It was a Thai restaurant, “one of the best” in Bonn, Germany. Soft music, old wooden furniture reflecting great taste of the owner, dim light covering everything in some surreal beauty — it seemed like a scene from a Hollywood film to me. That is how I had known the West, through movies and books.
We, two teachers and two students (including me) from a university in Lahore, had gone to attend a two-month fellowship at the Bonn University. The most senior of us was the head of a social sciences department.
We were invited to the Thai restaurant by the director of the department which we had joined as research fellows. The director, a very famous academic in Germany and beyond, had been to our university back in Lahore. Whenever he was in Lahore with his research team, the whole hierarchy of the varsity, from the peon to the VC, was in awe of “the professor”. He had started research collaboration with our university.
The four of us had gone to the Bonn University as part of the joint research project. The two students among us were supposed to attend a doctoral course, while the other two faculty members (including the social sciences department head) were invited to present their research papers. The project meant empowering both the faculty and students in the field of research.
Once in Germany, we were more eager to see “so much” outside the campus. The beauty and the progress of the country allured us, but the department head was excited the most. He never talked about the research paper he was supposed to present the following week. Having set aside all inhibitions and the sense of being the most senior among us, he took the lead in all things non-academic. His exuberance would touch new heights whenever his monologue (loud and clear even in busy streets) was punctuated by: “Lo g! Yorup v wekh ee lya asi fir!”
So, desperate to ‘oblige’ the director, he made us reach the restaurant well before time. After a while, the director-professor, accompanied by his two young fellow researchers, also reached. We were greeted with traditional German warmth. The department head had made sure he would sit close to the director, who was offered the main, relatively bigger chair.
In no time, food and drinks were served. To each his own. While the director was talking about different issues - like how the research could help the Pakistani society address its issues and how there was a greater chance of further visits abroad - the department head would hold the morsel just in the way; listening so attentively, with both his mouth and eyes wide open. As if every word of the director-professor was some wish of the department head coming true.
When we came out, it was snowing. His two fellows went their way. “Let me fetch my vehicle,” the director said, in a light tone, and vanished. “It’s good that he would give us a ride in his car to our place,” the department head was quick to say. When the director came back, with a bicycle on his side, a sudden silence fell.
The director said he would accompany us to the nearby bus stop. While walking beside us, he was talking in his usual energetic way. Just before the bus stop, he waved to say goodbye and cycled away.
Soon the bus came. The moment we jumped on the bus to avoid the cold, the department head blurted out, “Wadda professor aya! Aeday kolon changi cycle te merey peo kol ae. We were in awe of him for nothing!”
And then the two faculty members laughed out loud. We, their ‘students’, followed.
At campus or on some road in Pakistan, what I miss the most is: the easy-going professors with minds teeming with news idea, and a lot of nice bicycles plying on pollution-free roads.