The Boardinghouse I ‘Ran Away’ From

Craving for food all the time and having to live under a constant threat of violence by the superintendent, I found it difficult to settle down.

Illustration by Atiya Nadeem

ur school, in Mansehra, had an English-sounding name — Bolton High School. But there was nothing English about it except its colonial architecture — sloping roofs covered with corrugated galvanized sheets, a continuous veranda, dressed-stone walls, and large glass-paned windows. And, yes, a boardinghouse, too.

But the boardinghouse belonged more to the world of Charles Dickens than to that of Norman Horatio Bolton’s, the chief executive of the Frontier province who had established the school, in 1926.

The boardinghouse was a small building, removed from the main school building by a volleyball court. It consisted of three large rooms, a superintendent’s room in the middle, and a detached kitchen at the back. The rooms were numbered 1, 2, and 3, each housing about 10 students. I was one of the 30 odd boarders enrolled in the school in class 7.

No one explained to me the rules of the boardinghouse if there were any. Yes, there were rules, which I discovered as we went along, or when we broke one and faced the wrath of the superintendent.

While the boardinghouse provided us food and shelter, for which we paid, we were required to bring our own bedding and charpaai (cot). Yes, a charpaai, too, and a laaltain (lantern). Electricity hadn’t come to the school yet.

And, of course, everyone had his own tin trunk, which served as storage, a wardrobe, and a safe. I was allotted a spot in Room №3, which housed junior students.

What I remember most about my brief stay in the boardinghouse is being hungry. The quality and quantity of the food we received left us craving for something to eat all the time. Like other boarders, I, too, supplemented my food supply with homemade kulchas, pakwaans, and other stuff that my mother made so lovingly for me to take away when I visited home over the weekends. But that didn’t help much. And the cookies often got stolen. My two senior cousins, Rashid and Salim in Room №1, knew exactly where I kept them.

A bell would announce the mealtime and we would rush to the kitchen, a smoky makeshift structure built away from at the back of the boardinghouse. We would pick up a metal plate from a heap of plates and crowd around Gul Baba, the cook, who presided over a cauldron sitting over a large hearth of burning coals.

Gul Baba, probably in his 50s, wore a pakol cap, grey beard, and a cheerful expression. It was probably because of his grey beard everyone called him Baba, meaning a bearded old man. We all liked him because he was not only the food giver but also because of his friendly nature.

We would elbow our way to inch closer to Gul Baba to be served first just as chicks wiggle their way around a feeder. Gul Baba would ladle out of the cauldron whatever he had cooked for the day into our plates.​We would carry the plates to the dining room, holding them with both hands, and walking carefully over the uneven ground between the kitchen and the dining room so as not to spill the contents.

The dining room was actually a side veranda of the boardinghouse, screened off by a jafri — a wooden lattice. A few narrow tables placed alongside each other made for one long dining table, with wooden benches set around it. We took our seats at the dining table and waited for Manu Kaka to hand us our ration of two loaves of flatbread, naan.

Maanu Kaka was a younger man, younger than Gul Baba, that is. He, too, wore a pakol and a beard, but his beard was mostly black, which earned him the honorific Kaka (uncle) instead of Baba. While we ate, Manu Kaka stood by with a bucket of water and a few metal tumblers to hand out water around the table. He was also a cheerful man and seemed to enjoy his job. Actually, he had other jobs, too, besides dispensing naans and water around the dining table.

Manu Kaka also dispensed kerosene oil once a week for our laaltains. On the appointed day, in the evening, he would ring a handbell, and we would rush to the appointed place behind the superintendent’s room carrying our laltains. Manu Kaka would bring out a tin canister of kerosene oil from the superintendent’s room, set it on the ground, break open the round seal on its top, opening a hole, insert a hand-operated tin contraption that looked somewhat like a bicycle pump, and siphon out the oil to pour it into each laltain with the help of a funnel.

As Manu Kaka cranked out the oil, we sat around him on our haunches keenly watching the procedure, fascinated by the scientific marvel — the pump — that made the oil travel up the height of the canister into our laltains. At a young age and those times, the tin pump and the technology involved in sucking the oil out of the tin canister looked awesome.

Manu Kaka had one more job, not related to the boardinghouse, and not included in his official job description. It was looking after the headmaster’s buffalo. We often saw him, from our classroom windows, carrying a stick, and following the buffalo grazing in the grassy plots around the school. He would use the stick to prod the buffalo away from other people’s fields.

Presiding over the establishment of the boardinghouse was Sahib Shah Master. We always used the title “Master” at the end of his name rather than in the beginning as we normally did with the names of other teachers, probably because it rolled off the tongue more easily.

Sahib Shah Master was a rotund man with a thick, black, flowing beard. (It seemed as though beard was mandatory for the boardinghouse establishment.) He wore a kulla ( hard turban) and a stern expression. He always seemed angry at someone or something.

He was angry if he thought we made too much noise. He was angry if we went to the bazaar after school, which to him was a sure sign of us going morally astray. He was angry if we gave our laundry to the dhobi. To him, that was an extravagance. He expected us to take our laundry home over the weekends or wash it ourselves. Worse, Sahib Shah Master was a raging bull when we failed to get up for fajar prayers. He would storm into each room just before daybreak, when slumber at that young age is sweetest and deepest, shouting and brandishing a stick. He wouldn’t hesitate to use the stick if anyone took too long to jump out of the bed.

Before we retired to our rooms at night, there would be a roll call. We assembled in the courtyard standing in a semicircle facing Sahib Shah Master who sat on a chair. The monitor, one of the senior students, stood next to him holding a laaltain for Sahib Shah Master to read the names from the register. After the roll call, he would announce the “felonies” committed by any of the boarders that day and ask the “culprit” to step forward and explain his position. Regardless of the explanation — plausible or not — Sahib Shah Master would get up from his chair and, with a long, flexible, thin stick — more of a whip — hit the accused at his ankles. One, two, three, or more times, depending on the severity of the “crime”. While the victim yelped and jumped in pain, Sahib Shah Master had a vicious smile on his face, and the rest of us watched the spectacle in silence, terrified.

Craving for food all the time and having to live under a constant threat of violence by Sahib Shah Master, I found it difficult to settle down and missed home.

One Saturday, on a long weekend, I packed my stuff — trunk, bedding, laaltain, and the charpai — yes, the charpaai, too — and left. I don’t remember how, but I did manage to cart all my stuff to the bus stop and boarded a bus to my home, 19 miles away.

Illustration by Atiya Nadeem

I hadn’t informed anyone at the boardinghouse that I was going home for the weekend. I didn’t know if it was required. Nor did I know that I was not supposed to take my charpaai and bedding with me when I went away for a long weekend. I was just being careful with my belongings.

My father was surprised to see me back with all my stuff, but my mother’s face lit up with delight. She greeted me with her usual “Wow! My Aziz is here.”, and started feasting me almost immediately. I ate greedily for the next two days, at breakfast, lunch, and supper — and in between. I wished the weekend would last forever. But it didn’t. I had to go back to the boardinghouse on Monday, with all the stuff that I had lugged home.

I felt miserable at the thought of returning to the boardinghouse. Even a bagful of fresh homemade cookies couldn’t lighten my mood. Father accompanied me to the bus stop, and we waited for the bus. I wished the bus wouldn’t come. I hate to confess I even quietly prayed for the bus to fall in a ditch. But the bus came, on time, and I boarded it.

My roommates, assuming that I had fled the school, were astonished to see me back. They looked at me as if I were a runaway prisoner returning voluntarily to my cell. Right away, I was ushered into Sahib Shah Master’s office.

I was terrified. “Why did you run away?” Sahib Shah Master thundered. I told him as convincingly as a frightened 12-year old could that I hadn’t run away but had gone home just for the weekend, and that I didn’t know I was supposed to ask for permission before leaving. I also explained that I had taken the charpai with me because I was afraid it might be stolen.

For some mysterious reason, Sahib Shah Master didn’t bring out the stick. He simply dismissed me with a warning never to leave the boardinghouse again without permission. “Never!” I think he had read the panic in my eyes and didn’t want to make it worse, or perhaps my terrified appearance touched a soft spot somewhere in the deep recesses of his heart that we hadn’t known. Or, more likely, in his book, going home without permission was not as big a crime as loitering in the bazaar — or not getting up for the fajr prayer.

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