Sunday, 20 March 2016

LETTERS FROM KHUSHAB

14/03/2016

There is no network. I feel it’s a blessing in disguise. And a wonderful excuse for me to write to myself.

This place is so quiet, soft and peaceful; I can hear even the slightest of the voice from my surrounding. I am sitting in a cozy room wrapped in a blanket. The room is attached to a Victorian style lobby with a frame hanging on the wall of an early 20th century army general. Outside this villa stands a gorgeous view of the Soon Sarkesar valley – 360 degrees of lush green lands and tiny hills!!

The Khushab Cadet College hosts 50 students and 10 teachers along with several staff members at this beautiful location placed at a height of 3000 feet above the sea level, geographically placed amidst the famous Salt Range. The salt range is a unique place where though mountains from outside look the same as those in Gilgit Baltistan and elsewhere, but inside they are gigantic pieces of salt, hiding their identity behind brown and green camouflage. The pictures you saw were from the Khewra Salt Mines (British mined it in the 1800’s and since then salt makes its way from this wilderness to our kitchen and meals).   

Lt. Col. Safdar Kazmi is the Principal here. He is a retired army general who has served as the Principal of several cadet colleges. The time he enjoyed most was the four years he resided in Skardu. Over dinner we had many fruitful conversations, flowing from our personal lives, to role of degrees and contrasting role of education, to how professional class of Sindhis have migrated leaving behind a great vacuum, to Zia’s intolerable political rule and the imprints it has left on our society. For a moment I forgot I was sitting with an army general and if should think before discussing my views. He is a fine gentleman, very courteous and well intentioned.

I also befriended the guards and the chef – interestingly whoever works here is either a retired policemen, rangers personnel, or soldier.

…………

15/03/2016

Good Morning!! It is a fine morning now, with the sun shining bright and its light is not being hindered by any human made structure. Though when I woke up (at 6:15), the morning was not as pleasant. I was supposed to wake up at 5:30 – the over enthusiastic Ajay had committed to the Physical Trainer that he will join the students for the morning exercise. The P.T. teacher is retired army soldier and has trained many soldiers in his life, some of whom are also serving as brigadiers and generals today. I WAS LATE so I ran, brushing my teeth in less than a minute and quickly wearing my tracks. Luckily my watch was 5 minutes ahead of time, hence I did not disappoint the trainer.

Back to the school days – it was, with a few differences of course; I never had such a majestic view to see and fresh air to breathe. The exercise went well in the beginning – a few rounds of jogging and running, and then the real things started. My daily yoga dose helped me get through 30% of it :p rest included crawling on the floor, juggling up and down, and walking across the filed in murga position – hehe. I came last several times and could here from behind – “Karachi wake up”. Unlike in Cyprus and India, I today represented Karachi!

The day ahead was also very productive. The flush did not work, and hands shivered with cold water but thankfully these were not highlights of the day:P Teachers hailed from different parts of Punjab and KPK. They were active and had many questions to ask. The Sargodha Baord, they have been previously affiliated with gave them rote learning but did give them marks. They feared if marks will become an opportunity cost for students in return of conceptual learning. There fear was right but so was the significance of learning – in life. So in short, the session was filled with discussions, examples from life and the supporting system AKU Examination Board provides at every step to ensure teachers, students and the school is provided continuous support. The Principal felt really convinced towards the end of the day, and wrote a positive email to AKU EB staff in Karachi. I bonded with teachers and got to know a wonderful Shair who with his philosophical insight gives a very different perspective to everything!!    

………

16/03/2016

I have been playing for two days very briefly and my hand hurts so much. It is a wonderful game, especially when played in the mountains!

Yesterday night there was a grand dinner in the college garden, all students and teachers were invited. There was a rostrum and I was invited to speak to the students. Students asked me interesting questions – how did I choose this profession and did I ever fail. They were surprised to know I had failed several times. It was conversing with them – I left them with a question. How did we know the Earth is round and not flat as early as 300 BC? One student brought me an answer to that question today evening. He searched the library and located a text written about that in a book .. and that text led us both to a few other questions – it was amazing J

The Principal attended the entire workshop with teachers as well as with students. He wrote an email to the Examination Board that he wanted not only 9th grade but also 10, 11 and 12 grade to affiliate with us! It has been a very humbling experience – majority of the students here wish to join the armed forces of Pakistan but when asked why, their purpose is vaguely limited to words like courage and love for the country. It was a tough call to disregard my personal opinions and connect their desire to join army with the need to develop skills like decision making, critical thinking and comprehension. Thankfully they seemed motivated and themselves connected the worth of conceptual learning with their desires :)              

The more people I meet across the country and the world the more this thing hits me, that if only people met each other in an environment of trust and acceptance, I doubt one would call other his/her enemy. An the fresh air in these majestic mountains and valleys, make our mind reflect and get rid of the corruption installed my restraining thoughts and ideas.    

The Physical Trainer has promised me a serious exercise tomorrow morning before I leave – I am a bit scared what his ‘serious’ means :p

HOOOOF … This was something Big and a bit scary too I must say. Some students invited me to their room. Then the topic of religion was introduced and questions began – who is a Hindu? what do you believe in? which book do you refer to? And as I started responding to some of the questions the room filled from 7 students in the beginning to 30 towards the end. Yea it was risky waters and I could see their eyes glued to what I was saying. Analogies really helped lighten up and introducing Hinduism as a philosophy made some sense. I know these were the questions they had in their mind for so long, so I did not want to inhibit those today but seriously had to beware not to come across as blasphemous as well as an atheist since both are considered devious crimes here, especially in Punjab! Thankfully the conversations tilted towards extending our horizons and acknowledging different perspectives be it history, religion or otherwise. I don’t think the conversation would have concluded so soon if the dinner bell would not have rung.

But I must say, I could really feel the power of education today and also its’ potential to tread risky waters. Education is a dangerous tool if not handled carefully – I truly hope I was balanced.
Fingers crossed.


I did not know this was not the end of highlights for this evening. After having dinner with Col. Sb., I was invited to a teacher’s room for gup shup. This person (Mr. Amjad) is an amazing personality. He like students started with the question “how Hindus view the origin of human life on Earth”, and then the conversation went to a completely different dimension – to the very basis of education, its purpose and how it is caught up in systems today. He is a shair and introduced me to Iqbal’s shairi in a completely new light – one that I was totally unaware of. Using Shaitan as a metaphor for capitalism, Iqbal in his Persian poetry written in early 1900s narrated significant events in human history along with his analysis of future with such depth, sarcasm and power. What I loved about Amjad Sb., was his command over Persian and more than that his ability to translate the couplet in such simple and clear language that any lay person can understand and contextualize. It was truly amazing. I have spoken to Col. Sb. and he has agreed to allow Amjad Sb. to have poetry sessions with students – and Amjad Sb. has also agreed to send me the written translation of Iqbal’s poetry as well as in his own voice. There is just so much talent in Pakistan and I am sure around the world, waiting to be revealed!    


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