Seduction at Mohenjodaro

Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan

Recently, I happened to visit Mohenjodaro again. To my overwhelming happiness, there it was, the little princess, the urn, as coy and young as ever, not a wrinkle, not an extra ounce of fat, eternally beautiful. For a moment mine alone but now forever part of the common heritage of man

It is quite amazing how imagination begins to mellow down and a mist of nostalgia takes over, as one grows old. Imagination is a precious gift worth protecting, though I don’t know how it can be preserved. Perhaps by dreaming, by aspiring to be ever newborn, by taking courage, by struggling to be better and larger than oneself, by being patiently flexed on one’s toes for buds to blossom and sad faces to break into smiles.

But some things always remain fresh and focussed. For instance, I distinctly remember how my father brought me to Lahore to show me the school I was to join. But there was no mention of the boarding. I did not even know such things existed. When I was presented to Mr Gwyn, the Principal of Aitchison College, he agreed to enrol me but apparently persuaded my father that I be handed over to him there and then; my gear could follow the next day. I could never have imagined that my father would ever agree to surrender me — his only child. But he did. Years later my mother told me that she had for months cried for me at night. Served her right, I thought.

Soon I found an opportunity and ran off from school. Mr Akram, the bursar tracked me down and brought me back to the sadistic amusement of my classmates. But I tried again and again without any success. Eventually I gave up, but never really gave in, in spirit. I hated the daily school regimen. I found most teachers quite insensitive. One was always making mistakes, not having the right answers, not having the ruler in one’s geometry box, not having the cap for Maghreb (evening) prayers, not changing in time for dinner, being late for morning PT, not being able to recall the right date or name, not being able to do this or that the way one was required to do. There was no end to it. One couldn’t even whisper at bedtimes once the lights had been switched off by Miss Singer, the house-mistress.

I wonder what would have become of me if Aitchison did not have the grounds with sporting facilities, the abundantly equipped art-room and a few peculiar teachers. Dashing off for a 100 or 200 metres with all your muscles worked up, the rhythmic pumping action of the arms, the chest thrust forward, thighs and calf muscles flexed on your toes and your whole being surging forward in complete abandon. What a joy! What a sensation! What a feeling of freedom, even if it was only for a few moments.

Moyene Najmi, the art teacher, inspired us in a different way. He gave us access to unlimited art material but never reined in our exuberance. Nor did he tamper our imagination and helped us only by allowing it to roam and wander where it pleased. There was very little criticism on what was produced. Mr Najmi was a man of few words. In fact, only two words. If you had succeeded in your endeavour he would simply say ‘baat bun gaee hai’ (you got it right). If not he would simply declare ‘baat nahin banee’ (you haven’t got it right). He was neither happy nor sorry for it. Nevertheless we liked having matters confirmed by him. He was regarded as the avant-garde in school. The arch bohemian, the free rebellious spirit who encouraged us to scowl at the regimentation imposed by school authorities. There were also a few other teachers, as I have mentioned, equally idiosyncratic in their manner and demeanour. Among them was a portly geography teacher, Mr Qureishi who would frequently invite us for a treat to the famous Khalefa’s kebabs in the old city area where he lived in a section of a rather handsome ancestral haveli inside Yakki gate.

Mr Qureishi and I became friends on one of the school study tours to Harrappa and Mohenjodaro. Another student and I shared a four-seater railway compartment with Mr Qureishi and Mr Moyene Najmi. These two teachers were close friends, though they seemed to have nothing in common except for their firm belief in celibacy, which both abandoned later when spirit and better sense failed them. Mr Qureishi could be pompous as well as extremely amusing. On this Mohenjodaro trip, Mr Qureishi impressed us all when he claimed to have deciphered the Indus script and proceeded to speak it rather fluently in his Lahori accent. If I recall correctly it went something like this ‘kano kitty- sto peda-re fakhar anjum-badee hara’. We noticed that he would spend considerable time to acquaint Mr Nielson, the English teacher, with the correct phonetics of this ancient language. He took great pains in enabling Mr Nielson to improve his expression while he beckoned vendors on the railway platform or addressed us, to the amusement of everyone. Mr Nielson was an adorable person married to an even more adorable Mrs Nielson as we know her, but it was Mr Faden who had the more attractive wife.

The visit to Mohenjodaro unfolded some new vistas of thought and feelings, which have been an unceasing source of inspiration. Above all, the visit spiced up my imagination, imbued it with a sense of wonder and an awe of the mutability of time and space, of the inevitability of death, of the mighty presence of nature and things beyond. Straggling on and around the mounds, the dead city came to life and has remained vividly alive for me ever since.

In the fifties there was only a small museum at Mohenjodaro. I distinctly recall how I relished the sight of each object in the closets. Deliciously baked terracotta urns, vases, tumblers, dishes, toys, pots, figurines seals and pieces of jewellery and ornaments carved from semi-precious stones. Among this array there was a small object which captured my heart. A small urn, with the most delicate form one could imagine. It could be held in the palm of your hand. I was in two minds for a while, but soon picked up the courage to seduce the dainty little thing with its narrow waist and a delicate oval mouth. The small room that comprised the museum was crowded with students. Some tired with the day’s proceedings were disdainfully peering into the cabinets, while the more spirited ones were locked with the harassed museum staff making frivolous enquiries about the exhibits and other objects around the room, including the hand pump located besides the entrance to the museum. Finally, when everyone was ushered out no one noticed that the little princess, the urn had gone. The museum was carefully locked.

Soon after, to my surprise, the thrill of possessing something once out of reach was gone and I found a sense of guilt slowly overcome my love of beauty. It had to be returned. There were no two ways about it. Mr Najmi was taken into confidence and his help enlisted. I don’t exactly recall how, but he succeeded in persuading the curator, on some idle pretext to have the museum reopened. I do recall quite clearly how the urn was concealed under his floppy khaki hat and smuggled back into the glass cabinet from where it had been frisked away only a few hours earlier.

Recently, I happened to visit Mohenjodaro again. There is a proper museum now at the site. The exhibits are methodically listed and elegantly displayed. And not huddled together — though that had its own charm — as they were in the fifties. To my overwhelming happiness, there it was, the little princess, the urn as coy and young as ever, not a wrinkle, not an extra ounce of fat, eternally beautiful. For a moment mine alone but now forever part of the common heritage of man.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee