Left, right, left… halt!

April 13, 2014

Left, right, left… halt!

Those were the early years of Pakistan, the 1950s and 1960s. Pakistan had not only become an independent country but, in 1948, had also fought its first war with India over Kashmir. The war was short and inconclusive. But it infused an all round patriotic fervour, and everyone seemed to be itching for a second round -- and conquering Kashmir.

Patriotism can be infectious. So, the education establishment introduced military training in high schools, and our school, in Mansehra, took up the training with a passion. We eagerly enrolled.

Soon, Raja FazalDaad, a former army haveldar, appeared on the scene as the drillmaster. He proceeded to work on the young recruits passionately. Packed with energy, Raja was not a tall but solidly built man, always dressed in a military-style uniform -- grey militia shirt, khaki shorts and a khaki kullah (headgear)-- and carrying a swagger stick. He wouldn’t talk. He shouted. His commands could be heard all over the school: "Chest out! Chin up! Straighten your shoulders! March! Left, right, left… halt!" And so on it went most of the morning.

Raja recruited his troops from among the students of class 7 to 10 and organised them into three platoons, each headed by a platoon commander, chosen for his bearing and ability to shout out commands in clear and loud voice. The louder and longer one shouted a command the better.

Among the many rules Raja reminded his ‘troops’ daily, one was: "Paaon itany zor say maaro keh zameen ka takht ulat jaaye" (hit your foot on the ground so hard that the earth turns over). Thus, a long and loud command of "Attaaaaaaaain-shun" by a commander was met with a very loud thud of boots.

We did our best to overturn the earth.

A band was also raised from among the students. A former army bandmaster, Fazal Elahi, was hired for the purpose. The band included drums, bugles, bagpipes -- the whole works. There was great excitement among the students to join the band. Not only did it offer a rare break from the drudgery of schoolwork but also, for some, an opportunity to explore their musical talents.

The town folks would come out of their shops to watch the pageant -- the band, kilts, smartly turned out youngsters in green uniform marching like trained cadets.

I wished to play the side drum and showed up for selection. Fazal Elahi lined us up, with our hands stretched forward, palms down and fingers open. He inspected each pair of hands as if inspecting our fingernails, and promptly declared me unfit, saying that my fingers were too stubby. My cousin, Salim, a couple of years senior to me, was selected. I envied my cousin and cursed my stubby fingers.

Disappointed but not deterred, I turned up again. This time for my second choice, bugles. Fazal Elahi again lined us up and inspected our faces one-by-one. He, again, rejected me saying that my lips were too thick to blow a bugle.

Dejected, I wished for Fazal Elahi to fall in a ditch.

As a consolation, or because it did not require any talent, Fazal Elahi offered to enroll me for cymbals. But clapping those brass plates didn’t look quite manly to me. I declined the offer.

Later in life, whenever I saw a drummer or a trumpeter, on TV or in real life, I looked at his fingers and lips to see how different they were from mine.

Kilts were prescribed as the band uniform. Yes, kilts, those knee-length, pleated skirts of checked cloth worn by Scottish Highlanders. Having boys learn to play drums and bagpipes was unusual in conservative Mansehra, but having them wear kilts was kind of revolutionary. But our headmaster, Ghulam Rabbani Khan, was an unorthodox man, modern in his dress and demeanour, progressive in thinking, and a bit eccentric. Surprisingly, however, there was not a peep from the loudspeakers against turning boys into musicians and, worse, making them wear what looked like Western women’s dress. Perhaps because there weren’t that many loudspeakers then or the society was not Talibanised as it is now.

The weekly parade was an exciting event both for the school and town. Raja FazalDaad would turn up in freshly starched uniform, the crest of his kullah flared and erect. He would assemble his ‘troops’ in the school courtyard in a ‘U’-shape, each platoon forming one leg of the ‘U’ and standing in rows of three. While Raja ran the platoons through initial drill routines, Fazal Elahi would assemble the band in a separate corner of the ground, testing and tuning their instruments.

When all was set, Raja would call the ‘troops’ to order and shout out a final set of commands -- actually, his divine commandments. "Remember three things", he would shout: "aagay say cover; daayain baayain dressing aur baazoo ka jhoola!" What it meant was: when marching, keep the lines straight both front and sideways, and let your arms swing freely. You disobeyed these commandments at your own risk. The swagger stick Raja carried was not for mere display.

Orders given and everyone ready, a hush would descend on the assembly. Raja would go through a ritual of seeking permission of the headmaster to commence the parade. With the swagger stick pressed under his left arm, his chest puffed up like a pigeon, he marched to the headmaster, who stood in the school verandah all this time watching the proceedings as the supreme commander. Raja would salute the headmaster and ask, in military lingo, for permission to commence the parade.

Permission granted, Raja would march back, call the platoons to attention and shout the marching orders. The band would strike up and the parade would stream out of the assembly ground, marching three abreast, with the band in the lead. It would enter the bazaar via the Kutchery Road, and march down towards the only bridge in town and then turn right, on to Shinkiari Road.

The town folks would come out of their shops to watch the pageant -- the band, kilts, smartly turned out youngsters in green uniform marching like trained cadets, and Raja FazalDaad running up and down the bazaar, blowing his whistle and shouting orders.

At the head of the parade would be Fazal Elahi, in a kilt and beret cap with a woolen knob at the top, directing the band with the bandmaster’s staff -- that long stick with a bulbous silvery knob at the top end.

Women in the residential area overlooking Shinkiari Road would come out, standing in the half-open doors or on rooftops, to watch the parade.

Sensing the presence of women among the spectators, Fazal Elahi would begin to strut like a peacock. With an extra bounce in his step, he would wave the staff flamboyantly, twirling it in his fingers and tossing it into the air and then catching it, without missing a step.

It was some spectacle for the otherwise quiet Mansehra.

As it turned out, we were never called for war duties and, over the years, the general enthusiasm for conquering Kashmir also subsided, but our military training gave us memories that we fondly remember even 50 years later.

Left, right, left… halt!