HOME – IN THE LINE OF FIRE
In October 1956, when I was thirteen years old, we arrived back in Karachi. The sheer hassle of settling down dulled much of the pain of leaving Turkey and our many friends and relatives there. Coming home has its own charm, too, of course, even though our home was very different now. In the seven years that we had been away, Karachi had exploded into a large and vibrant cosmopolitan metropolis. The city was humming with life.
My father reported back to the foreign office, still located in Mohatta Palace. We soon found a house in Nazimabad Block 3, one of many new settlements that had mushroomed after independence to accommodate the millions who had fled India. It was well planned, with wide roads and boulevards. Most of its neighborhoods were middle-class or lower-middle-class. Ours was one of the few families on the street to own a car.
My mother soon found another job. My parents were friendly with a Dutch couple, Mr. and Mrs. Brink. Mr. Brink was the general manager of the Philips factory, located in a new industrial area called SITE, and my mother became his secretary. Her pay was good, and one of the perks of the job was that she got a Philips radio at a discount. She worked there for a long time. Years later, I stayed for three days with the Brinks in the Netherlands.
That fall, Javed and I took the entrance examination for classes nine and eight, respectively, at St. Patrick’s, the old and highly regarded Catholic missionary school for boys that we had attended earlier. Both of us did
very badly in Urdu, not having studied that language in Turkey. Javed got in anyway, because of his excellent showing in every other subject. I didn’t, and was temporarily admitted to a school called Mary Colaco. My parents immediately worked to bring our Urdu up to scratch. We picked it up quickly; it was, after all, their tongue. They both taught it to us, and they also hired a tutor. I became good enough to get into St. Patrick’s after three or four months, though I suspect that my swift admission may also have had something to do with Javed’s high score on the first quarterly examination he took. They must have thought that the brother of such a bright boy couldn’t be a completely hopeless case.
My younger brother, Naved, joined St. Patrick’s School later, in class six, in 1957. He was a steady boy who earned average grades.
In Ankara we had walked to school through beautiful fields. In Karachi our school was too far for walking, and the route wasn’t pretty either. Sometimes my father dropped us off in his car; usually we went by bus. The bus was always brimming with people, with hardly ever any vacant seats. To return home, Javed and I walked from school to the Regal Cinema nearby, where the bus had to slow down at a turning. There, we would both jump onto the moving bus, thanks to our gymnastics-a dangerous practice, but boys at that age normally throw caution to the wind. It would take us half an hour to get home, dead beat from the heat and the humidity.
Our neighborhood, Nazimabad, was a tough place to live, and it has become tougher since. I would not call it the Harlem of Karachi, but perhaps it was the South Bronx. A boy had to be street-smart to survive. There were the inevitable street gangs, and needless to say, I joined one. Needless to say, too, I was one of the tough boys.
Flying kites is a favorite sport in Pakistan, but it is done with a difference. Here, as in Afghanistan, people dip the string in glue filled with crushed glass. There are kite fights, with one flier trying to cut the string of the other to make him lose his kite. The flyers’ fingers always get cut, and bleed. The cuts are very painful, much worse than paper cuts. The severed kite floats slowly to the ground and, in an unspoken tradition, the boy who catches it gets to keep it.
A recent popular American novel set in Afghanistan, The Kite Runner, brings this tradition to life, and my own experience included a variation
of a key moment in that story. There was a bully in our area who would walk up to the boy who had caught a kite and demand that he hand it over, or else. Most boys would oblige. One day my older brother got hold of some string from a cut kite. The bully, accompanied by two other boys, rudely asked him to hand it over. I held my brother’s hand and said, “Why should we give you the string?” Then, without thinking, I punched the bully hard. A fight ensued, and I really thrashed him. After that people recognized me as a sort of boxer, and I became known as a dada geer-an untranslatable term that means, roughly, a tough guy whom you don’t mess with. The lesson I learned was that if you call a bully’s bluff, he crumbles. The secret is to stand your ground for a few seconds, and your initial fright vanishes. This lesson later stood me in good stead as a commando.
I remember St. Patrick’s with great affection. I learned a lot there, and not only from books. Of course I couldn’t help being naughty, and I would get punished, especially by one teacher, Mr. De Lima. I think that at the back of their minds, my teachers compared me unfavourably with my brother, who continued to get superb grades. Sometimes I was made to kneel in a corner; sometimes I had to stand outside the class-room. Once when I was standing outside, I saw my father coming to meet with the principal. I sneaked behind the building so that he wouldn’t see that I was being punished.
The punishment I remember best happened when Father Todd caught me throwing chalk at another boy in class and gave me six of the choicest blows on my posterior with a sturdy cane. It stung like hell. When, as president of Pakistan, I returned to St. Patrick’s for a reunion, I reminded Father Todd of the caning. “I felt like sitting on ice, Father,” I told him during my speech. An old classmate of mine came to the microphone and said, “Father, did you know at that time that you were caning the presidential seat?” Everyone laughed. Father Todd is a good soul and I have great regard for him, as I do for all my teachers.
One teacher was Mr. Mendis. He was very good and worked on building our character. I can never forget how he would try to inculcate in us the attributes that make a gentleman. He himself personified the qualities of a gentleman.
Of course my pranks weren’t limited to school. My romantic uncle Ghazi Ghulam Haider, the one who married the half-Turkish woman, was great at mixing with youngsters and would take the lead in many practical jokes. He would pile eight or ten of us boys into his car-a German Opel Rekord-and go looking for mischief.
One day, he took us to Frere Gardens, where people go to relax in the evenings. He spotted a man who was as bald as a golfball, sitting on a bench. For some reason, the man had oiled his bald pate, making matters worse, for it was shining like a mirror and inviting trouble. “I’ll give five rupees to the boy who slaps that man on the head,” announced Uncle Haider. We all shrank back, asking him how we could do such a thing and get away with it. “Watch me,” said my redoubtable uncle. He walked right up behind the man and gave him a tight smack right in the middle of his shiny head, saying, “Bashir, there you are. I’ve been searching for you.” It must have stung like hell. The baldy spun around in shock, but before he could say anything my uncle apologized profusely. “I am so extremely sorry, my brother. You are a carbon copy of a good friend of mine and I mistook you for him. He was supposed to be here.” The poor man, still in shock, shifted to another bench some distance away, looking sheepishly this way and that. We were aghast but also relieved: that was the end of that, we hoped, and Uncle Haider would think up something less dangerous and embarrassing next. Lo and behold, he raised the stakes. “Now I will give ten rupees,” our disbelieving ears heard him saying, “to the boy who smacks his bald head again.” We were appalled. To get away with it once was a miracle. To get away with it twice was asking for very serious trouble. When we demurred, Uncle Haider said, ‘Watch me.” He stole up behind the man again and smacked him even harder on the head, saying, “0 Bashir, there you are. I just saw a man who looks exactly like you and smacked him on the head.” The poor man spun around again in utter consternation, his eyes wild with disbelief His mouth gaped like a goldfish. Before he could get a word out, Uncle Haider started acting contrite. He apologized even more profusely, asking in mock dismay, “How was I to know that you had shifted seats?” Without giving the stunned man a chance to say anything, he walked away. We all rolled on the grass with laughter.
Don’t get Uncle Haider wrong, though. He was in the air force and had won the sword in the Indian Air Force before Partition.
Before I reached class ten, at the age of fifteen, I had been an above-average student, usually among the first four in my class. That year, however, my grades dropped dramatically. The cause: my first romance. A first crush is a distraction that all young people must suffer sooner or later, but different people handle it differently. The later a man gets it, the more of an ass he makes of himself I let it become the focus of my life, not least because it came out of the blue. Truth to tell, she made the first move. I was still too shy to initiate a romance, let alone woo a girl.
She was a neighbor, about my age, perhaps a year older. I found it far more convenient to be wooed than to have to court a girl myself Any-way, I could think of nothing else except her. She didn’t know English, and I wasn’t brilliant in Urdu. A friend would read her letters to me in Urdu, and I would dictate my reply to him in Urdu. The person who would deliver the letters was my younger brother’s friend. He was slightly built and could squeeze in and out of most places. He would deliver my letters and pick up hers, by quietly sneaking into her house.
I went so far as to get my Nani Amma, my maternal grandmother, into the act without her realizing it. She was a lovely woman who used to wear a burka, as conservative Muslim women do. I would tell Nani Amma that she must visit the neighbors, and then direct her to the girl’s house. Before she went, I would hide a letter in a pocket of her burka and pass a message to the girl explaining where to find it. Poor Nani Amma would go to the girl’s house as an unwitting courier with a romantic letter in her pocket. Had she known, she would have been quite upset, to put it mildly. Certainly my mother would have come to know of it.
This girl was very beautiful. It was puppy love, really, just an infatuation, and it lasted only until my parents moved to another house, far away on Garden Road, near the Karachi Zoo with its beautiful gardens.
On Garden Road, I fell straight into my next romance. She was a beautiful Bengali girl from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This crush was somewhat less frivolous than my first. She is happily married now,
and lives in Bangladesh. I think my mother suspected all along, because I suddenly slipped in my studies. She wasn’t sure, but she became very annoyed with me for my poor results. I did well enough on my finals for class ten, ranking in the second division and missing the first by just four points. I earned the first prize in mathematics.
At that point, my mother decided that Javed would go into the civil service of Pakistan (CSP), the most prestigious branch of our bureaucracy. Her youngest son, Naved, she decreed, would become a medical doctor. With my excess energy and mischievousness, I would go into the army. And so it came to pass.