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November 24, 2013

Chitral’s patron saint

November 24, 2013


Over the top
Pakistan has had a perpetual shortage of real heroes – the last one, Imran Khan, has now gotten into so much unnecessary posturing that most feel he is a confused hero with some weird logic running his career. The popularity tsunami leading to the elections has fizzled out faster than anyone ever thought.
Other than a few heroes, we have a landscape that has more frauds than ticks on a monkey. The entire country runs on double cross and millions spend their lives taking others for a ride. Most are successful. Since the last thing Pakistan will ever have is real accountability and every citizen knows that they will never be caught or, God forbid, punished, lawlessness and deceit have now become our defining characteristics. Uncover a shady deal and be sure you will see a grinning lout disappearing with the spoils. ‘Culprits will be brought to book,’ has to be the biggest joke in the country but no one tires of shoving it down everyone’s throat.
People often lament there are no role models to follow and that is true, but sometimes there is an exception. The life and dedication of one man to his principles is a story that inspires and overwhelms you. The man is Geoffrey Douglas Langlands and what a man he is.
Now 96, he lives in rooms kindly arranged by his old school, Aitchison College in Lahore. Langlands is British, a ‘pakka’ sahib. Born in 1917 in Britain, he came to the Subcontinent during World War II. He never returned to his motherland but chose instead to travel to one of the most forbidding territories in this part of the world – North Waziristan in 1979 – and thereafter to Chitral in 1989, where he remained till very recently and was persuaded with difficulty, to move out. While in Chitral he improved upon the Sayuraj Public School that existed there. It came to be called The Langlands School & College.
In his life in remote and inaccessible Chitral, Langlands soon became something of a legend. Leading a

Spartan existence, he seemed to fear nothing. Certainly, nothing daunted him. Not the fierce tribals who were initially puzzled by this crazy Englishman and not even the bloodthirsty Taliban who abducted him some years ago and, realising he was utterly without fear, let him go! Langlands’ love and compassion for the Chitralis grew over the years. He once said, “The splendor of Chitral lies not only in its pastoral, hilly landscape, but also in its compassionate and affable people.”
As Huzaima Bukhari and Dr Ikramul Haq of LUMS put it, “Neither language nor food or culture, obstructed his enthusiasm to educate the young ones of a community that was never exposed to modernity in terms of knowledge.” As he set upon this task, he realised that without the English language the students, both boys and girls, would be unable to learn. So he began the task of teaching them English and year after year, through the long harsh winters with no facilities he carried on with little or no funds. In Langlands’ book, it was obvious that the words ‘give up’ never ever featured.
The school, functional since 1988, today has over a thousand students. Those who have passed out from here have done well. Langlands’ successor seems to be another person of indomitable strength. She not only has to step into his shoes but tackle the school’s growing mess and rejuvenate an institution lacking money, books and teachers. She has also to make it capable of conducting lessons in English. No easy task. As Salma Chaudhry wrote poignantly in September this year, “The situation is pretty precarious”, quoting Miss Schofield. “The headline fact is that even if all families paid fees we would not have enough money to pay the teachers”.
Salma adds, “signs of decay are all around. The college library is a small collection of dusty old books, and the power supply extremely erratic. There is no school hall, no internet and no heating to soften the bitter Himalayan winter. Computers donated by a school benefactor last year gather dust for want of someone to install them. Above all, there is a palpable sense of drift.”
Quoting Miss Schofeld, who says “You need structures. Step by step, you must impose order. My allies are the teachers here. They are not perfect – I am not perfect – but they care about the students. This is an English-language school and we need to improve the level of English, and for that we need English teachers.” The school needs funding badly and a great deal of it. Who will do it? Will Imran Khan in KP launch a Rs5 collection and save his old teacher’s dream? Maybe one small school is just one small school but often small things inspire and lead to larger things.
We are a strange lot. We will blow stacks of money on the most trivial things and yet look the other way when a genuine cause is crying for support. We spend billions on ugly structures – all of Pakistan seems to be single-mindedly devoted to rockets and tanks – yet will not invest in something beautiful and lasting.
In a strange bid to erase our past, and obviously suffering from deep-rooted inferiority complexes, we deface streets, roads and highways paying unearned homage to nobodies and we have no sense of history. So what chance does a school have in a far-away remote valley? We’d rather blow a wad on burgers and soft drinks but choke if asked to support a good cause. Rather than build upon what we have, preserve our past, we demolish great relics replacing these with monstrosities and eyesores.
We have also ensured that we do not really honour those who are actually the gifted sons and daughters of this land. Writers, musicians, actors, painters – to name just four categories have not enjoyed the support of the state. When they are safely dead, we shed tears, mourn their loss and make pledges we never hope to keep. When will we change and when will we honour those really deserving it? – a question for which I have no answer.
A country that has been looted with both hands rolls out the red carpet, brings out the gold emblazoned carriages and fires a 21-gun salute in the honour of those that have looted it. It is this kind of thinking that will keep us where we are and which will prevent us from supporting Geoffrey Langlands’ great and noble effort. I hope I am wrong.
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: [email protected]




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