Humble School, Grand Dream

Owais Tohid

In front, lay the Bhutto residence, al-Murtaza, seat of the country’s political aristocracy. A large stadium stood at the back. In the middle, was my government school, the Municipal High School. This was my ancestral home, the ancient city, Larkana.

Sukarno or Yasser Arafat, the Shah of Iran or Muammar Gaddafi – world leaders would come, via Larkana airport, skirting the ruins of Mohenjodaro, a civilisation thousands of years old, to pay homage at the Bhutto residence on the street in front of my school.

Also located near the school, were the printing house of Comrade Bukhari and the room for visitors, known as Autak, of Comrade Sobho Gianchandani. At home-time, these two would often distribute stories from Russian literature amongst the children leaving school. At a short distance, was my family home, Lakhpat Bhavan. And right next door was the literary salon presided over by Rizvi sahib, a magical place, filled with countless books. As a child, this was where I first had the opportunity to hear the poetry of legends like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Josh Malihabadi, Habib Jalib, and even the Sabri Brothers. And this was where I first became familiar with the writings of Quratulain Haider, Manto, Krishan Chander, Gorki and Rasul Gamzatov.

The relatively younger teachers from my school and senior students from all over the city would spend their days at Café Madina in the famous Pakistan Chowk, prepping for the Civil Service exams and talking politics over shami kababs and tea.

Younger students like us, who wanted their Urdu or English compositions refined, would head to this café. Each would have his language or rendition corrected, according to his capacity, and would learn by heart the sayings of famous people.

If we had difficulties with any subject, we would simply follow the teacher home. For Chemistry, Mr. Murli Dhar, for Mathematics, Ateeq sahib, and for English, sherwani-clad Nafees sahib and renaissance man Mehdi sahib, who, in addition to being an ace cricketer and hockey player was also a master of Urdu and English literature. No tuitions. No tuition centers.

In sum, no matter how shabby my school building, the environment within and without was a cultural and political lyceum, a treasure trove of moral, aesthetic and cerebral learning.

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When we were done with school, we proceeded to D.J. College in Karachi. For the great luminaries of Sindh – Haider Bakhsh Jatoi, Ibrahim Joiyo, legendary legal expert A.K. Brohi, Comrade Sobho – and for unknown youngsters such as myself, the intellectual hubs of Karachi were the same, institutions like N.J.V., Sindh Madrassat-ul-Islam and D.J. College.

Living at Mitha Ram Hostel, it was here in Karachi that I learnt to keep pace with the fast life of a megapolis, to run in the rat race, to manage transient and self-serving friendships. My wanderlust and my realism also took shape here.

Resisting family pressures I bid farewell to the Sciences. I took up the study of History in wide halls of Karachi University. My professors got me so hooked on to the comparative study of history that I viewed not only the past but also the present and the future through the lens of historical method.

From school to university, my education must have cost only a few thousand rupees … state institutions … dedicated teachers … no private schools, colleges or universities …

But now our government has sold its fundamental responsibility to the highest bidders in the private education industry.

Shiny new schools, lofty buildings, impressive fees, “English-medium” curricula. Pregnant mothers register unborn children for playschool, local private institutions claim international branding, a numbers game has replaced education and knowledge, guaranteed admission in foreign universities is flogged on the market, etc. etc…

In recent decades, the education sector has been neglected in our governments’ list of priorities and the growing domination of private institutions has widened the gulf between social classes.

In our time, the progeny of politicians, business tycoons, feudal lords, and bankers would be educated together in state schools with children from middle income households such as ours. Today, that is impossible.

In the cutthroat competition of this educational industry, the heirs of the elite race ahead as the children of middling and poor homes are left further and further behind.

Our generation, and the generations before us, were all educated in state institutions. We never faced any difficulties. We made a name for ourselves, even garnered international acclaim. From Colombo to Kabul, London to Jerusalem, from Cambodia and Vietnam to the mountains of Nepal, my journey of journalism …  I have delivered lectures at the world’s best universities.

In my own land, whenever I get a chance to speak with students from government schools in far flung areas, I can’t help but remember my little school in Larkana and the wisdom of my teacher: “no matter how humble your school, your dreams must be grand …”

Owais Tohid is a leading journalist and writer 

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