If you ask an old student of 1950s and 60s who he remembers most among his teachers at the Islamia College Peshawar, he will invariably name an Englishman, among others.
His name was Hubert Michael Close or H.M. Close or simply Close for his students and colleagues.
After graduating from Cambridge, Close went to teach English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in 1937. However, his teaching career was interrupted when he joined the army during World War II, and he ended up in Cyprus and other Mediterranean islands commanding a Pathan Company.
At the end of the war, Close went back to St. Stephen’s, and then, after the Partition, migrated to Pakistan to take up teaching English at Islamia College Peshawar.
In his book, A Pathan Company, published in 1993, Close warmly describes his “boys” in B Company that he commanded, admiring their sturdiness, simplicity of habits, sincerity and loyalty to their commander. It was probably his affection for the young Pathan soldiers of his Company that motivated him to move to Peshawar.
I first saw Close when I entered college and was allotted a room in Hardinge hostel, Room 52, to share with three other students — Ayub Kundi from D.I. Khan, Sahibzada Ayaz from Mansehra and Mian Jameel from Peshawar. Close also lived in Hardinge hostel, in a one-bedroom apartment immediately above our room.
Because of our proximity to his apartment, we often saw him coming from or going to his apartment and, in the process, developed more than a nodding acquaintance with him.
I remember him as a lean man of medium height, probably in his 40s, with a ruddy complexion, thinning brown hair, small penetrating eyes and a rather shy demeanour.
In the early years of Pakistan, elementary military training, called Compulsory Military Training or CMT for short, was introduced in the college. All first-year students had to undergo CMT for three months. Close, with his army background, was a natural choice to head the CMT, and he immersed himself into the task with passion.
At daybreak, he would blow a whistle to pull the students out of their beds, literally sometimes when necessary, make them change into the prescribed uniform — shorts, shirt and PT shoes — and, after a few drills, take them on a run-and-crawl routine all the way to Jamrud, some four miles, and back.
CMT became synonymous with Close, and students jokingly called it Close Military Training. He demanded and instilled a discipline to which the students, mostly coming from the rural areas of the province, were not used to. Not many relished it, but every one of the old students you talk to remembers the rigours of CMT fondly.
Donating blood was another of Close’s passions. He not only donated blood himself, repeatedly, but also encouraged students to donate blood to Lady Reading Hospital, the only public hospital in the city at the time. He would go around the campus looking for potential donors, talk to them, befriend them, cajole them — almost compel them — and ultimately lead them to Lady Reading Hospital. Without Close’s efforts, the blood bank of Lady Reading Hospital probably could not have sustained.
During summer vacations, Close would lead teams of students on anti-malaria campaigns (another of his passions) in the remote villages of Hazara, where they would go from village to village, spraying houses, cowsheds and ponds of stagnant water with insecticides. Those campaigns not only helped save villagers from the ravages of malaria, they also helped the students gain an insight into the life of ordinary village folk, and inspired some to explore the surrounding mountains at the end of their social work projects.
I remember a hiking trip when, at the end of an anti-malaria campaign in Balakot and the surrounding villages, a group of five of us climbed Musa ka Musalla, a 14,000 feet high peak in the Himalayas. It was the greatest adventure of our lives!
The quickest way to get into Close’s good books was to either donate blood or join his summer social work campaigns, or even better, both.
A lifelong bachelor, Close lived a Spartan life. He was usually seen in a white shirt and khaki trousers and, in winters, a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.
Close was also a biking buff. I don’t ever remember seeing him travel by the college bus or a car. He always rode his Raleigh bicycle, his khaki trousers clamped at the ankles, going around the campus, whistling a tune and taking in the sweet fragrance of bitter-orange blossoms that filled the campus air in the months of March and April.
During the month of Ramzan, Close would get up at sehri along with everyone else and would fast until iftar, because of which students jokingly referred to him as Hafiz or Haji M. Close, playing on his initials. On Sundays, he would ride his bicycle to the city to attend church service, a five-mile ride either way. He was a deeply religious man.
Other than social work, Close’s pursuit of happiness included smoking a pipe and listening to western classical music. In fact, we could trace his movements to and from his apartment by the fragrant trail of the pipe smoke he left behind him. Occasionally, when we went upstairs to his apartment to ask something and found the door to his living room open, we would see him humming along his gramophone and vigorously chopping the air with his hand as if he were actually conducting the symphony being played. This was our introduction to the western classical music.
Close is remembered today by his students not for what he taught in the classroom but mostly for what he taught outside it: Discipline, compassion, social work and adventure, and, to us four roommates in Room 52, a little bit of Beethoven and Mozart.
Close remained at Islamia College until his retirement and then moved to Edwardes College and remained there until his death, in 1999.