COLOMBO: A 73-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil, presently living in Colombo, proudly remembers that he had taught Yousuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister of Pakistan, way back in the 1960s at the La Salle High School in Multan.
Bro. Emmanuel Nicholas, who belongs to the teaching order of De La Salle Christian Brothers, was barely 27 when he was asked to go to Pakistan, a country he knew nothing about, to teach high school-level mathematics and science at La Salle, Multan.
Fortunately, he was not going to be a total stranger there. The school had been founded by Brothers from Sri Lanka and its principal at that time was a Sri Lankan, Bro. Oliver Gladstone.
And on the staff was another Sri Lankan, Bro. Raymond.
“I came to know Gilani in the very first year of my service in 1966. I was teaching Grade 9 at that time, and Gilani was one of my students.
I remember him as a pleasant young man who was also very hard working. My association with him continued into Grade 10 because I too moved toGrade 10 the next year,” Bro. Emmanuel recalled.
He ventured to suggest that Gilani’s stint at La Salle would have helped him rise to Pakistan’s political pinnacle – the office of prime minister.
“La Salle schools inculcate values like tolerance and brotherhood, the feeling that despite differences of various kinds, we are all human beings. I’m sure young Gilani imbibed these values while he was at La Salle, Multan. Today, he is leading Pakistan, forging unity, overcoming anger and hatred,” Bro. Emmanuel said.
The Sri Lankan educator counted former President Ziaul Haq as a ‘close friend’. In the mid-sixties, Zia was in Multan, as colonel in the Ist Armoured Regiment stationed there.
“One day, Zia asked me if I could coach his son, Anwar, in Maths and Science. I coached the boy, and Anwar went on to become a doctor,” Bro. Emmanuel said with a touch of pride.
Seeing the need for some physical training for his students, he asked Zia if a few army men could be sent to the school to conduct PT classes. “To my astonishment, the very next day, a truck-load of soldiers arrived.
‘‘And when I was wondering how to pay for their services, Zia asked me not to worry because the service was absolutely free! He also said that I could stop the training any time I wanted. He was indeed a wonderful man,” Bro. Emmanuel said effusively.
In the Outback
The La Salle High School was comfortable. But as a De La Salle Brother, his mission in life was to educate the poorest of the poor in the urban slums and rural outbacks and not to be in a cushy job in comfortable surroundings.
Opportunity to do such work knocked at Bro. Emmanuel’s door when St. Vincent’s school, located in the poverty-stricken village of Mianchennu on the Multan-Lahore road, wanted a principal. Mianchennu was a Christian village of about 600 families who were under the care of the Salvation Army, and the school itself was meant for Christians converted from the depressed Chura (scavenger) caste.
“Conditions in Mianchennu were harsh,” Bro. Emmanuel said. “It was hot in the summer. And sandstorms would hit it frequently. The winter months were very cold. Electricity breakdowns were frequent. There was no entertainment of any kind.”
In the early months, language too was a problem, as he could no longer teach in English, and he knew no Urdu. However, the biggest challenge was to get government recognition for the school in a socio-political context in which Christian-run schools found it difficult to get recognition.
“The Inspector of Schools in Multan was Allama Shabir Bukhari, a strict disciplinarian upholding Islamic values. My interaction with Bukhari turned out to be a one-way street with the man giving me a two-hour lecture on how to run a school. I wisely chose to listen to him without interruption as if I was in a classroom. I took out a notebook and started taking copious notes. I then went back and did everything he told me. And presto, the school was recognised!” Bro. Emmanuel said with the glee of a mischievous child.
While teaching at Mianchennu, Bro. Emmanuel encountered religious and caste prejudices which were rampant in rural Pakistan at that time.
Recounting a particularly frightening incident, he said: “A bus-load of teachers, including me and a couple of sisters, were returning from an outing. At night the bus broke down and we stopped at a village to have tea. As the cups of tea came, I asked the shopkeeper to serve the lady teachers who were sitting in the bus. When he went into the bus and saw the sisters in their habit, he was shocked. He came down and angrily asked why I did not reveal that we were Christians! He then demanded payment for the cups also, because the cups had been defiled and could not be used again!”
Explaining, Bro. Emmanuel said that many Christians in Pakistan were from the Chura caste, a community of former untouchables and scavengers.
“The threatening posture of the locals notwithstanding, I refused to pay. My colleagues urged me to pay up and leave. But I refused. I told them firmly that they should stand up for their rights.
We went to the police station and sought the inspector’s arbitration. But to my dismay, the inspector also took the side of the locals, further frightening my staff. But when I started speaking in English and threatened to tell the press the next day, the inspector caved in, and asked the locals to disperse. I made no extra payment,” Bro. Emmanuel said triumphantly.
The teacher had lost touch with Yousuf Gilani after he moved to St. Vincent’s in 1968. And in 1979, he left Pakistan itself. But the 15th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation held in Colombo in 2008, brought Pakistan and Gilani back into Bro.
Emmanuel’s life. Gilani had become prime minister in March 2008, and was to attend the summit in Colombo in August.
“I wrote to the Pakistan High Commissioner here seeking an appointment with Gilani. To my astonishment, Gilani himself called me and asked me to come over to Hilton Hotel in a car he would send. I was driven through layers and layers of security and taken to the suite where Gilani was with an array of officials. He introduced me to the officials, saying that I was a very strict teacher! We had a long chat during which he inquired about all the Brothers who taught him.”
Gilani did not stop with a chat with his Sri Lankan Guru. Come 2011, he recommended to President Asif Ali Zardari that Bro. Emmanuel be given the Tamgha-i-Pakistan (Medal of Pakistan) for the services he had rendered to the uplift of the poor in Pakistan.
The medal was awarded to him on March 23 this year, at the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo.