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A beautiful mind (A tribute to Mr. Saeed Ahmed)

The morning was bright and sunny. A cool breeze was blowing which gave a fresh feel to the late spring. If you paid any attention and had a good sense of smell, you could feel the gentle perfume of orange blossoms and the musky waft of budding sheesham foliage. This smell of changing weathers although is subtle, but has one of the most powerful nostalgic stimuli known to us. It was on one such pleasant April morning of 1976 when my father dropped me at the main gate of FG Sir Syed Secondary School.

I was dressed in the then school uniform of khaki trousers and white shirt. The days of wearing shorts of the junior school were over and I was going to be in the ‘High school’ for the first time. In the junior school, I was attending the classes in the girls’ section of the same institution. After year 5, boys went to the school across the dividing wall and girls stayed in the same campus.

Whilst I was in the junior school, I used to listen to the drums of the marching band which would be played in the morning assembly. Now at last I would be able to see for myself what the fuss was all about. Quite a few of my classmates from junior school were going to be in the high school with me. There was obviously going to be a reshuffle for the sections and I was sure to receive some new friends.

In those days, from class 6th to 8th, one had to choose between either Arabic or Persian as a second language. This must have been a policy to reflect the Muslim heritage of Pakistan. During the times of Muslim rule of India, Persian used to be the official language. Importance of Arabic is obvious from the religious perspective. The general feeling was that Persian was easier than Arabic. Hence far more people chose to study this than Arabic. There were therefore 3 sections which learned Persian and only one was for Arabic. I was given ‘B’ section.

After the first assembly, we were marched to our class which used to be at the back of the building block which had principal’s office and the Hobby centre. (I think that our class room of those days has been demolished now). Our class room door opened towards the back playground which had badminton and basketball courts, the school tuck shop and the newly opened book shop. (In place of the playing courts, there stands a new class room building block).

The class room was rather in a poor state of repair. There was a very old ceiling fan which hung ominously in the middle of the room with its pointed central nose and big archaic looking blades. I felt that the ceiling fan would probably fall down any minute!

After settling in the class, we all waited for our class teacher to arrive. Having been taught by female teachers all through my school life, I was a bit apprehensive. The general impression was that male teachers are usually stricter and could easily administer physical punishment. We were all therefore pleasantly surprised when a smiling and beaming young teacher of about 25 or 26 years walked in the room. Medium height, fare complexion and a very thin frame. He was dressed in a spotless white shirt and dark trousers. The most prominent feature on the new teacher’s face was his extremely large nose. But what really became his most distinctive feature was his smile. Generous and radiant, his smile really displayed his pleasant personality. “ Assalamoalaikum bacho…Mera naam Saeed Ahmed hai”..began ‘Sir’ Saeed. We all relaxed. He was not ominous at all. He seemed like an elder brother or a young ‘uncle’. “ Mera mazmoon to Urdu hai lekin main, is class main aap ko English parhaoon ga”. Sir wanted to know all of our names, where did we live, what did our parents do etc etc. The first period was spent on introductions. We all seemed to like him.

Over the next few weeks, we got to know him very well. Sir Saeed had the ability to smile with his eyes. Unlike the lippy smile (which can be faked) the twinkle in someone’s eyes is always genuine. Sir Saeed’s eyes would always be twinkling. Teaching seemed to be his true passion. As far as administering the physical punishment was concerned, he could not even tell us off! His theory was that all students are by nature good and decent. If you treat them leniently, they would behave well. This theory seemed to work most of the times. There were obviously exceptions and Sir was hopelessly at sea whilst dealing with such students!

As I have said that he was to teach us English but we could tell that his true passion was Urdu. In those days, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan died. One of his ghazals “ Insha Ji Utho” became extremely popular and was on every body’s lips. I made a parody of this ghazal and used one of class fellow’s name in the parodied version (more like a ‘hajv’). Poor Nayyar Zaman. He had once threatened me with a good beating for some silly reason. I being physically meek, could only come up with a verbal assault, which I did! Someone from the class conveyed the poem to Sir Saeed who was delighted to listen to it. He made me sing the parodied version in the class to the obvious delight of every one except Nayyar! From that day, I became Sir Saeed’s favourite student.

The lenient nature of Sir meant that he was seldom able to control us effectively. One day, he was teaching in the class. Spring of April had been replaced with the heat of June. The day was suffocatingly warm. The aforementioned ceiling fan was rotating at the leisurely pace which its age allowed. Suddenly, I felt a drop of something oily on the back of my hand. It smelled of a machine. I quizzically looked around. A few more of my friends were displaying drops of oil on their bodies. Then suddenly, without any further warning, the old ceiling fan began spewing thick, dark and acrid smelling smoke from its ancient motor! Oh dear..the fan was clearly dying. In a panic, we all rushed out. Sir tried to calm us down but we would have non of it. As a rowdy mob, we all escaped the class room. Sir made sure that all the children were safely out of the class and was the last one to leave the room. The principal was informed and we were all shifted to another class.

Because of the rather relaxed discipline of our class, our class teacher was changed. A bearded and more seasoned sir Azfar who used to teach us Maths was made our class teacher. But our relationship with Sir Saeed remained strong. He in his class, would tell us stories and listen to what we had to say. He told us that he was the great great great grand son of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, after whom our school was named. Wow! That was some pedigree.

In 7th class, he finally was given the subject of Urdu for our class. This was only for a few months though. What I found was that sir would always be rotating between classes. May be the school establishment were not too impressed with his teaching. I am not sure about the exact reason, but he was clearly on the wrong side of the authorities. He wanted to encourage the creative talents of students. For this reason, he asked us all to make a ‘Wall Chart’ which would be on the pattern of a journal. We were encouraged to do its editing, designing and planning. Our class made ours by naming it ‘Barhtay Qadam’. A few other names which stick to my mind are ‘Ilm o Danish’ and ‘ Nuskha e Keemya’. Once the wall charts had been made, these were exhibited in a large hall. It was a fantastic idea. Students could have their stories, poems and pictures exhibited. We were supposed to have these charts updated regularly. You could call these charts the analogue version of a Facebook page. Unfortunately, the school adminstration again did not entirely agree with Sir Saeed’s ideas and the scheme was scrapped.

I moved to Lahore in 1977. Sir Saeed whose ancestral home was also in Lahore, used to visit our home and have chats with my father. I being young, did not really understand what they were talking about. I think mostly the discussion circulated around education and problems relating to it. Sir very kindly had brought two fantastic books for me. A copy of Mussaddas e Hali and a book written by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan which was about his travels to London back in the late nineteenth century. It was a very interesting book and I read this many times. Sir had very kindly written and signed a note on these books.

As luck would have it, I moved back to Rawalpindi in 1979 and again joined Sir Syed School.

Sir Saeed was very much there but he had somewhat changed. He was showing his age more than his years. He had lost some of his hair. His smile was still there but it seemed to me that his regular tiffs with the management were beginning to take their toll on his well being. Once he threatened to take the school management to task for not sending the exam papers of some of the weak students for matric exam. On another occasion, he started collecting papers against some other irregularities being committed by the higher ups. It seemed that he was always at war with somebody.

I never got him again as a teacher. He would usually be used as a replacement who would have to take a class if some other teacher was absent for some reason. Once he took a class in our neighbouring section. I on finishing the day walked past this class where Sir had just finished teaching. Because I could hear him speak from my class room, I knew that he had been teaching the Urdu lesson, ‘Insaan Kisi Haal Main Khush Nahin Rehta’. I was taken aback by the state of the blackboard of his class. Sir Saeed had scribbled incomprehensible letters, lines and circles all over the board. A complete jumble up of criss crossing lines. Oh my God! what was going one? I did not have a clue. On another occasion, I overheard two boys talking about him. One was advising the other not to listen to whatever he had to say as it never made any sense. I felt sad for Sir Saeed. I thought that because of his inherently good nature, students were taking undue advantage.

Sir Saeed was suffering at a personal level too. His marriage broke down. He then started missing school. When I would see him, he would look unkempt and tired. Then one day, we came to know that he had been taken ill to the hospital. Poor Sir Saeed had been suffering from Schizophrenia and I realised later on when I was in medical college, that he had been displaying signs of this illness for a very long time. Schizophrenia is a thought disorder and has been called the biggest tragedy to have affected mankind. A tragedy bigger than cancer. Cancer kills one person. Schizophrenia destroys a whole family. This illness has been artistically portrayed in Russell Crowe’s film whose title I have used as the name of this essay.

When Sir Saeed was showing the early signs of this illness, I was too young and obviously did not realise that he was not well. I am however sure that not many others knew what had been happening to him. Perhaps if there was a better understanding about this wretched illness, his disease could have been diagnosed earlier and he would have taught many more generations bestowing his kindness to the younger generations. Who knows?

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