It takes three — or more — to Tonga

January 12, 2020

Posthumous secrets are classified memories, not meant to be shared, lest our grandchildren should marvel at our innocence

— Image: Supplied

Government College University (GCU) is the only all-boys academic institution in Lahore that offers Fine Arts, a department set up by Prof Aslam Minhas and sanctioned by Dr Nazir on the prodding of Prof Anna Molka in 1961. I was one of the four students that included Tanvir Shamsi and Shoaib Anwar (who failed, but went on to become the deputy mayor of Lahore).

Abid Hussain Qureshi was a late comer. He too ended up writing a book on painting in Pakistan which remains the best manuscript on the subject in Urdu language. Its third edition is currently in the press, thanks also to its highly controversial contents (more about Qureshi, later).

As the first-year exams approached, an examination centre had to be found. An easy solution was suggested by Prof Qazi: all of us boys would have to appear at the Lahore College for Women (read Girls) for practicals.

The burly chowkidaar (guard) at the campus gate was no obstacle, as we were armed with roll number slips. The girls, however, seemed surprised. But everything went pretty well because the participants from the other side of the gender divide were quite unprepared. The following year, the arsenal was well stocked. A big poster greeted us boys riding our bicycles, saying: “No Parking.” I was up to a prank, and overwrote the letter “B” on “P”. It was an ‘epoch-making’ event for us, as we were obliged to accompany all the girls to their respective homes every day after the exam would finish. As guardians of the fairer sex, we loved to play the chauvinistic male. Exchange of looks did not falter us from the lessons on moral courage that had been instilled in us by Prof Eric Cyprian.

One searing mid-June afternoon, done with the practicals, we hailed a tonga for the girls. Dutifully, we escorted them, holding just the handlebars of our respective Raleighs and Hercules etc., navigating the deserted roads, while our faces beamed with innocence (this was a quality that the male siblings of the tonga occupants were not supposed to have).

It was a long journey — Suez-route short cuts, and Cape of Good Hope too. The females disembarked at various terminals, without any security lapses. Towards the end, just two of them — Kafeela and Naeema (I found out about their names many years later) — were left in the tonga. The coachman (kochwaan in vernacular) was already getting suspicious of the shadows of the spoke tyres made of Burma rubber. He was obviously overworked, just like his horse, though not yet rebellious.

Finally, only Shamsi and (reportedly) I were left to paddle, rather involuntarily, astride the branded Brooks’ saddles that were made of pure leather (perhaps, from the sacrificial goats), with large springs to absorb the shocks that were ordained to happen on that fateful day.

We crossed the mohallah vigilantes, looking on with utmost earnestness, lest they might miss out on something juicy. Mercifully, those were pre-Jamiat days.

As Kafeela, the 2nd last sawari (passenger) of the day, was dropped off in front of her house, our mission stood accomplished. The horse, relieved of the burden, sprang merrily into action, only to stop short. As Naeema, the last person to step off the tonga, paused to wave to us from across the road, we were clever enough to guess who the gesture was aimed at. Though, as to why the horse froze in his steps has remained a puzzle to this day!

Come September (not to be confused with the title of the Gina Lollobrigida-Rock Hudson film), in 1963, and having enrolled at the Fine Arts Department of the University of the Punjab, proudly donning the then mandatory black gown, I entered the classroom where all students had already taken their seats. I was in for the shock of my life, as I spotted both Kafeela and Naeema sitting astride the donkey easels.

With no option of an escape route, I picked up myself, and feigning confidence, walked straight in. (“Now you see, now you don’t” was a theory coined much later.)

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Two years down the line, the third occupant of the above mentioned tonga ride (whose coachman as well as his malnourished horse must have expired by then) came to visit us. The lady pointed a finger at the well-respected son-of-the-soil that was me. There was a loud altercation in which the lady, whose elder brother was a military officer, expressed her inability to punish me for something that had happened two years ago. “You should’ve told me right there and then, and I would’ve broken his (that is, my) legs,” big brother hollered.

From then on, my class fellows never failed to remind me of the incident (or misadventure?). “June ka mast maheena, munh pe paseena!” they would sing to me.

I was horrified to know that her father was also from Ludhiana and had been friends with my father.

Perhaps, the most interesting part of the story is that 42(!) years later, the same lady hosted a get-together where the same incident was brought up ‘under the radar,’ and everyone had a hilarious time at my disposal. Of course, all of us were now way past that juvenile state of self-denial; all of us grey-haired, grandparents, sporting our dental crowns and implants and what not.

I was still curious to find out why the horse had stopped short on that fateful day. “Because Naeema was too scared to continue alone,” Kafeela said.

No one knew that I had been invited to her house, so I had to hide behind a curtain. But her mother’s laugh caught me off guard, and I was forced to come out of hiding. Now that both of them have migrated to their heavenly abodes, along with Kurt Hammelman, Takako, Saeeda Asar and Syed Ali, I believe there’s no harm in revealing our best-kept secrets.

Posthumous secrets are classified memories, not meant to be shared, lest our grandchildren should marvel at our innocence. I would call it a tango, and not a tonga ride.

“This dispatch is dedicated to my teacher, Prof Naseem Hafeez Qazi!”


The writer is a painter, the founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and the former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Note: Free art classes at the House of NANNAs on Sundays.

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It takes three — or more — to Tonga