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The obscure saga of a mediocre

In the first of a three-part series, journalist Khaled Ahmed takes us along on a trip down memory lane — to his growing-up years, and the Lahore of that time

The obscure saga of a mediocre

I got out of Jalundhar in 1947 at the age of four in a truck with my maternal grandfather, because my father, serving in the Indian Army, was still fighting the Second World War, waiting to be demobilised in Malaya. I recall how my grandfather’s Turki topi flew off when the truck, overloaded with relatives from the Pathan bastis, passed under a tree.

We arrived at Old Anarkali Road to live in Kapurthala House because in Jalundhar we had lived on the territory of Maharaja Kapurthala who had created the Afghan Cricket Club that gave India its great cricketer, Jahangir Khan, father of Majid Khan. We lived in a flat on top of the house of Pakistan’s Test cricketer Shafqat Rana till my father arrived from Malaya and took us to Zaman Park where his father had occupied a house next to his brother’s, that of Ahmad Hassan Khan, Imran Khan’s maternal grandfather.

My unlettered mother somehow hired a tonga and took me to the Convent of Jesus and Mary school and got me admitted in “baby class” of which I only have bad memories. We moved to Jhelum soon after where I joined class one in a cantonment primary school and learned to ride a bicycle. A picture from those days shows me reading a novel, titled Turki Shamshir, but I can’t believe I could read then; but I recall that from Jhelum I wrote my first letter in Urdu to my maternal uncle Judge Bashiruddin Ahmed Khan in Rawalpindi — who later retired as chief justice of Peshawar High Court — and received a money order from him of Rs 50.

After that we moved on to Murree where I went to a primary school on a nearby hill in Sunny Bank, but was in class three when my mother went to live in Lyallpur because my father was posted to Gilgit. I studied at Pakistan Model High School — an old gurdwara — and my class was in a bathroom with 150 taps and my roll number was 81. (Why do I remember this?)

Life in Zaman Park

After my father’s transfer we moved to Zaman Park once again and I recall my mother giving me my schoolbag and asking me to go to the nearby town of Dharampura and get admitted to class three. As I stood outside Lahore Corporation Primary School in Dharampura Bazaar, I was discovered by a great man who turned out to be the headmaster of an overcrowded school with class three located in a nearby graveyard where a hujra had been made into a classroom. (What we the students did to the graves is unprintable.)

Master Ghulam Hassan influenced my life as no one else. He was great with math and heavily into Urdu literature as well as cricket and ended up tutoring a lot of weak-in-math children at Zaman Park. I don’t recall learning much in Dharampura till I was advised to shift to Cantonment Board School No.2, which I did, my bag slung over my shoulder, to join class four. I passed class five from there and came to the nearby Arif High School on Infantry Road which was conveniently approachable through the Mian Mir Graveyard where my parents were to be buried later.

Heading to Arif High

Arif High School was privately owned and was still being constructed when I entered class six and had to carry bricks dangerously with other kids to the roofs being laid over some of the classrooms. The teachers were all temporary and picked up at low salaries from among college boys playing hooky and from the clerics fallen on bad times away from home. One teacher of Persian who influenced me greatly was a man from the Frontier Province who slept in the nearby mosque and led funeral prayers there.

I studied at Pakistan Model High School — an old gurdwara — and my class was in a bathroom with 150 taps and my roll number was 81. (Why do I remember this?)

I was buying Lail-o-Nihar magazine regularly with my Rs 10 pocket money apart from reading Adab-e-Latif and weekly Chattan of Shorish Kashmiri when I took time off from playing cricket and collecting cricketers’ pictures in my register-like albums. (I can’t ignore the Saturday Evening Post that I bought regularly from The Mall to read American fiction in it and still have multiple bound copies of it.) Teaching was not of high quality but some of the boys were brilliant coming from the streets of Dharampura of illiterate parents. My friend Rafeeq was to become an engineer — I didn’t know what class-two engineer meant — but he ended up becoming prosperous serving his entire life working in Saudi Arabia.

My father was an avid reader of novels in English, mostly “action” Westerns with cowboys acting rough like Jalundhar Pathans. Everybody read them in Zaman Park because they identified with the character of the tightlipped and somewhat taciturn cowboy. I got locked into more fiction after my subscription to Niqabposh magazine from Karachi and “detective” Urdu novels being mostly written there. But this time it was English. I kept a dictionary, and judging from the red marks on the English “cowboy” novels I read, I consulted the dictionary ten times on each page. (I kept a notebook on the novels I read: by matriculation, I had read 186!) But it was exciting and got me interested in language structures: I was to read French (elective) later in Government College, Lahore; German in a diploma course of the Punjab University; and Russian in Moscow University, during my foreign service career.

Moving through Mian Mir

I walked from Zaman Park to Arif High School first taking the railway track till it reached Mian Mir Graveyard, then weaving through the graves to the school located on a ganda naala on the Infantry Road. Back in Zaman Park, I played cricket all the time, including in the house of Aitezaz Ahsan whose father I recall as a great kindly man and his well-behaved brother who also played with us in their lawn. My neighbour Ijaz Khan played good cricket in the Cantonment Board school and almost made it to Pakistan team. I often fielded at the Lahore Gymkhana ground where Dr Jehangir Khan and my father’s first cousin Agha Ahmad Raza Khan played their weekend matches.

I saw cousins Humayun Zaman and Javed Burki — both living in Zaman Park — playing a match against a visiting MCC team. Zaman Park was to produce three captains of the Pakistan Cricket Team, and the nursery was the nearby Aitchison College. I led a cricket team of Arif High School to Model School of the Lower Mall where a team led by the test-cricketer-to-be Pervez Hassan gave us a drubbing. Like all Urdu-medium schools Arif High School lacked in games, had no grounds, and replaced important functions with namaz that built no character. Later in life, I read Sir Syed Ahmed Khan saying, “No religion can survive without work ethic; but work ethic can survive without religion.”

Also read: The obscure saga of a mediocre II

Arif High with low math

Arif High School, like all Urdu medium schools was weak in math and science; and it was because of partition: the Hindu teachers who monopolised these subjects had left for India in 1947. We said namaz through primary and high school but were weak in math and science. Today, India has beaten us as an economy that takes “transfer of technology” easily while Pakistan struggles because of its low-quality manpower. The Arabs can get rid of our low-level expat labour but they can’t do the same to Indians placed in higher jobs in the Gulf. The same goes for the United States where Indians dominate the academia. With hindsight I can say that Pakistan suffers today from its ideology which creates conditions for non-rational behaviour and low-quality manpower which in turn makes transfer of technology impossible in contrast to India which manufactures its own cars, instead of “assembling” them.

To be concluded

Khaled Ahmed

The author is a veteran journalist and author of several books including Sectarian Wars. Currently, he is the Consulting Editor of Newsweek, Pakistan.

One comment

  • An intriguing and insightful autobiography. I have always enjoyed observing the way Khaled Ahmed views the world, perhaps because I view it from a similar perspective.

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