Years before Nusrat Bhutto arrives in state to admit Pinky and Sanam at the Murree Convent, the century-old boarding school welcomes another VIP boarder.
Princess Nasim Aurangzeb, daughter of then president General Ayub, disembarks at the entrance of Convent of Jesus & Mary, in a black Chevy with the presidential insignia shining bright on the limousine’s front mudguard. Like a queen, the beautiful wife of Prince Aurangzeb, eldest son of the Wali of Swat, climbs up the stairs and sweeps her little girl in her arms as Ishrat runs towards her mother. Hugs and kisses later, the presidential limousine snakes its way out of the gates of the Convent. The grand spectacle is over. We wait for the return of mother and daughter the next day.
When Sunday comes it brings howls and screams. As the day ends, parents appear to deposit their daughters back to the school, including the president’s daughter. Leaning against the rails of life, we watch the tear-filled parting. It’s bittersweet for us who wait for no one to come and take us. Soon, the parents depart but the sobs of the little ones left behind continue. Like big sisters, we step in to comfort them. Soon the gong sounds. We jump into lines like clockwork clowns. ‘Fatty’ the chef passes the food around. I don’t remember what it is. Earlier in the morning, the ‘tuck shop’ opens from where we can buy our toffee with our pocket money. That done, one of the nuns puts on music to which we jive, cha-cha, or do the twist. These two activities are all one can look forward to every Sunday. The rest is downhill (literally and figuratively).
As autumn comes carrying along a wind chill and sad skies, my aged grandparents who prefer staying back long after summer leaves, invite me to spend Sundays with them. It’s like a ‘get out of jail free’ pass. It’s a delight to be with them. Soon the shadows begin to lengthen and whistling of the pines sound a mournful dirge; I know it’s time for me to leave. From the deserted chakkar on Pindi Point road, we descend through thorny bushes of wild strawberry and simlu (purple berries) until we reach the rear end of the school that I have come to dread.
Even today Zulekha Bibi, our chowikidarni reminds me how I would sob uncontrollably from our family’s summer home to the Convent. The 30-minute-foot-dragging stroll seemed like a walk to death row as Zulekha gently chastened: “Babyji pick up speed otherwise we’ll be late and you’ll get punished.” So ends another Sunday.
As a struggling student of Junior Cambridge, I find studies difficult. Sister Berchmans, a rigid Irish nun, often chides me in class. ‘Why are nuns so hard-hearted’ I wonder while playing the victim and crying myself to sleep each night in our dormitory. I am not the only one with sniffles in the dark… stifled sobs come floating from other beds too.
Tehmina Durrani’s experience is the opposite. She writes in My Feudal Lord: “I developed a close relationship with the nuns at school and often in times of despair during my marriage, I would find myself crying for them. Mother Andrews and Mother Berchmans were often in my thoughts. I knew why they were called ‘mothers’...”
Down in the dumps, the girl who cheers me is my classmate Nazli Jamil. Smart, chirpy and very confident, I secretly wish I were like her. Nazli married Naeemul Haque, Imran Khan’s trusted deputy. She passed away some years ago after losing a battle with cancer.
Our housemistress, a Pakistani-Christian called Sister Clotilda is a kindly soul. We don’t mind her nagging about our personal hygiene. Her smile lights up our mornings, only to be dampened by the coldness of the Irish nuns. On hindsight, one can’t fault the nuns for being strict disciplinarians. After all, our parents packed us off to the Convent to excel in studies and sports in a regimented boarding school environment. For them it was the closest to a finishing school in Switzerland sans the airs and graces taught to girls in order to bag eligible husbands. Murree’s CJM prides in getting the best Senior Cambridge (O’Levels) results in the country, hence Sister Berchmans’ ‘slave-driving.’ (As an outstanding educationist for 50 years, she received the Sitara-i-Quaid-e-Azam in 2012)
Lala Shah’s book Mystique of Murree cites the school’s founder Saint Claudine Thévenet, whose philosophy was: ‘Let us so form these children that they may become serious minded, well balanced, home-loving women that they may cast their blessing in every home they enter.’
For the weak kneed, lily livered like me, the Convent is neither conducive for studies nor a life worth pursuing. Getting admission is considered a passport to everlasting happiness. When my acceptance letter arrived, I could not sleep with excitement for days because I wanted to be free of my family to lead an independent life.
“When I was ten and Sanam seven,” writes Benazir in her book Daughter of the East, “we were sent north to a boarding school in the pine covered former British hill station of Murree. Our governess had given very short notice and was returning to England. Boarding school seemed the quick solution and my father was in favour of it, thinking the experience would toughen us up. For the first time, I had to make my own bed, polish my shoes, carry water for bathing and tooth brushing back and forth from the water taps in the corridors.
“‘Treat my children like the others,’ my father [who was the foreign minister then] had told the nuns. And they certainly did, laying the brush on Sunny and me for any infringement of the strict rules.”
Benazir was Sister Berchmans’ ‘pet’ according to an interview where the nun is all praise for her young student who came to J&M in 1964.
“I remember Benazir and Sanam as two delightful, highly intelligent, fun loving little girls whose gentle temperament endeared them to all those who dealt with them. Benazir was a lovely, quiet, gentle, serious child, but also very fun loving… I also remember her mother coming as chief guest to the Parents’ Day. Benazir received various academic prizes because she was very intelligent.”
But for yours truly, it was a dream gone sour. My parents, who lived in Rawalpindi, suddenly took off for Lahore when my father got his transfer orders. The long-distance separation is unbearable. As a loner, I felt physically close to them each chilly evening, standing on the edge of the hill watching the twinkling lights of Pindi in the distance.
I send an SOS to them in Lahore. I have to be rescued.
Unable to convey my misery, since the only mode of communication is via mail, I panic. The mail is censored, both outgoing and incoming. My letters to my mother contain no tears; only dutiful details of my studies. Her letters are equally sanitised since she knows they are opened and read before they reach me.
Getting out of the Convent is as difficult as getting in. One had heard stories of girls and boys running away from boarding schools. I can imagine why.
Meanwhile, winter is waiting to descend. When we go to play down in the field each evening, our only entertainment is to ‘spy’ on our English teacher, the lovely Miss May Flannigan and the affable Father Burns, principal of Saint Mary’s School for boys in Pindi whenever we spot his car parked before Miss Flanagan’s flat. Weaving a web of imaginary love around the two figures our young imaginations, fertile and raw, run wild.
A letter from my parents to Mother Superior requesting my discharge is the happiest day of my life. — Anjum Niaz