The way it was: Casting a shadow on pink memories

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Shamsher was a bohemian and a non-conformist. He never believed in rituals. Never even pretended to dress for social occasions. Unlike Rasheed Toru who was so particular that he often used his soiled socks for a hanky to match his tie. Shamsher looked shabby, but always comfortable

Most people think they are great. I am sure you think that too of yourself. Surely you are right, as long as you believe you are. You are somebody special. Specially gifted, specially endowed in a certain way. Everyone is, as long as he discovers it. Some can find themselves in a moment. Others may take a lifetime. Picasso could draw like a classical master in his teens, so did Leonardo. Van Gogh had to trudge all through his life.

I being palethi da, the first born, who are supposed to be a bit slow on the uptake, took time discovering my inabilities. There were actually so many. I couldn’t make it to the 1960 Rome Olympics. I could never score a century in cricket, run hundred metres in even 11 seconds. I think in 1957 Murchison held the world record at 10.2 seconds. Mel Patton ran the 200 metres in 20 seconds dead. I could never kick the soccer ball beyond the midfield; what was worse, heading the ball always gave me a headache.

I could never learn to draw a perfect circle by hand like the painter and our teacher, Mr Moyene Najmi could so casually accomplish. I always envied the swine that could chat up girls. I could never think of saying the right thing at the right moment.

Some individuals are unusually endowed. There were these two students at Aitchison, who originally belonged to Swat, but settled in Dargai when the Wali banished their parents from the State. Jehangir Khan and the late Shamsher Ali Khan were both my class fellows. They were both legends at school in their lifetimes. Jehangir was a natural sportsman. He could play or do anything. Academically he didn’t play on the front foot but excelled in cricket, tennis, swimming, hockey, football, riding and every thing else — table tennis, marbles and even ludo. You name the game and he was at the top. He represented the country against the MCC at Dacca before he sat for his Matriculation.

After leaving school his talent for sports further diversified. He demonstrated a great passion for Quail fights. When I met him once later he was stroking a ‘tiger’ — to me it looked a frightened bird — ensconced in his fist, which he pumped up and down. A stranger not familiar with how a quail is trained for a fight would have doubtlessly found the movement rather rude. For several years none of his classmates including the Pakhtoon boys heard of Jehangir Khan. Only once did we hear that Jehangir had a peasant uprising on his doorsteps, which he survived without any harm to his person. I believe since then he has given up the batera (quails) fights for a more pastoral existence.

All boarders at Aitchison had to be up for PT in the morning and play games in the evening. The late Haneef Sahib saw to it that no one stayed away. But strangely enough no one ever saw Shamsher Ali Khan, the other legend, ever wield a bat or a hockey stick or even feign to kick or throw a ball. Every one affectionately called him Batera. He had a robust chest and no neck. The knot of his college tie could never be sighted because it was lost under a sturdy chin. Batera and I were not only class fellows but also housemates; but even I cannot recollect seeing him in a yellow shirt and blue knickers required for games. No one could fool around with college rules. How could he get away?

When Kazim Ali Khan tried to peddle off through the college main entrance on a bicycle he was nabbed within a mile. He was brought back and produced before Mr Akram, the Bursar. Kazim insisted that he was speeding along when the brakes failed and he just couldn’t stop the cycle within school premises. In all fairness to Kazim, he did possess a racing cycle — the only student who had one actually — and he was indeed practicing for the Inter-House cycling competition.

It was common school knowledge that Shamsher hated physical exercise. However he loved to exercise his brain solving mathematical equations. To add fuel to the fire there was this Haideri Sab who had been recruited to teach maths at the School. He had an incredible mind for figures. Haideri Sab and Shamsher Ali Khan were great buddies.

Since Haideri Sab was a junior housemaster at Kelly, I would occasionally bump into him, while he sat outside on a wooden bench under a ficus tree. He never discussed maths but would pleasantly engage me to find out about the films I had seen the previous weekends. I would tell him about the one I liked the best. Haideri Sab who loved the cinema would then eagerly lean forward and ask in a hushed voice, “Was it hot?” Haideri Sab was a great wrestler in his youth. He never married and instead took to maths. His views on cricket were unflinching– “Eleven fools of one country playing against eleven fools of another, while thousands of fools sit watching for five days.”

Every teacher and student respected Shamsher for his shabby and erudite disposition. Only we knew how mischievous he was. Without exception he was the central motivator in all our plans to rile the unrelenting school administration, ranging from raiding the citrus orchard, absconding on French leave for a film or to tuck-in platefuls of tukka-tin at Abbot Road opposite the Odeon. Talking of delicious food, the other good place to eat was what we called the Dorchester, a street restaurant adjacent to Regal cinema. They served the most splendid Qorma you had ever eaten, accompanied by a couple of aloo and qeemey waley kebabs. Eaten with steaming nans or fresh romali roti it tasted far more delicious than what my friend Irfan Hussain has been having at Tuscany with chocolate sauce.

Whenever, if ever, we were caught trespassing, Shamsher Ali Khan always got away scot-free. It was assumed that he must have been led astray. While the teacher glared at us he stood reflecting as though he had nothing to do with us, looking as though butter would not melt in his mouth. Shamsher, being a born genius, also had a fertile mind for mischief. Whenever we wanted to escape the boring regime of the boarding house, he would proceed to Mr Langland’s room, knock on his door and on hearing in a loud Scottish accent “come in!” would calmly step in and request the House Master to solve a mathematical problem.

Mr Langland knowing Shamsher’s passion for maths would readily agree and spend the rest of prep time addressing the complicated equation, which Shamsher had deviously selected for him. While Mr Langland struggled at his assignment, we would paddle out of the school for some fresh air. It is unlikely that this information is going to travel over the Lowari Pass to Chitral, where Mr Langland presides over a school for girls and boys, which he has worked hard to establish. Considering what a kind and caring housemaster he was, it is the last thing I would wish to happen. So please keep this to yourself.

Shamsher was a bohemian and a non-conformist. He never believed in rituals. Never even pretended to dress for social occasions. Unlike Rasheed Toru who was so particular that he often used his soiled socks for a hanky to match his tie. Shamsher looked shabby, but always comfortable, as opposed to some of his other friends who even today look like elegantly stuffed vegetables. As a young civil servant, without hesitation he displayed Madre Millat Fatima Jinnah’s election symbol on his shirt when she was contesting against the reigning President Field Marshal Ayub Khan. As a punishment he was removed to Khuzdar, a remote district of Balochistan.

He lived and ate simply and like Baloo the bear was a creature of ‘basic necessities’. His attitude was that of a bull who, when informed that thieves were going to hustle him, replied, “What difference would it make, they would also feed me fodder!” Shamsher did not care where they sent him, because he would still have to be paid his salary. He never cared for the perks or sought after what are euphemistically termed ‘God’s blessings.’ The monthly emoluments were enough to take care of his hearth and home. The only extra cash he needed was for cigarettes.

Shamsher never hurt a fly in his life. Ten hectic years we spent together at school, laughing, cribbing, joking, sharing and having fun at the expense of others. Later he joined the Government and rose to one of the highest positions. Shamsher was a rebel who had been tamed by official duties. But I could never imagine a person, who never ever curled a fist would take to a gun and fire himself off into the irretrievable depths of cosmic darkness. What a sad shadow he has cast on the pink memories of our beginnings. What a loss to us. Surely we shall meet again. He will always remain a legend at the School and in our hearts.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist