by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
I felt in the pit of my stomach the proximity to my school as the car approached the Air Force base and the diminutive Air Force planes in (almost pretty) earth tones became visible on the runway through the large gates. The car would now turn into the school lane and another day, the stuff of nightmares, would begin for me with the tension stomachache known in Urdu as “twisted stomach.”
The daily assembly at P.A.F school started with the music master leading an uninspired rendition of Iqbal's famous poem “lab peh ati,” a powerful lyric utilizing the classical metaphor of the devoted moth desiring the candle of knowledge; Iqbal's passionate verses warped into the whiney trill of children interested only in live experiments of their own vocal range, utterly oblivious to the poetry. The national anthem was sung, which, being mostly in Farsi, was beyond us Junior School students. In class five I would understand the anthem and admire the beauty of the words, and wonder why it had to be written in the high Urdu that no one understood, not that I would ever want to change the song; the clipped monosyllabic “qom,” “mulk” swelling into a crescendo with the lofty “sul-tan-at,” and drowning into the high note of “Pa-inda ta-binda baad” and then the decrescendo, the softening into a prayer “shaad baad manzil-e-Murad,” roughly translated as “may you happily find your noble destiny,” a prayer like a broken thing, open in its cracks to let in endless sadness— the sadness of an endlessly breaking people.
I was in Prep A, the kindergarten room with the overwhelming aroma of French toast (Pakistani French toast is much “eggier” and sweeter), and Rooh Afza, the super sweet herb drink in little chubby flasks. The smell came from a mountain of lunch boxes in a corner that the ayah arranged and fussed over. Here, in this room I spent one whole year learning little other than the fact that I was too fat to be selected for the role of the coveted “Dolly” for the class play on the annual Sports Day, and I must come to terms with the fact that the role of Miss Polly was good in its own way.
Between the hanging of Bhutto and the start of Zia's regime, we had the strangest uniform. Thus far, we had worn grey skirts and white blouses with gray blazers. In class one, a white shalwar was added to the skirt while the establishment was still in the process of considering how best to implement modesty in school life. Soon they settled on a grey kameez and a white shalwar, which made me very happy as skirts and “frocks” were a sign that you were too young to wear anything seriously stylish such as your mother's wardrobe of shalwar kameez, dupattas and saris.
All eleven years I was at P.A.F, the boys wore the same grey pants, white shirts with ties, V-neck sweaters and blazers. Western attire was more appropriate because it seemed more in keeping with the regimented military life that the school was a microcosm of. The rules for boys' haircut were severely strict. Unpolished shoes, overgrown nails, and less than perfect hygiene were serious offenses. In senior school, all girls were given a session on how to wear the white uniform dupatta, covering the hair neatly. The arts teacher drew a sketch to show where the pins go and how to wear the house badge over the dupatta, how to tuck it inside the blazer.
Pakistan in general and Peshawar in particular was a laidback society and the Air Force employees fascinated me with their proper and properly robotic way of conducting themselves. Even the medical staff walked briskly in their crisp khaki outfits; women doctors in thick khaki saris, military badges pinned on the pallu. It was a curious thing that Pakistani Air Force doctors wore the Indian sari as uniform not Shalwar kameez in the increasingly identity-conscious Pakistan.
A beautifully kept campus with mature vegetation and neat flowerbeds, P.A.F was a well-run place where disciplinary actions became chilling legends. Because I did well in academics, I was made a prefect in class ninth and tenth; a cop, a cog in the wheel of this stressful environment, making sure no one deviated from the rules. Chewing gum, wearing nail polish, not staying in single file, and many other trivial things were to be reported. Life was without joy and I had been rewarded for being a good student by being welcomed into the establishment as an enforcer of sorts, along with the other select students who got top marks.
I was briefly happy being a science student, watching colorful fumes, inverted images and brainless, spineless life through the microscope but then I became restless. Perched on a lab stool one day, I felt the chill, the bondage of measuring tools, the silence without contours— and imagined the tantrum of poetry— a wild, profound, pure thing, shattering itself outside the lab for me; pacing, waiting for me. It was an agitation so powerful and empowering that I left the flasks and the glass tubes to be broken by their own silence: an act of defiance that would be the first one in my writing life.