LEAVING THE NEST – IN THE LINE OF FIRE

LEAVING THE NEST

I could not get into the army right away. First I had to go to college to get through classes eleven and twelve, which we call freshman of arts (FA) or, if you take science, freshman of science (FSc). This is unlike the American and British systems, where grades eleven and twelve are part of high school. I chose nonmedical science. Only after doing my FSc would I be eligible to join the army, provided I passed the military’s highly exacting entrance examinations and arduous physical tests.

Frankly, none of the colleges in Karachi were good enough at the time, so my parents sent me to the famous Forman Christian College in Lahore, better known as FC College, which is run by American mis­sionaries. Lahore was the obvious choice. It has long been a center of learning, art, culture, poetry, and literature, not just of Pakistan but of the entire subcontinent. The college principal was a wonderful Amer­ican gentleman who mixed with all the students. Another American I remember there was our director of physical education, Mr. Mumby. He was very good at organizing athletic tournaments.

Javed went to Government College-now a university-in Lahore, a school for the brightest students. Yet another of Lahore’s famous colleges is Islamia College, which among other things produced most of our international cricketers in the early years of Pakistan.

Forman Christian College was known as a college for anglicized “modern” students; Government College attracted the more studious types, and Islamia the more earthy types. All three have produced many leaders for Pakistan in various fields because they keep their stu­dents grounded in native culture and history, quite unlike those boys

who went to foreign universities, which have mostly produced politi­cal leaders disconnected from Pakistan’s culture and history, leaders who have damaged the country, not only with their corruption but also with their alien political and economic philosophies.

I was keenly aware of never having lived away from home on my own. I didn’t realize then that I would never return to live with my par­ents as a dependent. A time would come, as it naturally does in life’s course, when roles would be reversed and my parents would come and live with me. But for now, I was on my own and terribly homesick. However, I soon got into the swing of things and made good friends.

I was assigned room and board in Kennedy Hall. Its warden, Mr. Dutta, was also our English teacher. He was a good man, tough but fair. Forman Christian is a beautiful college and has fine facilities for stud­ies and sport, the latter being compulsory. You had to play at least one game. Athletically I became a jack-of-all-trades, competing in gymnas­tics, cross-country running, bodybuilding, and athletics. I was fourth in cross-country, was the top gymnast, and was third in the “Mr. FC College” bodybuilding competition. All in all I earned the most cer­tificates. Muhammad Iqbal Butt, who had competed creditably in the Mr. Universe competition, told me at the time that I had a most mus­cular physique.

Campus life taught me independence. I interacted with boys from all backgrounds, even from abroad. Some were rich, some not; some were modern, some religious. There were quite a few East Africans. There were female students, too. I got along with all of them. I made friends with boys from the Niazi tribe, especially Amanullah Niazi, who was senior to me and was later to become a brigadier. They per­suaded me to run in the elections for first-year representative. That is when I gave my first public speech. They made me stand on a table. Trembling with nervousness, I managed to tell the listeners that if they elected me I would look after their interests. I didn’t enjoy it a bit. The students from Karachi, the Niazis, and the East Africans supported me, and I won. Tariq Aziz, who was my principal secretary after I became president and was later appointed secretary to the national security council, was there too. He was senior to me and we were not that friendly, probably because he was a “good boy,” reluctant to join me in mischief-making.

My pranks continued. As early as seven or eight in the evening the hostel gates would shut, and no student could go out, nor could any vis­itor come in. However, there was a mango tree next to a hedge at the hostel periphery, and thanks to my gymnastics, I could climb the tree and jump over and across the high hedge. So would some of my friends. We would take in a movie from nine PM to midnight, usually at the Regal Cinema, and return to college on foot because tonga drivers refused to go that far at night. Obviously, we couldn’t get back in, but just outside the main gate of the college there was,a mosque, and no one could stop us from sleeping there, as mosques have traditionally been a haven for wayfarers. Early in the morning, when the college gates opened, we would sneak back in.

It was in FC College that I learned how to make a time bomb, which I later used as a commando to good effect. In today’s age of terror, this is hardly the thing to say, but those were relatively innocent times, and the only kind of homemade bomb then known was the Molotov cocktail. I discovered that if you take a normal firecracker and attach a filterless cigarette to its fuse, it becomes a timed fuse, depending on the length of unsmoked cigarette. One day, three or four of us decided to give Mr. Datta, the warden, a scare. We left a timed firecracker in a big steel trash can outside his house so that it would make an awful bang. We placed another outside the assistant warden’s house, and a third inside a mail-box at the entrance. Then I went back to my room. The firecracker in Mr. Datta’s trash can went off first, with a defeaning bang, just like a small bomb. The trash can made it worse, for it amplified the sound. Everyone started running toward the warden’s house. I did, too. As soon as we got there, the “bomb” in the assistant warden’s trash can exploded. We all ran there, at which point the firecracker in the mailbox exploded. There was utter confusion. It was terrible.

A few days later Mr. Datta got hold of one of my friends, Hameed, and asked him for the name of the boy behind the bombs. If he didn’t reveal it, he was told, he would be either suspended or expelled. Hameed, who was from Hyderabad, Sindh, told me about the sword hanging over his head. I knew it would be unconscionable if he were punished so severely for something that I had done, so I told him to tell Mr. Datta the truth. He said that Pervez Musharraf was the culprit.

Mr. Datta called me to his house that evening. On the way, I won­dered what I would tell my parents if I were thrown out. Mr. Datta began by asking me who was behind the “bombing episode.” I con­fessed. “Pervez, you are the block monitor, and you did this?” he said, visibly disappointed. I really felt ashamed of myself. I said that I was very sorry and it would not happen again. He did not do anything. All he said was, “OK, never do this again,” and let me go. That is when I learned the power of truth, a lesson that has never left me.

My first brush with death, as silly as it was, happened at FC College, thanks to a mango tree. It was laden with fruit. My friends told me to use my skill as a gymnast and climb the tree to pluck some mangoes. I shimmied up. Hanging high up from a branch, I would swing upward and pluck the fruit with my feet. Things went fine and I had plucked quite a few mangoes when on a high swing the branch in my hands broke. I came crashing down, hit the ground very hard, and passed out. My friends thought that I was dead. I opened my eyes quite some time later in Mr. Dutta’s house, under a doctor’s care. I was young and strong and soon recovered.

I was always getting into scrapes. Lahore’s most famous girls’ college is Kinnaird, and you invariably see a lot of boys hanging around outside it, especially in the evenings. One day there was a debate at FC College in which some girls from Kinnaird had been invited to participate. A boy sitting behind me kept hitting my chair with his foot, really irri­tating me. I repeatedly told him to stop, but he would not. With girls from Kinnaird there, my testosterone level had probably shot up, so I told him to step outside. He did, and a big fight ensued, but soon the other boys separated us. They told me that he belonged to a club of wrestlers headed by Badi Pehalwan and they would return to beat me up. But they never did.

If, from all this, you have concluded that I was not intensely focused on my studies, you would not be far wrong. I was more involved in extracurricular activities, both healthy and naughty. Lahore is a great city, with numerous attractions, particularly for a young boy free of direct parental supervision, but in reality my mother and father were always with me through the values that they had inculcated in their sons. Those values were always present to stop me from crossing the line between right and wrong. Of course, my parents were very con­cerned about my studies, but I had already appeared before the Inter Services Selection Board and been selected for the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy as a cadet before my final examinations for FA.

 After a three-year course, if successful, I would get my commission as an offi­cer of the Pakistan Army. So I took my FSc finals somewhat noncha­lantly and managed to get through, because the actual result had no bearing on my selection by the army, as long as I passed. My life as a carefree teenager was over. The longest chapter of my story was about to begin, a chapter that would define my life and career as soldier and statesman.

Written by

Pervez Musharraf

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