Living in a small town has its pros and cons. I lived in a distant town in Sindh which had a small cohesive community. General population was not well educated and much of it had not travelled outside the district. Same families married each other until everyone behaved identically. Years
of isolation refined a bigoted behaviour into a well established code of conduct. Nobody minded his own business and poking nose into others’ affairs was a socially accepted norm. People judged each other by the caste, sect and locality.
But it was not something inconceivable which I rued the most. It was distancing from life long love of painting which I ended up regretting. Principal of my school was outright conservative with a make believe world of his own. He considered painting unnecessary and allowed only Hindus to enrol, in lieu of Islamic studies. However a practising Muslim was instated to teach Hindus how to draw blasphemous lines and curves. Hypocrisy was never contested and obedience was an integral ingredient of an ideal student. Drawing teacher took classes for all when regular teacher took a day off. He used to take my work and use it as an inspiration to fellow students.
I could never learn sketching formally. Time and again I bumped into principal-like patronizing figures in my life.
Our math’s teacher did not like to teach his subject. He was more interested in grooming students for life hereafter and forgot equipping students for this one. School principal had put two checks in monthly report card asking parents if students were offering prayers and reciting Holy Koran. Our maths teacher was quite peculiar about answers to those questions. Everyone envied Hindus who did not have to go through the same persecution.
They say that bible in some man’s hand is worse than the bottle of whiskey in other’s.
Our geography teacher thought that Earth stood like a human, north to south, and it forced rivers to flow always in that direction. It caused quite a stalemate when someone inquired about river Nile’s gawky northward flow. Our teacher could not explain it but sincerely yearned if he could compel Indus River to flow northwards by the same mysterious reason, in order to teach a lesson to audacious Punjabis who were depriving Sindhis of precious Indus water.
Our chemistry teacher boasted to be a poet and actually got a couple of books printed. He was not interested much in chemistry and used his class to promote his books. After having a lacklustre career as a teacher and poet he became an astronomer and wrote a book criticizing Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein. He claimed Earth to be the centre of the universe and supported it with his interpretation of holy verses. He concluded that time-honoured theories were jewish-christian conspiracy to make Muslims agnostic. Sadly this book was distributed freely to school students all over the town. Later I asked one of my friends in Police if he could have been arrested for it but found out that 18th century Police-Act had clauses to arrest people for denouncing anything but science. One can get arrested for disrespecting constitution, state or religion but any Tom Dick and Harry can say anything against science and its practitioners.
I still remember Benazir Bhutto’s visit to our school when she was in opposition. Democracy had just breathed out of martial law and people were flared up with promises and hope. Jiyaalas broke into the school through the front wall to catch a single glimpse of her. Few years later when she was restored to power she visited the school again. This time around the landscape was totally different. A new paved road was built in record time for her entourage to pass through. To show School’s commitment toward development of students, vice principal decided to have practicals going in all laboratories. It was winter and biology lab needed frogs for dissection. Frogs hibernate deep in muddy swamps in winters and it is impossible to find one on surface. Vice principal announced 100% marks for those who could bring one. A dozen frogs were available next morning. I understood the power of incentives for the first time. Everyone was rehearsing for the occasion. Even my six years old brother took a rare winter bath to get ready for the day. On my way back he proudly told me that he presented bouquet of flowers to the lady. I did not believe him but later principal called me to give his photo presenting bouquet. Some times hard work does pay off. Miss Bhutto announced a 50 lakh rupee donation to the school. Roars of long live Bhutto filled the air.
Everyone applauded her benevolence as if tax payers’ money was hers.
Mr. Principal was quite punitive about attendance. Students, absent a day earlier were supposed to stay back in front of their classes after morning assembly, which started with recitation of Koran followed by national anthem. He kept yawning during both. As soon as students uttered last words of national anthem he would stop yawning, with eyes flashing at the sight of his hunt. He started from senior classes moving on to the most junior staring at every student inauspiciously.
Most of the students belonged to impoverished families living in nearby villages and travelled miles on Cycles, Tongas and Lorries before they could reach school gates, which they found closing quite often. G.R.Rasool, a friend of mine rode seven miles with eight of his siblings everyday to reach the school. He was a frequent visitor to the infamous line. Principal started noticing him.
“What does your father do”, Principal asked curiously.
“A farmer, sir”, G.R.Rasool replied in timid voice.
“Why is your father wasting his money? Why don’t you work with him in the field?”
Most of the students did not know the answer to this question. Their parents hardly went to the school. Some of them dared dreaming that their children would be able to become a govt. officer, which was still considered height of achievement in a village. But a lot of them just sent their children to the school because they wanted to give them freedom before they were destined to similar fate as theirs. Their wrinkled and tanned faces had seen many hardships which made them quite practical.
“Sir, he wants to ensure that no body could cheat me by making me sign on forged papers”, G.R.Rasool gathered some courage and replied
“What papers?”, Principal asked inquisitively
“Sir, landlord made him sign land’s ownership papers telling him that they were guarantee letter for a small loan he took from him.”
“hmm. But what’s the point now in learning. You don’t have any land to lose now”. Principal’s smile widened as he pointed out hole in G.R.Rasool’s logic
“Sir, sir..” G.R.Rasool panicked.
Principal grabbed him from his head, spun him around, slapped him in the face, hit him against the wall and tried other tricks from his Pandora box.
Mom once told me that our religion has defined a code of conduct which is careful to minute details. It even has protected rights of domesticated animals. It is instructed that an animal should not be slaughtered in front of another as it would agonize the next in row. But the structure of school ensured that each student to be slaughtered saw it coming, coming right in his face.
G.R.Rasool had dumbness entrenched deep in him. He was programmed by his father to hear, see and do no evil and he never ever deviated from it. Rest of the students got away with Principal’s trap by hoodwinking him time and again but he never did. He had eight siblings who were as determinedly befuddled and studying year after one another. I wondered how his parents managed to pay their fees. I visited his home once. It was in middle of lush green orchards and fields of golden wheat. His mother and sisters did exquisite needlework on shawls which were sold to NGOs which helped exporting them from Karachi. His mother forced me to take one of those which would have cost her plenty of her working hours. I could not refuse although I knew it would have brought her much needed cash. She had a heart of gold. There was happiness and peace at that part of earth which I hardly found else where.
My heart overwhelmed with emotions to find such tawakul among the people living in most uncertain of conditions. My mind protested and argued that it was the only consolation these poor souls had; after all they needed something to be proud of.
Mr. Principal did not believe in extra curricular activities. There was only a single one hour long session per week where students were allowed to participate in extra curricular activities like Painting and Speech making. I chose later because my father thought it was beneficial for me. Next to me sat Raja, who belonged to a noble Hindu family. The topic for the day was Jinnah. Students made speeches with vigour and energy. Most of them acted in a set manner. They idealized teacher in-charge who had asked everyone to start the speech with a stanza, follow it with a brief introduction, hammer the rostrum few times and address the teacher by calling him “Janab e Aaali”. Raja was right before me in the order. He went to the rostrum confidently and immaculately rendered a stanza before his speech.
Don’t boast yourself for what you brought with you (at the time of birth),
No clothes to hide the bareness, tears flowing ceaselessly.
“Janab e Aali and dear friends, Quaid e Aazam Mohammad ali jinnah was born on 25th Dec. His early education was in the same city…” His speech continued with the same facts iterated before him.
Years passed by in the same class but Raja always started his speech with the same stanza, whatever the topic maybe: Jinnah, American Civil War, Global warming, Child labour, 14th August or legality of abortion.
Sometimes he excused from delivering the speech but was forced to come to the rostrum and recite his famous stanza.
He belonged to a Brahman family which served as priests for the small Hindu community in the town. His family was vegetarian but he had Muslim appetite for chicken. He ate my chicken sandwiches with great pleasure. He had a good memory which was time and again revealed in an environment where rote learning was key to success. One day drawing teacher could not come to school for some reason and Hindu students stayed back in Islamiat class. That day Islamiat teacher asked Muslim students if anyone remembered words of aazan and could give it in front of the class. None of the students raised his hand. Slowly one hand rose from the back. It was Raja who came to the rostrum and recited holy words. Islamiat teacher mocked Muslim students with immense contempt and asked them to die of shame.
“Mujhe kya bura tha marna..”. I muttered slowly showing off my family’s recent love for Ghalib induced by a famous drama and looked towards G.R.Rasool to get accolade.
“agar ek baar hota”. His face was depiction of Ghalib’s inspiration for writing these lines.
I did the matriculation with average numbers and joined the college. It was on first floor of the same school. A new definition of coeducation was instituted by putting a divider between boys and girls’ halves of the class. Teacher could face both of them since they were immune to satanic delusions. They preferred to stay in the feminine half because there were more ceiling fans. Their grin faded as their glare moved from rosy half to the boys’.
I remember the day Murtaza Bhutto was assassinated. We had an exam that day. Teacher was rearranging seats and took one of the chairs up and accidentally hit the ceiling fan. With a cracking sound wings fell apart. Luckily no one was hurt. Teacher fainted. He feared that a big fine from school admin would swipe away his meager salary. We felt sorry for him. At that time we heard uproar outside the school boundary. A group of fanatic political cronies were trying to breach into the school. Bhutto zealots had called for a shutter down last night. School principal defied the pressure and decided to open the school. After a little struggle the mob stormed into the school. A lot of people had grudges against the school administration which were duly settled that day. They broke the windows, threw away flower pots and most audacious of them broke into the girls section: a life long dream of many. I could hear terrified kindergarten children crying.
Bhutto’s revenge was taken diligently.
Mob’s leader was the heartbeat of all commotion. He was basking into once-in-a-lifetime-glory. He waved his fist in the air and declared that he will get revenge from Bhutto’s murderers. I moved away from the center to try finding my younger brother. Loquacious dolt kept bickering about something.
Kehte hein ke kaway ko shor mein hi maaza aata hai
Next day vice principal pointed to the broken ceiling fan and asked about the culprit. Students replied shrewdly that it was the mob.
There is always a funny side to a sad story.
NCC break was a pleasant change from the college routine. Our instructors were impatient Punjabis from the nearby Cant. They were soon frustrated in their efforts to discipline a horde of brats. They hold Sindhi ritual of head shaping responsible for the gawkiness at display. Commander was convinced that a vital part of the brain was damaged in the due process. They however, were kind enough to enjoy students’ hospitality which was measured by cost of the gifts they offered.
All board exams were conducted in. Govt.. Degree College. Cheating was the most important tool in the box. Everyone cheated according to his guts. Career of everyone inside the exam hall was dependent on invigilator’s kindness and resourcefulness of their contacts. I too prepared cheating notes. I put them close to my waist but they kept slipping. I was too nervous to do that. I threw them off before I entered the exam room. I was on my own. That day army took over the examination hall for the first time. It was unexpected and students panicked. A lot of them left the paper empty. People condemned army for ruining future of our generation.
That year average marks dropped from 80s to 60s. I secured top 10 position in the town. Those marks, as it turned out to be, never contributed to my life.
For some reason college students found it awkward to sit in a Tonga. I never wanted to stand out in the crowd and I quit it myself. Tonga wala protested as he could not maximize his trip to our colony any more. He had a mehndi coloured famished horse. He used his whip ceaselessly on the piteous animal to force more acceleration out of him. Sometimes he did it just for the heck of it, as he knew that poor animal could not run any faster. Poor horse had inches long wounds on its back. I wondered if horses could take over this world and whip Tonga wala in the same manner. I knew it would not happen. Horses are not as ambitious as humans are. They followed a routine: They got tied in the Tonga in the morning, transported commuters from here to there, endured whipping and abuse, got back to the barn, ate stale barley, slept and then repeated the same old cycle again. A horse’s life anyway was devoid of conspiracies, desires and delusions.
I started commuting on foot. Our school was in the middle of the irrigated land. I used to take short cuts through it to avoid dusty jam-packed road. I walked through wheat plantation, date farms and rice fields, carefully putting my feet on the edges of ditches and holding the school bag firm. I could smell blissful aroma of the soil, a luxury which was set to elude me for very long.
After walking past the green pastures I hit the main road and walked briefly before I reached the market. It was a narrow street of filthy shops showcasing freshly taken vegetables and fruits, sweets and other edibles. Flies and other insects moved freely. There was no concept of public toilets so shopkeepers went into the fields and resumed their job without washing their hands. Personal hygiene and social responsibility were concepts unknown.
A makeshift bus stop was brought up out of nothing near the market to facilitate passengers. It was always under capacitated. People were dumped in the buses like prisoners in Guantanamo. These buses brought villagers to and fro from nearby villages. They came there for variety of reasons; some worked on daily wages, some to sell their commodities, some for consulting doctors and lawyers. I hardly saw them smiling. Even younger of them had wrinkled faces, tanned by scorching heat of summer sun. They woke up early every morning, hitch-hiked their way to the town, endured abuse and earned their living, begged their way into the lorry, went back and slept. Somehow they had the resilience to go through the routine, day in day out, without complaints or grudges. They have not lost hope as was evident with number of kids they had. They dreamt of their children fulfilling their dreams and bringing them comfort in old age. How selfish of them.
After passing through the market, I entered the most humongous and worst planned housing colony. We were proudly taught in the school that Sindhi civilization had covered sewerage system, even 4000 years ago but that was not the case any more. Every road had two parallel open drains which took faeces from each house, displayed it to whole mohalla and dumped it into a gutter which overflowed every now and then. Every proud owner had put a board saying mashallah at the top of the house to declare legitimacy of his source of income and as a reminder to God to continue showering his blessing on the owner.
I had to save myself from flying tennis balls and gullis. There were hardly any play grounds and children played cricket and gulli danda in the streets. Very frequently tennis ball and gulli ended up in one of the drains. It called for a mini break. Someone had to volunteer to take it out, wash it under the hand pump and return to the player in action. Govt. had no money to invest in the infrastructure. People did not want to pay taxes to dysfunctional Govt. either. The dilemma never got resolved. Residents however paid generously to religious associations from their sect for securing a place in heaven and for spreading word of their God. Further money was saved by manipulating electricity meters which was put to a better use of visiting holy land. It won them authority to give verdict on complex socio-religious issues at their will. They started feeling pain of fellow Muslims’ shortcomings after coming back from holy land. Their tones became patronizing and expressions contemptuous to earthly minnows. They sighed at the end of every sentence and let everyone knew of the holy experiences they had.
Intrigued audience got overwhelmed with emotions and prayed for a similar jackpot.
The town was our local leaders’ fiefdom. Same set of people always made it to the national and provincial assembly with or without any ideology. They hardly went to the college but were bestowed with supreme acumen which is found only in elite. It was height of achievement for common people to get even close to them. A leader’s nephew was in my class. I was invited to his wedding. There were 2.5 performers per guest that night. It can be calculated by dividing total number of performers by total number of guests. It was considered to be a measure of nobility and magnanimity.
There were hundreds of mosques in the town which in turn belonged to umpteen different sects. The number grew so large that righteous had to fight among them to attract enough people to their part of the fence. It was considered society’s moral failure to keep population growth up with that of the mosques’. Our local Imam was a skinny figure. He fathered half a dozen children in his one room house. His children never had proper clothing or were fed properly. Imam considered his sufferings to be the divine sign of his piousness. I went to mosque to take Koran lessons everyday. His fee was negligible but he asked us to dust the mosque in early hours of Friday. The mosque was totally empty when we started.
Somehow I did not find God alien at that hour.
Sometimes I went to Jamia mosque for offering Friday prayers which had a madrassah as well. Few acquaintances were studying there. Once after prayers they forced me to stay back for the lunch. There were dozen different meals on dastarkhwan. Talibs go around the muhalla to seize khairat before it could reach else where. Madrassah teacher boasted that a molvi could never die of hunger and presented dastarkhwan as an evidence. I was impressed. There was a picture hanging on the wall. I went close to see it clearly. A talib was smiling, wearing bullet vest and carrying a gun. Afghan rocky mountains were the backdrop.
They say that photographs are snapshots of yesterday but sometimes they prove to be ghosts of tomorrow.
Imams were investigative by nature. They shared their findings in Friday prayers sermons. It was the main source of current affairs update for both elders and children. Imam mostly were disgusted with United States behavior and its failure to understand their will. It was duly condemned by both Imam and audience. Approximately at the same time United States started sending oil, powdered milk and contraceptive tools as part of USAID. Distribution was always messy. Needy fought and cheated for meagre amounts of infidel oil and milk. All righteous were found in front of the waiting queue, actively participating in chaos. Contraceptives were never sought for as AIDS was not a prevalent threat by then. They were considered to be part of a Zionist conspiracy to make believers impotent.
There were only men and buffaloes in our town. Buffaloes were everywhere. They were found roaming on the roads, soaking in the ponds and grazing around. Lots of buffaloes were brought to adjacent vet hospital for impregnating. Children found the process quite intriguing. One day vet hospital bull was slaughtered right in front of the same crowd. All animal stories came to an abrupt end due to public obsession with the meat. Women did not exist. It was taboo to talk about them. They were considered property of their parents, transferred later to husbands. Rest of the relatives’ claim came next. They were moved around in veil from top to the bottom. They were allowed to work if their husband was good-for-nothing which increasingly became the case in poor class. Those women worked in the fields or did menial work in affluent houses. Affluent women usually stayed within their home. Their main entertainment was giving birth to children and raising them.
I could never decide which out of women and buffaloes were domesticated better.