As Karachi Grammar School turns 175, Ameena Saiyid looks back on her time at the historic educational institute
Whenever I think of my time at the Karachi Grammar School, I am reminded of Elvis Presley’s song:
Farewell Royal High School
We’ll remember you
Dear Alma Mater
We’re steadfast, loyal and true.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Karachi Grammar School (KGS) had a highly diverse student body with regard to religion, ethnicity and social class that was a strong reflection of the society in those days. I remember I had friends who were Muslim, Christian, Parsi, Hindu, Jewish and from many nationalities and ethnic backgrounds including Bengalis as Pakistan had not lost its eastern wing then. Parochialism and provincialism were absent though there was some linguism. Urdu was given the same status as French, a foreign language, and English was supreme. Sadly, we acquired this attitude and would make fun of our Urdu and chemistry teachers for their accents, although they were experts in their subjects and great teachers. I feel so ashamed of this silliness.
I remember being least concerned about our religion and background and making friends on the basis of who was fun to be with and with whom we could share jokes and have a good time at picnics, parties, the beach and the cinema. There was no question of segregation in school although we had fewer girls than boys in our classes. I wasn’t even aware of my religious sect or ethnicity and could not answer these specific questions when asked and would say I was a Pakistani and a Muslim. I had to ask my parents about these details about myself and they would repeat that all I needed to know was that I was a Pakistani and a Muslim.
I loved our school festivities and especially enjoyed singing our school song and its refrain, Indocti Discant (Let the Unlearned Learn) is her motto, Indocti Discant is her rule. Indocti Discant now and always, Is the ideal of the Grammar School. Now I realise that it smacks of colonialism. Our May Queen balls, boxing matches, sports, debates, declamation contests, fancy dress parties, march pasts, pantomimes and visits of VIPs such as the Duke of Edinburgh and Huseyn Suhrawardy were unforgettable. At a May Queen ball, I saw Prime Minister Huseyn Suhrawardy dancing with our principal’s wife. It was not regarded as anything unusual and all of us took it in our stride. Just before the visit of Prince Philip, the ground outside the school building was dug and prepared for a tree to be planted by him and a plaque was made stating that he planted the tree. One of the boys said, “We should have another plaque next to it with my name stating that I pulled out the tree!” The Duke said that he had asked the principal to give us a term’s holiday but the principal agreed only to a day’s. We were told another time that the British Queen would be visiting our school and were given lectures on how to behave. The school was painted, the desks polished and then we heard that the visit had been cancelled.
There was little to stop us from researching and forming opinions; in fact, we were encouraged to disagree and speak our minds
The KGS was very progressive and modern in its thinking and instilled this philosophy in us along with a strong sense of integrity and moral principles. We realised how important it was to think for ourselves and talk about our ideas and thoughts boldly and truthfully. There were no attempts at indoctrination. There was little to stop us from researching and forming opinions; in fact, we were encouraged to disagree and speak our minds. At school debates, we were guided to do this politely but firmly. I was told that, if you didn’t agree with what was being said, you should express yourself by saying SHAME and, of course, if you liked what was being said, you should say HEAR. HEAR. The idea was that we should interact with the speaker rather than become docile listeners.
We had a well-stocked library and were encouraged to spend time there and browse, read and borrow. The librarian was invariably helpful and ensured we were supported in using the library fully. This was really when I developed my lifelong interest in books and reading.
In those days, there was a sorting system of dividing students into grades depending on their academic ability with each class having A, B and C sections. Thus students were labelled by ability. Fortunately this was subsequently changed.
I was fortunate to have been taught English by icons like Mr Dolmen, Raheela Masud and Maki Kureishi and history by a brilliant British teacher, Mr Roberts. Of course, I was not always lucky. Some teachers were different, I thought. I remember leaving my water bottle at the wrong place and the teacher pulled me up by saying, “Pick up your bottle this instant. You may have servants at home but you have none here.” Another incident I recall was when a teacher sent in his books to the class in advance before the period began. Being naturally curious, I walked up to his desk and began leafing through his books and he caught me doing this when he entered. He was livid. He was carrying some files and offered them to me, saying sarcastically, “Do you want to go through these as well?”
The KGS was a close-knit community that reflected the norms of the society as it was then and helped us internalise the culture, traditions, values and attitudes that led to high-quality learning and developed our intellectual and social capital. At the same time, it promoted change and innovation through its extra-curricular activities, skills training, knowledge acquisition and focus on research, expression and originality. The diversity of the student body and its location in Saddar near the Empress Market, where we would sometimes wander, ensured that we were not caught in an elitist bubble. We did not regard our school credentials as weapons to gain social, economic or professional advantage but to reach our potential, occupy useful roles and give back to society.
The writer is the founder and director of Adab Festival; founder of the Karachi and Islamabad Literature Festivals; and managing director of Lightstone Publishers