They called him Masterji

September 6, 2020

The story of a refugee who started a roadside charity school in Nihalchand Bagheechi, soon after the Partition, and also turned out to be a carpet weaver

— Image: Supplied

As to who he was and from where did he come right after the Partition, nobody seemed to know. People addressed him as “Masterji.

When Pakistan was founded, those uprooted from their ancestral cities and villages found refuge in Lahore. They had no food or clothing, let alone a home; how could they send their little children to school?

The people of Lahore tried to provide them with food, and offered them shelter in their houses. In such trying times, there was this man who started a roadside school, under a tree, in Nihalchand Bagheechi (at the McLeod/Nicholson Road cross-street).

Initially, 5-6 children enrolled. The classroom soon swelled to 60-odd children who would sit on the bare grass and repeat in unison: “Alif aam, bay bakri…” And when it came to arithmetic, they would all sing along the multiplication tables: “Ik dooni dooni, do dooni chaar...

It appeared that an entire new generation was being schooled to take charge of the country. All the pigeons from the nearby Shaikh Musa Ahangar’s Tomb would fly, clapping in circles and giving the Masterji a salute. Trees taller than the minaret of the mosque would swirl in ecstasy.

Whenever a child came in with his grandmother, Masterji would enter his name and other details in a heavy register. If the lady paid one rupee as admission fee and another for the monthly fee, he would gratefully accept it.

Many small children from around the school would join in just like that. Those who were unable to pay were enrolled for free. No one was expelled due to nonpayment of dues.

Early in the morning, the school would begin the teaching session. Children would sit in lines. They would take out their slates from their cloth bags, and write on it with a small white chalk.

They always brought along with them a takhti (or wooden panel) upon which they had written with a calligraphic pen (kalam) their homework. Masterji never inflicted any sort of corporal punishment on the children, but he always kept with him a long bamboo stick. Every time the children got into a conversation, he would use it to gently stroke their shoulders or ears without asking them to get up. The errant kids would hurriedly join back in the chorus reciting the tables.

When the Lahore Municipal Committee (as it was called in those days) took possession of the garden that had been bequeathed by Nihalchand to the people of the locality, they put up a barbed wire around it. Masterji moved to the shadow of an abandoned evacuee property in the vicinity. He would sit over its platform and conduct the classes.

A number of children joined the school on the roadside. The dilapidated house had been bought over in claim. Its new owners did not object to the school, but Masterji moved to a vacant area near an ice-cream factory on Nicholson Road. The owners of the place welcomed him and arranged water for the children.

In 1950, the nearby Daulat Ram Street’s municipal school was gutted because of its close proximity to a kerosene oil depot. While the large barrels of inflammable oil went flying off and exploded mid-air, destroying many houses in the process, some landed on the school building. The attendance register got filled up and Masterji’s bamboo stick could therefore not reach the backbenchers because he had welcomed all the children from that gutted school.

Early in the morning, a janitor while drawing lines on the street with his broom would carefully sweep the ground for the children. He would also clean Masterji’s sitting area, while the waterman would bring water in his mushk made of sheepskin, drawn from the well located inside the ancient mosque on the Budhan Shah Street. He’d sprinkle the water on the ground and fill the large terracotta water containers.

Masterji had a large blackboard facing the children on which he would draw pictures of mango and goat to illustrate his lessons. He had another board facing himself, on which a carpet was stretched which he would weave whenever the lunch break allowed him to tie a few knots of coloured wool.

He was a skilled carpet weaver. And he was never in a hurry to finish the carpet. His real ‘work’ were the children who blossomed like flowers. Some of them were to also build the newly independent country.

The finished carpet too would sell fast. This way, Masterji was able to earn bread and also help the children in some way.

One day, as the children stood waiting for him, he passed away.

Where nobody knew where Masterji had come from, now the children could not figure out his disappearing act.

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Masterji’s story did not end there. The gutted school was never rebuilt because it could not compete with the mushrooming expensive private schools. The Batala Girls High School in the vicinity too was shut down. Children from low-income families were found helpful in weaving carpets because of their tender little fingers. Sitting for long hours in difficult postures and inhaling microscopic particles of wool, their growth was stunted. But Nicholson Road became world renowned for producing the finest of carpets.

There were shops in every street including Manohar Gali and Muslim Road where hand-knotted woollen carpets were displayed for the traders and visitors from abroad. The carpet export was flourishing.

Once, a man named Signor Franco Gatti came to visit the place from Bologna (Italy). When I narrated to him — in my rudimentary Italian — the story of the carpet weaver who had famously run the roadside school, he suggested (in his surprisingly chaste Urdu) that the affectionate teacher should have been commemorated with a plaque.

PS: The carpet boom was over soon after, due to the international ban on child labour and the cheap, machine-made carpets imported from China. The stunted children who had lost their childhood were not able to learn a new vocation. Affordable education as guaranteed in the Constitution is the best state investment.

(This dispatch is dedicated to my school teacher, Enayat Pervaiz)


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

They called him Masterji