Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Amazing T-Pad

High literacy under a tree
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
—William Shakespeare, describing the second stage of Man in ‘As You Like It’

The one who introduced me to the amazing t-Pad was my mother’s only brother, a bespectacled man over six feet tall and a lawyer by profession. The exact year of this story is unimportant; suffice to say that Steve Jobs was still learning how to spell the word apple and humans had not yet learnt to camp outside shops to buy phoney temptations.

In those days, schools genuinely taught a thing or two, education had not become money-minting ‘information technology’, school-teachers never ran private tuition-centres, and the students lived happily ever after even if they secured less than straight A’s in examinations. 

This was when people received landline calls with great courtesy and noted down messages for those away from home, children played with each other for real, and street-smartness had not been assigned the rearmost seat in the theatre of life. In an era when industrialized nations had attained scientific prowess through education in their national languages, an elitist minority in the ‘land of the pure’ (Pakistan) ensured that Urdu emerged as the national language at the expense of richer regional languages. And George Orwell, having told revolutionary truths in his masterpiece novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, had already passed away and left us at the mercy of watchful Big Brothers obsessed with transforming the entire world into a Dystopia.

Strange ink-fellows

There were, in the ‘land of the pure’ two kinds of schools: Urdu-medium and English-medium. The Urdu ones meant for the masses used less glamorous teaching aids and sometimes taught in regional languages which, to the chattering elites, were ‘what domestic servants conversed in’. And the English ones produced future rulers who normally spoke English only within the school’s perimeter. The Irish Catholic missionaries who ran our school introduced paper and pencil to the students from the very beginning. A few years later when we bade farewell to innocent pencils, rubbers (erasers) and sharpeners to welcome the mighty fountain pen, some of us had still not seen what was designed to become less mighty than a sword: a ball-point pen.
Improving one's hand

Too young to know how the French writer, Marquis de Sade, derived pleasure by way of pain, we nevertheless turned our fountain pens—a modern pleasure—into menacing instruments to settle scores by staining our victims’ light blue shirts with dark blue jets of ink. No instruction manuals came with our writing implements; boys just knew how to unscrew the pen’s cap, hold the pen like a charging sword, and then rapidly jerk the nib in the direction of the intended target. Once the scapegoat reached home he received a severe reprimand from the laundrywoman: usually his mother.

Education was a serious matter. Because teachers loved copybooks filled with correctness, scribbling meant survival and failure led to instant corporeal punishment which was as readily available as oxygen to the lungs. To end up being inkless in class was the modern equivalent of having one’s mobile phone run out of credit or battery power. Those who habitually forgot their inkpots at home unashamedly begged for drops of ink in the middle of diligent pen-pushing periods. Instead of relying on audio-visual cues, every boy used extra-sensory PENception to tell when a brother was in need of ink. The donor, after mentally calculating how much one’s own ink chamber would last during the period, usually obliged by transferring an amount of ink that was directly proportional to the strength of friendship with the recipient.

Since all of God’s creatures knew how to go forth and multiply, our ink-chambers too competed wholeheartedly in the race for survival of the fullest. We were like air force pilots who performed air-to-air refuelling, we were ink-transfer artists who prided in returning home without soiling our uniforms or limbs with tell-tale ink marks. Later in life, only the bad artists amongst us faced domestic violence when they reached their homes with lipstick-stained shirt collars. The following episode will demonstrate how laughable our theoretical knowledge about the reproductive nature of life was at that tender age.

One morning, a teacher noticed two back-benchers ‘fidgeting about’ in the classroom. Angrily he waved his thin cane at them, “YOU two! Stand up!”

The aggrieved party stood up to protest, “Sir, he said that I was born when my father injected his ink into my mother.”

The whole class and the teacher produced roaring laughter because the teary-eyed complainant’s father actually owned a stationery shop.
Simca for the loveless

Such and other unmentionable anecdotes taught us one thing: throughout history the value of manly activity-based camaraderie ranked higher than womanly emotional sharing. How could have we possibly toned down our male attitudes when no crystal ball had shown us our future wives detesting us for unwrapping ourselves from around their fingers to sit with old school friends?

Moths around a candle

All young male teachers and the entire students’ fraternity blew their dickies and bonnets on the day the principal installed young Madame Shama Utarid as class-teacher of our naughty all-boys grade five. Always driven by her mother, our teacher’s means of transportation was an early 1960’s camel-brown Simca 1000 of French origin. There was no other Simca on the city roads and there certainly was no other quite like Madame Shama in the entire world.

She ended up living up to her first name which meant candle in Urdu language. Daily she fended off fifty moths that pretended to be good students but in reality only craved for her fragrant proximity. The naughtier ones regularly used the Ma’am-I-do-not-understand-this trick, which required Ma’am to alight from her high desk, walk right up, bend over dangerously and attempt to explain innocently what we already knew. The principal stayed unaware of the fact that our beloved teacher had unintentionally turned a regular class into an imaginative crush factory.
Knowledge with Virtue

The boys used Royal Blue ink while all the teachers used red; I switched to green. From behind the stack of copybooks placed on Madame Shama’s desk, when she smiled I knew my handiwork had unveiled itself before her all-knowing eyes. Her frequent ten-out-of-ten tokens of admiration always arrived with golden stars of encouragement affixed to my copybooks, while her red artistic signature beautifully complimented my green efforts. And thus, through the miracle of my green ink I became her favourite student within a remarkably short span of time, and which turned my envious class-fellows into little green Martians.

During summer morning classes some of our less loved teachers resembled dreamy-eyed Buddhas—courtesy the sleep-inducing lassi (milk and yogurt cold drink) they gulped at breakfast. While pretending to be alert to our mischief, the illumined ones kindly permitted some to absent themselves from the class under the umbrella of the pen-wash excuse. The sages amongst us had already concluded without sitting under Banyan trees that like all human beings, pens needed washing too. The water-coolers, located at a central location in the school’s vast compound, facilitated staying away from tedious learning for almost ten full minutes—a great luxury considering that the single authorized half-break lasted a miserly fifteen minutes during which we chatted while playing, and visited Mushtaq’s tuck-shop for samosas (fried local patty with potato filling) and chilled small Cokes that burst open with loud pops.
Simca for the elites

The ritual of repeatedly filling the pen with water, pumping out the gradually diluting ink and then watching it enter the drain was more relaxing than practising yoga. This frolic sometimes ended abruptly when a temperamental teacher suddenly appeared in the rear and shouted into our sensitive eardrums, “WHAT are you doing wasting time HERE? GO BACK to your classroom AT ONCE!”

We dutifully acknowledged the command with a barely audible ‘yes sir’, and then prayed silently to an Authority much higher than the school’s principal, “I hope you fall down the bloody stairs, SIR!” None of the sirs ever tripped or fell, and which proved they were being protected by God’s senior guardian angels.

Uncle gifts me a t-Pad

It was a time when the written word reigned supreme, real letters required the use of ink upon paper and bathed in perfume if one were in love, relentless texting and e-mail had not sounded the death-knell for the postmen, and cultural invasion and mental slavery had not yet encouraged students to sell kidneys in order to buy costly communications devices. LED was an acronym for love-emitting darling, the interactive touchscreen was always the face of the beloved, family-men never lost small fortunes buying rapidly changing mobile phone models, and every child appeared happy-go-lucky. They were truly wonderful times.

For this story I derived the term, t-Pad, from an Urdu word: takhti. This was a plank nearly a quarter of an inch thick, made out of long-lasting Sheesham (tahli/Tali/ٹالی or Indian Rosewood), measuring about ten inches in depth by twenty inches in width, and sporting a pentagonal handle at one end. When Urdu-medium schoolboys fought bloody after-class battles, they swung these planks at one another without restraint. And just like today’s electronics devices, a takhti too required certain accessories: light-grey coloured lumps of clay (gachni), a pen made out of thin bamboo sticks, ink crystals, and an inkpot.
Shape of the takhti

One summer afternoon, my uncle brought me the above articles and sat down to show what to do with them. “Your Urdu handwriting needs improvement”, he pronounced the judgement while cleaning the t-Pad.

Had he been alive today, he might have cringed seeing touchscreens, peoples’ robotic expressions, their inability to correctly spell full words, and the shameless labelling of all good things in life as ‘old-fashioned waste of time’.

Then my uncle placed a lump of grey clay in a bowl, poured some water to liquefy it, and with a rag applied it to the t-Pad using careful horizontal strokes. “Go and place the takhti in the sun to dry”, he commanded while shaping with a knife a thin bamboo stick, “This is your new qalam (pen).”

He drew on the t-Pad wide horizontally lines suitable for Urdu text using a pencil and a foot-ruler, poured some water over the black ink crystals placed in a dawaat (inkpot), dipped the bamboo pen in it, and carefully wrote alif in Urdu (‘A’ in English). To my untrained eye it only looked like a vertical line but then he showed me how to properly shape it by varying the pen’s angle. Being able to write beautifully was soon going to land me in serious trouble.

Daily I sat under my uncle’s watchful eyes to master the upright alif with a pen whose screeching over the t-Pad produced sounds fit for horror films. The complexity increased with the introduction of each new alphabet, and I finally began to appreciate the manual dexterity, concentration and patience required for calligraphy in Khatt-e-Nastaleeq (Persian-Arabic script).

By the second week I had mastered the first three alphabets: alif, bay, and pay (A, B and P). My uncle rewarded me with a kulfi (traditional ice-cream covered with crushed almonds and beaten silver foil), “Here are four Annas. Fetch two kulfees from the kulfi-wala; one for you and one for me”.

There was no shame involved in slaving for a snack. More lessons and kulfees followed and by the end of the summer vacations I could write complete sentences on the amazing wooden t-Pad. This made my uncle happy too; his eyes lit up one evening but it turned out those were his thick spectacles which reflected the light of a 60-watt incandescent bulb that glowed without a shade on the discoloured wall.

Although I frequently protested to my mother about not getting enough time to play outside with the neighbourhood boys, what terminated those daily khuskhati (artful writing) lessons were two consecutive inglorious incidents. First, during a fight and in true Urdu-medium fashion, I cracked open the skull of a fellow with my wooden t-Pad. My mother shielded me successfully from my uncle’s wrath.

Second, a girl living next-doors inspired me to praise her lips and eyes in an ‘inappropriate’ calligraphic letter that was personally delivered to her on our common rooftop. Lightening always strikes the poor; she played the return-to-sender trick on yours truly. The generously perfumed communiqué boomeranged directly to my father’s bureau, and which made him promptly decorate my left cheek with a five-pointed medal of dishonour: a reddish imprint of his stern hand.

With such a life-altering experience under the belt, I swiftly put myself on a path less calligraphic in nature and bent over backwards to shower much-expected seriousness on unfinished homework.

©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2013

I gratefully acknowledge using the images from:
Child in a field (graphite on takhti,by Manzoor Ali Solangi)