenderness when he declared one night that he would spend money—money which he could ill-afford since his retirement was only a year later—to see to it that I studied in Lahore. Abid and Rashid Hassan, my old friends who had come back to PMA, encouraged me also. The other new boys were younger than us. They were Arsalan and Tariq Yusuf, sons of colonel (later brigadier) Mohammad Yusuf, the deputy commandant, and Nadeem (later major general) and Naveed Ijaz, sons of Major General Ijaz Mian, the new commandant. Although younger, they played with me. And Arsalan was very talented and very fond of discussing intellectual subjects with much wit and humour. So, the company in PMA was excellent, even more so than usual, but I set forth to make my future in Lahore.
(to be continued)