Saturday, 20 May 2017

As The Crow Flies

The story of Adam's creation is the greatest story ever told; Eve remains the moral of that story. For as long as we are on earth, there will always be time for one more story to be told.

Mrs Davey and Madam Shama Utarid, my lady schoolteachers whom I highlighted in previous stories, were not Polish but only poles apart from one another nature-wise. From Mr Fardy's class 'eight-B' and all that rocket-science, let us step down to class 'seven-B' to meet Mr Nasiri. He was an educator who walked upright into my school-life and whose tale cannot be told by any old boy's wife.
Some brains need more tuning
Heads or tales?

Reminiscing might make one appear nostalgic or old-fashioned but never old. If one's brain is naturally wired well, the activities of dreaming and day-dreaming will produce enough high-definition audio-video to put the best television programmes to shame. Without relying on Pakistani electricity that experience can truly be liberating and electrifying.

Our minds are reservoirs of memories that live inside billions of inter-connected neurons. As one begins to age, thoughts of childhood and old friends frequently sway like flowers in a gentle breeze. Since life comes to an end by the time one has understood it, it is best to leave behind happy memories for others to cherish; bequeathing mountains of money only tends to produce discord and unhappiness within the family.

The 'real thing'
A goal-post without goals

The warm memories associated with class seven-B bring to mind thoughts of cold beverages. We had discriminating tastes. Boys being boys had rejected the neutrality of 7-Up and chosen instead the fizzier and darker Coca Cola. The less privileged amongst us who received regular punishment (phainti, phainta) at school, drank orange-flavoured Fanta which was Adolf Hitler's favourite soft-drink. Even the F├╝hrer's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, did not know that the drink contained only 5-percent orange concentrate. This caused great vitamin-C deficiency within the Nazi Party which triggered gaseous phainta for the 'chosen race', and led to the temporary downfall of Germany.

Seven-B was strategically located behind a football goal-post in the large rear playground at St. Anthony’s High School situated on Lawrence Road of historic Lahore. The other goal-post stood at the canteen-end adjacent to the gymnastics room. An unpainted wall in between the goal-post and the classroom prevented the football from landing on our heads as we pretended to study.
Daily flavoured-phainta

During midday 'half-breaks' that lasted only fifteen minutes, we mercilessly thrashed the solitary football. Because the thing never was properly inflated, it did not fly to distant tropical holiday destinations. I never became part of any school sports-team that took pleasure in striking helpless balls. This meant that cricket, baseball, football and baseball were out; I chose badminton but the school did not have space for courtsLater in life, I would laugh at grown men shooting puny white balls into grassy holes at sprawling golf-courses designed to ‘enhance networking’ with shouts of ‘Sir, what a shot!’
What is better than football and golf?

Initially for the sake of being part of the brotherhood I took up football but whenever I kicked, five others committed the same folly in unison. This created two after-effects: a very loud bang that reverberated throughout the known universe, and a shock that travelled up my right foot and hurt in a most cruel manner the thinking area of the brain.

Determined to protect all innocent and pure thoughts inside my head, I ended up sacrificing football at the altar of good grades which were of sole importance to my parents as well as the teachers. They never tired of repeating: "A brain is an important thing to have in life." I heard this repeated so much that it echoed at night in the ‘half-empty upper chamber’ where I desperately needed more room for thoughts appropriate for my age.

The upper chamber
Enter Mr Nasiri

Mr Nasiri was an Anglo-Indian teacher who taught us Urdu in class seven-B. There were other actors who taught us but Mr Nasiri was a true character-actor who, if attired in a nightgown, could outdo actor Agha Talish in issuing stern fatherly threats. In hindsight, all teachers were characters rolled out by God’s entertainment factory hidden in the clouds somewhere. All the teachers imagined themselves as perfected winged beings; we thought they had serious manufacturing and quality-control defects.

Like his other colleagues, Mr Nasiri too belonged to the bicycle club whose merry members pedalled to the school. The majority of us homo sapiens walked upright to the school, some mentally crawled on all fours, and quite a few rode Eagle or Sohrab bicycles which they parked at the stand located behind the school's canteen. Deans Bakery of Temple Road managed our fine eatery and whose exterior wall displayed a dire warning: OUT OF BOUNDS FOR STUDENTS. During school hours, one was not allowed to loiter beyond this landmark.

This warning refused to go away even when the boys attained adulthood. Those who became responsible fathers reconciled with the fact that everything they considered good in life was forever out of bounds.

What does your father do?

Mr Nasiri’s complexion was like dark chocolate sans the good taste. The old boys swore that the teacher was born during one of the shadowy nights of World War One. Of medium stature, aged fifty-seven, and with crow’s feet at the corners of his beady eyes, these distinguishing features gave him the countenance of a refined Urdu-speaking scarecrow.

On the very first day in class, Mr Nasiri demanded formal introductions from each student. After a brief survey of the faces he commanded, “Larkey, idhar ao” (Boy, come over here).

No sooner did the interviewee stand next to Mr Nasiri he was politely signalled to come closer. When the boy dutifully did so, he heard a question that firmly sealed his fate for the remainder of the academic year, “What does your father do?”

Did you say 'poor grades'?
A few of us gladly answered that question but after witnessing a few sad cases the rest became afraid of being truthful to the teacher.

At age thirteen while making frequent demands of monetary aid, we remained happily oblivious of our fathers’ professions. Earlier we imagined that fathers brought home pocketfuls of money from their offices but upon comparing notes we realised most of them had one common trait: they 'really gave it' to us upon hearing about poor grades at school.

Mothers were different, apart from acting like cooking and talking machines they were designed by the Almighty to protect us from fatherly hellish slaps that tended to fall more abundantly than the monsoon rains. Luckily we had the blissful Lawrence Gardens nearby to which we sometimes escaped to dodge school, the missionary Brothers and our zealous fathers.

Slapstick tragedy

Each class at St. Anthony's had two sections: A and B; only the senior classes had three. Every section was over-populated with about fifty boys. Although the concept of family planning had been introduced in Pakistan, married couples were never arrested for exercising the right to procreation and then blaming God for the 'gift'. Most weddings took place in December; hence, almost every other child was born in September under the critical zodiac sign of Virgo.

On day one, Mr Nasiri interviewed over fifty boys within forty-five minutes. His inquisitiveness about our fathers seemed obsessive and he seemed in no mood to impart Urdu lessons.
Diagnosis and 'special' treatment

One of us revealed: “Sir, my father is a Commissioner”.

Mr Nasiri’s eyes glowed like 60-watts incandescent bulb, a condescending smile graced his face, and he politely asked the interviewee to ‘be seated’.

“Very good; a Commissioner, eh?” he smilingly echoed the designation and then proceed to summon the next student whose father was a simple shop-owner. Mr Nasiri showered lesser affection and sternly commanded without a smile, “Now go back to your seat!”

The lowest of the lows amongst us was the son of a poor clerk. We timed his interview like one would for the 0-100 kmph acceleration of a Formula One racing car; it was over in
three seconds when Mr Nasiri abruptly slapped him on both the cheeks and yelled, “Jao, dafo ho jao” (Go, get lost).

Rubbing his rosy cheeks the way female film-stars did when using LUX beauty soap in television commercials, the boy returned to his desk wondering why mentioning his father’s profession won him no affection. On that solemn occasion we all covered our wide grins with the palms lest Mr Nasiri noticed our teeth.

To sum it up: in Mr Nasiri’s book, not knowing one's father's occupation was not a major crime but revealing a less than ideal one certainly was.

A 'Spring Court' big-wig judge

Real fathers, fake credentials

What was nice about the era was that a great variety of students studied together without ever feeling like homogenised and pasteurised spoiled rich sons at an elitist school. St. Anthony’s was one of the top English-medium missionary schools yet the rich and the poor, Christians, Muslims, Parsees, even a few Chinese studied together without showing themselves off.

Having scions of connected families in class definitely meant more to Mr Nasiri. He provided free slapstick tragedy when it came to boys from less privileged homes. It was impossible not to laugh at others when they were punished and very impractical to laugh at ourselves while being on the receiving end. Within minutes we discovered that the only trick that would work on Mr Nasiri was to falsify details about our fathers' occupations.

Hence, a shop-owner’s son turned his father into an owner of a shopping complex, a small businessman’s son made his papa a managing director of a group of industries, and I transformed my five foot seven inch lawyer daddy into a judge towering over six feet.

Mr Nasiri’s curiosity was boundless, he asked, “Does he practise at the High Court or the——?”

“Sir, spring court”, guessing what he wanted to know I completed the sentence.

First love: Diana-F

Mr Nasiri asked me again and I gave the same answer and which made him chuckle affectionately. Up until that time, I had always heard my mother laughingly call Supreme Court ‘spring court’. My father felt it was perfectly legal to cringe upon hearing that distorted label.

Meet the nobility

I did reasonably well in class and won a certificate for English essay writing. In the same year I began toying with toy cameras to photograph odd objects and odder friends. Quite a few photographic films got ruined as a result of impatiently opening up my Diana’s plastic back in partial darkness to see if the images had developed. How could they without having been inside a photo studio’s darkroom for black-and-white processing?

Mr Nasiri had a few one-trick ponies in this educational circus; I was not one of them. The chief of the ponies was a fair and studious boy called Yawar Shah. His interview was a truly jaw-dropping event. When Yawar revealed his father was a very high-ranking bureaucrat, Mr Nasiri almost fell off his desk, lit up like a Christmas tree, nearly kissed the boy, and paid a most memorable compliment: “Yawar Shah is a noble boy!”

He stretched the 'o' in the word noble and taught us the meaning of crowing which means: to express pleasure verbally, an instance of boastful talk, dwell on with satisfaction.

A model of English nobility

During that year, our favourite phrase with which to taunt this class-fellow was: “Yawar Shah is a nooooooble boy!” He did not mind that at all, in fact he adored being recognised as noble. Although the boy showed no signs of losing sleep over taunts, he was losing hairs very fast due to a diseased scalp that caused premature balding—something that was unheard of at age thirteen.

We waited until the end of the academic year but to our utter disappointment, the ‘noble boy’ never attained noble baldness. To silence us forever, he topped in the class and thus became in Mr Nasiri’s eyes a saintly cat whose halo was not visible to the rest of us spiritually blind mice.

Who is?

Long before computers for the masses came long and internet took over our lives, Mr Nasiri invented an amazing word: WHOIS. Although he used it in a different context, today it means: a query and response protocol that is widely used for querying databases that store the registered users or assignees of an Internet resource (such as a domain name, an IP address block, an autonomous system, and a wide range of other information).

Mr Nasiri delighted in reading important parts of Urdu poems and essays but when he felt exhausted he commanded, “Boy, read now, YOU!”

Allama Iqbal, resting

That command always disturbed my sense of good English during his Urdu period of forty-five minutes duration. The sound of Urdu text being read by a student acted like a sweet lullaby and made the teacher fall asleep with his temple supported by a clenched fist. The real difference between him and Allama Iqbal was that while Mr Nasiri snored in Urdu, the Indian poet-philosopher dreamed Arabic thoughts in Persian language.

Mr Nasiri's snoring would grow progressively louder and hypnotise some of us into falling asleep. He would be aware of our loud chatter but remain unable to discern exactly ‘what nonsense’ was being discussed. Sometimes the snoring would stop and prompt Mr Nasiri to demand 'pin-drop silence' from the entire congregation by yelling only two shrill words: "Who is?"

The way he stretched the word ‘is’ to ‘eeeezz’ lent great seriousness to the question. Even at that young age I was aware that ‘who is’ was an incomplete sentence in incorrect English. That ‘who is’ was always accompanied by a loud thump of Mr Nasiri’s left palm over the desk. He probably dreamed the impossible, that someone someday might confess: “Sir, it is I making all that noise. Please, I beg you, punish me!”. That dream never came true.

Mr Nasiri's cat-naps sometimes progressively became longer until the Urdu period came to an end. Calmly he would rise, button up the jacket and walk like a mildly drunk person to the staff-room where we suspected he again played the role of the sleeping beauty.

What if, who is?

Mahomedali Jinnahbhai Poonja made a famous English Speech at Islamia College for women on 25 March 1940. If Mr Nasiri were to repeat it, this is how he would:
“There are two powers in the world; one eeeezz the sword and the other eeeezz the pen. There eeeezz a great competition and rivalry between the two. There eeeezz a third power stronger than both, that of the women”.
Sister Fatima, brother Jinnah, daughter Dina
Jinnah being Pakistan's founding 'father’ knew everything there was to know about this ‘third power’ through the courtesy of the ladies in his life. His young Parsi second wife, Rattanbai Petit, never became the mother of the nation. His spinster sister Miss Fatima Jinnah, was declared the official 'mother of the nation’ but was defeated in the elections by military dictator Ayub Khan. Jinnah's estranged daughter, Dina Wadia, was never acknowledged as the daughter of the nation because she married, Neville Wadia, an Indian Parsi-Christian.

Now if successive governments can do this to the top family's relationships and history, imagine what else they will stoop to distorting.

Mr Nasiri will entertain you some more in Part-2 of this article: Stone The Crows

©Tahir Gul Hasan, 2017

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