I Am Only a ‘Chowkidar’

A few years ago, I visited Islamia, my old college in Peshawar, after several decades. Visiting one’s old school or college always brings back happy memories. And this visit did, too.

Among others, I met Mian Jameel, who was my roommate in Hardinge Hostel, Room №52. He was a student of humanities while I was a science student. He had introduced me to the weekly Lail-o-Nihar, a leftist magazine, and Naqoosh, a literary magazine.

But the visit also erased some of the beautiful images preserved in my mind.

The college was built in 1913, conceived as a liberal arts college, emulating the Ali Garh model. It has served the people of the province well, producing generations of professionals, civil servants, diplomats, judges, generals, politicians, and businessmen.

The main college building is one of the magnificent old buildings in the country, and thanks to UNESCO for declaring it a World Heritage — one of the ninety such historic buildings and sites in the province — that it is still well preserved. The college also had six or seven hostels built in a similar architectural style complimenting the main building.

The college campus had ample open areas and playing fields, and its streets were lined with bitter orange trees, which, when in blossom, would fill the air with fragrance.

The Islamia students stood out in their black sherwani (a long black coat) and white shalwar. When you look at some of the old group photographs, students look groomed — hair combed in the glistening styles of the movie icons of the time, and rarely a beard.

Sadly, things didn’t look as rosy as they did in our days in college — or as I imagined they did. Many of the open spaces were gone, overtaken by buildings built out of character. Tennis courts across Chelmsford hostel were taken over by a bricks-and-mortar monstrosity, blocking the college building's view.

Students still wear black sherwani and white shalwar but the shirts are now longer and the sherwanis shorter. This is not how it was meant to be.

Mian Jameel and I went to look up Hardinge Hostel where we had spent some of the happiest years of our student life. We found three young men at the hostel gate, presumably residents of the hostel, basking in the sun. It was a cold January morning. They all had short beards and were draped in woolen shawls (شاھڑی). We greeted them and told them why we were there. They welcomed us and readily escorted us inside.

One of the three assumed the lead role in showing us around. He showed intellectual curiosity, asked us about our times in college, and answered our questions. The other two politely tagged along. Our visit didn’t seem to pique their curiosity.

The hostel building looked distressed with spotty, out-of-character renovations. Brick walls were painted at places in a random patchwork of white to hide the damp spots. The columns lining the arched verandahs were each painted with religious inscriptions.

In the hedge-lined courtyard, where we used to have the morning “dress parade”, laundry was hung on a clothesline. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Having completed the round of the hostel, I asked our escorts, not anyone in particular, if they would take a couple of pictures of Mian Jameel and me standing in front of our old room with my camera. The ‘leader’ readily offered to do it if I showed him how to operate my camera, which I did. The other two showed no interest. Probably, taking a picture was too complicated a job for them.

Pictures taken, we walked back to the gate. Before saying goodbye to our escorts, I asked them what class they were in and what were they studying.

“I am only a chowkidar (gatekeeper)”, the ‘leader’ replied, and pointing to the other two, “they are students”.

Mian Jamil and I came out wondering if it was just the aura of nostalgia that made everything look golden in the past or were things really brighter when we were in college.



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