Islamia College Peshawar, where I spent two memorable years of my life, turned 100, in 2013. The idea of building the college first sprouted in the minds of its founders in 1909. The work on the building started in 1912, and within a short period, the main college building along with a high school and three hostels was completed in 1913. The college was elevated to a university in 2007.
The old black-and-white pictures of the college taken at the time, though faded, show the stark contrast between this amazingly beautiful building and the surrounding wilderness. It is as if the building was delivered overnight by a genie to grant a boy’s wish in a fairytale
Actually, there were two “boys” in this fairytale, one a British and the other a native Pashtun. After making their wish, which was not much different from a child’s fantasy, they transformed themselves into a powerful duo of genies and delivered this jewel of a building along with a blueprint of modern liberal arts education.
The British “boy” was George Roos-Keppel, a “soldier-sahib,” that peculiar breed of British officers in India whose careers crisscrossed between army and civil service and who, during their long stints in the frontier regions, got to understand the native people so well that they developed a relationship of mutual respect and admiration. He was a three-time chief commissioner (the office was later replaced with that of a governor) of the province between 1908 and 1919. He not only spoke fluent Pashto but also wrote books on Pashto language and grammar.
The native “boy” in the story was Sahibzada Abdul Qaiyum, a Pashtun. He started his career as a naib-tehsildar serving in different districts and tribal agencies and, through diligence and loyalty to the service, became Political Agent of the Khyber Agency. After retirement, Sahibzada Abdul Qaiyum joined politics, but that is another story.
Keppel-Qayyum was a synergic pair. They had the vision, the drive, and the influence to raise the required funds for their project. The names of these two men are synonymous with Islamia College Peshawar just as Sir Syed’s is with Aligarh Muslim University. Their life-size portraits hang in the main congregation hall of the college, named Roos-Keppel Hall.
The college was modeled after the Aligarh Muslim College, which, in turn, tried to emulate Oxford and Cambridge in England. Black sherwani, which became the college uniform, was also an import from Aligarh.
Islamia College was conceived as a liberal arts college, aimed at imparting general knowledge of social and physical sciences and developing intellectual capacities of students, as opposed to a professional, vocational or technical college imparting education in specialized fields.
Notwithstanding the prefix “Islamia”, the college was not meant to, and did not, give priority to religious studies over social and physical sciences and languages, which formed the core of the college curriculum.
The college emblem, painted on the façade overlooking the college quadrangle, carried the inscription, “Rabb-i-zidni ilma” (O Lord, enhance me in my knowledge), which, down the years, has been copied by countless schools and colleges all over the country as their emblem.
The Englishman everyone remembers
Any old student of Islamia College Peshawar, who was at the college during the 1950s and 60s, if asked who he remembers the most from among their teachers, would invariably name an Englishman, other than Dean Saab.
His name was Hubert Michael Close or H. M. Close or simply Close for his students and colleagues. After graduating from Cambridge, Close went to teach English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, in 1937. However, his teaching career was interrupted by World War II when he joined the army and ended up in Cyprus and other Mediterranean islands commanding a Pathan Company.
At the end of the war, Close went back to St. Stephen’s and then, after the Partition, migrated to Pakistan, and took up teaching English at Islamia College Peshawar.
In his book, A Pathan Company, published in 1993, Close warmly describes his “boys” in B Company that he commanded, admiring their sturdiness, simplicity of habits, sincerity, and loyalty to their commander. It was probably his affection for young Pathan soldiers of his Company that motivated him to move to Peshawar.
I first saw Close when I entered college and was allotted Room 52 in Hardinge hostel, a room I shared with three other students: Ayub Kundi from D.I.Khan, Sahibzada Ayaz from Mansehra and Mian Jameel from Peshawar. Close also lived in Hardinge hostel, in a one-bedroom apartment immediately above our room. Because of our proximity to his apartment, we often saw him going or coming to and from his apartment and, in the process, developed more than a nodding acquaintance with him.
I remember him as a lean man of medium height, probably in his forties, with a ruddy complexion, thinning brown hair, small penetrating eyes, and a rather shy demeanor.
In the early years of Pakistan, an elementary military training, called Compulsory Military Training, or CMT for short, was introduced in the college. All first-year students had to undergo CMT for three months. Close, with his army background, was a natural choice to head the CMT, and he plunged himself into the task with passion. At daybreak, he would blow a whistle to pull the students out of their beds, sometimes literally, make them change into the prescribed uniform — shorts, shirt and what we called PT shoes — then, after a few drills, take them on a run-and-crawl routine all the way to Jamrud and back, a distance of 4 miles either way.
CMT came to be synonymous with Close, and students jokingly called it Close Military Training. He demanded and instilled a discipline, which the students, mostly coming from the rural areas of the province, were not used to. Not many relished it, but every one of the old students you talk to remembers the rigors of CMT fondly.
Donating blood was another of Close’s passions. He not only donated blood himself, repeatedly but also encouraged students to donate blood to Lady Reading Hospital, the only public hospital in the city at the time. He would go round the campus looking for potential donors, talk to them, befriend them, cajole them — almost compel them — and ultimately lead them to Lady Reading Hospital. Without Close’s efforts, the blood bank at the Lady Reading Hospital probably could not have remained solvent.
During summer vacations, Close would lead teams of students on anti-malaria campaigns (another of his passions) in the remote villages of Hazara, where they would go from village to village, spraying houses, cowsheds and ponds of stagnant water with insecticides. Those campaigns not only helped save villagers from the ravages of malaria, but also helped the students gain an insight into the life of ordinary village folk, and inspired some to explore the surrounding mountains at the end of their social work projects. I remember a hiking trip when, at the end of an anti-malaria campaign in Balakot and the surrounding villages, a group of five of us climbed Musa ka Musalla, a 14,000 feet high peak in the Himalayas. We didn’t quite make it to the peak, but it was and remains until today the greatest adventure of my life.
The quickest way to get into Close’s good books was to either donate blood or join his summer social work campaigns, or better still, do both.
A lifelong bachelor, Close lived a Spartan life. During the summers he was usually seen in a white shirt and khaki trousers, and in winters in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.
Close was also a biking buff. I don’t ever remember seeing him travel by the college bus or a car. He always rode his Raleigh bicycle, his khaki trousers clamped at the ankles, going round the campus, whistling a tune and taking in the sweet fragrance of bitter-orange blossoms that filled the campus air in March and April.
During the month of Ramzan, Close would get up at sehri along with everyone else and would fast until the iftar, because of which students, jokingly, referred to him as Hafiz or Haji M. Close, playing on his initials. On Sundays, he would ride his bicycle to the city to attend a church service, a 5-mile ride either way. He was a religious man.
Other than social work, Close’s pursuit of happiness included smoking a pipe and listening to Western classical music. We could trace his movements to and from his apartment by the fragrant trail of the pipe smoke he left behind him. Occasionally, when we went upstairs to his apartment to ask something and found the door to his living room half ajar, we would see him humming along with his gramophone, vigorously chopping the air with his hands as if he were conducting the symphony he was listening to. This was our introduction to Western classical music.
Close is remembered today by his students for not what he taught in the classroom but mostly for what he taught outside it: Discipline, compassion, social work and adventure — and to us, in Room 52 of Hardinge hostel, the names of Beethoven and Mozart and the sound of their music.
Close remained at Islamia College until his retirement and then moved to Edwardes College and remained there until his death, in 1999. According to his wish, he was buried in England.
The ‘Maulana’ We Miss
In Islamia College Peshawar, the religious instruction, or what was then called deeniyat, was limited to a weekly, hour-long class that was held in the college mosque. Nurul Haq Nadvi, popularly known as Dean Saab or Dean Seb, for he was the dean of the Faculty of Theology, taught this class.
Older college alumni may not remember many of their teachers, but everyone you talk to would not only remember Dean Saab but fondly tell you a story or two about him.
Unlike the present-day clerics who usually wear exotic attire, long beards, a stern, and sanctimonious expression, Dean Saab wore a well-tailored sherwani, a grey karakul cap, a tidy beard, and an easy smile. In the afternoons, he was seen on tennis courts, in a white shirt and trousers (the standard tennis wear those days), playing tennis.
Other than receiving his formal religious education in Nadva, Lakhnow, Dean Saab had also spent time at Jamia al-Azhar, in Egypt. His sermons were not the usual fire and brimstone we hear from loudspeakers these days. They were mostly about ikhlaqiyat — good conduct and manners. He talked more about life in this world than the hereafter. He never discussed any divisive religious issues.
Dean Saab had an impish sense of humor. He observed students, both on and off-campus, and then used his observations as examples to talk about social niceties and manners in his deeniyat class. His ‘advisories’ generally came as digressions from the main lecture. They were blunt but laced with humor.
Once, during an inspection tour of a hostel (a weekly routine carried out by different faculty members to check the orderliness of the rooms) he noticed that some students had their portraits hung in their rooms or displayed on their bedside tables. In the next lecture, he digressed to talk about narcissism. Sensing that the students did not understand a nuanced message, he summed it up thus: “Displaying your own portrait on the wall makes your room look like a naai ki dukaan, a barbershop.” Everyone understood that, and many, if not all, portraits came off the walls and bedside tables in the dormitories.
Of course, Dean Saab also talked about Islam, its history and the importance of some of the religious rituals, but his lectures were most interesting when he digressed, which he often did, and talked of day-to-day human behavior. We always looked forward to those digressions.
One morning, a first-year student walked into Dean Saab’s class wearing shorts. It was right after the physical training class in the morning and the student hadn’t had enough time to change into the regular college uniform. Also, he was new to the college — and had an English mother, which was probably why he was not fully aware of the cultural sensitivities. Dean Saab gave him a quizzical look and said, in Pashto: “Bachiya, za nan sta chhutti da, o bia uniform ke raza.” (Son, take the day off, and next time come in college uniform.) There was no admonition, only helpful advice in a bemused tone. The boy understood and left, and Dean Saab returned to the class with this nugget: “Bare legs can be distracting”. The class burst into laughter.
We went to Dean Saab’s class for such impish ‘nuggets’, not for angry sermons.
The College Turban Unravelled
Along with the black sherwani and white shalwar, which continue to be the college uniform even today, the Fez, or Rumi cap as it was then called, was also introduced as the headwear in the very early years of the college. As a concession to the local customs, it was later replaced with the Peshawari turban (kulla or patkai) But the kullah didn’t last long and was discarded in favor of no particular headwear. One probable reason for giving up the turban was that it didn’t sit too well on 16–18-year-old freshmen, especially those who were a bit too skinny. The other reason was more interesting and requires a bit of explanation.
Soon after breakfast and before the college started, a “dress parade” (that is what it was called) was held in all the hostels. At the sound of the bell, boarders would stream out of their rooms, line up in the hostel courtyard, dressed up in sherwani and shalwar, black shoes or chaplis and, of course, the turban. First, there would be a roll call to ensure that everyone was present, followed by “inspection”. The hostel superintendent or the senior monitor walked past each student to see if he was properly dressed, sherwani buttoned-up, its collar hooked — no azarband dangling loose — shoes shined, and the turban sitting properly on the head.
Ditching the “dress parade” or turning up improperly dressed was considered a near felony and the culprit fined.
Students couldn’t help pulling pranks on each other. At the sound of the bell when everyone was rushing out of their rooms to join the “dress parade”, one tug at the tail of someone’s turban was enough to unravel it. Those who have ever worn a turban would know that tying up a turban is not as simple as buttoning up a jacket or tying up shoelaces. It takes some skill and time. The student whose turban came undone at the last minute would end up missing the parade and being fined. And this happened not infrequently.
Some students kept an extra turban, like a spare tire of a car, as insurance against such mishaps. If one came loose the “victim” would quickly don the other, and rush to join the parade. But the “victims” were not always amused, and sometimes reacted rather inelegantly. So, the legend has it, the college administration decided to abandon the turban altogether, to the relief of the later generations, including mine. End