Most people remember their childhood for the tales from the land far away, teachers that always seemed too strict, good old grandmas and grandpas, and the proverbial kaghaz ki kashti and baarish ka pani. For Professor Anita Ghulam Ali, childhood personified the menagerie of sorts that her family possessed.
“Our house in Garden East, Karachi, was full of animals. We had chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and, of course, dogs. Since we had a Victoria carriage we also had horses,” she recalls.
“We kept two otters as well in a big tank — Tommy and Lommy, we used to call them. They loved to frolic, and loved our company but at night, when alone, they used to cry like babies. Ultimately we had to give them away to the zoological garden. They were put in a tank with other otters, and I remember, we liked to pretend that we recognised our otters on our visits to the zoo.”
Ironically, for someone so closely associated with the education sector for decades, school was nothing less than drudgery for Ali. Riding to the school on donkeys was perhaps the only fun part, and with two servants and an aayah as escorts, this was Ali’s mode of commuting everyday. But that did not stop her from playing truant.
“Around noon, my friend, Austin Martin, and I used to leave school, climb on to the donkeys and have nice riding sessions,” she says, “By one o’clock, we would return to the school, because this was when lunch was served and our servant used to bring food from home. But the minute the servant left, we would leave the school again.”
Matters would have continued like this, had the absence not been spotted. Parents were called and complained to, and Ali was sent packing to live with her maternal grandmother in Panjgani, a hill station in Maharashtra, India in the Western Ghats.
“My grandmother had a beautiful house with acres and acres of gardens. She was part British and so was a very strict disciplinarian and my mother thought she would be a good influence on me. I went to St Joseph’s convent there which was pretty good, but I was never really interested in studies,” she reminisces.
In the ’50s Ali began working as an English newscaster at Radio Pakistan which she remained associated with for around two decades. She, along with Jahan Ara Saeed (who came from All India Radio), Anees Ghulam Ali, Khatija Naqvi, Aslam Azhar and Rizwan Wasti were household names, who took their job quite seriously. Reading news in those days required intensive training, coupled with determination, commitment and a mind sharp enough to spot errors.
“The organisation had arranged a tutor for us — one of the BBC newsreaders — who taught us pronunciation and diction among other things for six months. We also had an Englishman called Eric Warner, who used to read the news. Warner would sit outside the studio, and the minute we came out he would point out all the words we had mispronounced while reading the bulletin. The details included where to stop for a comma and where we had to emphasise on words. Nowadays when we hear the news we see the newsreaders emphasising certain words that we were told to play down. Any foreign name or phrase had to be pronounced correctly as well.”
Like every other form of communication, radio under Gen Ayub Khan’s regime was under strict surveillance. Copies were censored before they were read on air and an official was forever present to monitor the content.
“The night Ayub Khan’s martial law was announced, we were sitting at the radio station at three in the morning, when suddenly soldiers jumped in from the window with bayonets and stood behind us. They ordered us to stay in our places and not make any noise,” remembers Ali, “And then they cleared off all the papers on the table and threw them on the ground and ordered us to read from a paper which was the proclamation.”
In 1961 Ali began teaching microbiology at Sindh Muslim College. In those days, the college catered to just boys, and most of them belonged to the under-privileged class.
“The boys came from nearby places like Landhi, Malir and Lyari and the old bazaar. Some were working with their fathers, others were either sons of labourers or themselves labourers who worked at night in a factory and attended college in the morning. So one had to be really sensitive about a lot of issues; what they went through, the problems they used to face,” she says.
“One night around midnight, the police called to inform me that they had arrested one of my students, and that they were not accepting his bail. They had been in an accident. I went to the station to resolve the matter. However, the police refused to accept my bail since according to them a woman’s bail was not acceptable. Their argument was that when women are asked to appear in court, they refuse. Eventually I rattled off the conditions to sign a bail and assured them that I would be at the court.”
The students were just as protective. Ali recalls an incident when a uniformed policeman came to see her at the college for a personal favour. Since she was the president of the College Teachers’ Association at that time and was leading demonstrations and processions, the students thought that the police had come to arrest her.