I REMEMBER the wooden floor. It makes sense, as little children are closer to the floor, and I was at the time just that. It was my first foray into the world, my first time without my mother, without my twin brother and it began at the Mama Parsi Girls’ Secondary School. I don’t remember the first day, or anything that I said or did; I remember only the loud sound my very new shoes made on the floor of that classroom. The teacher, the same one who had taught my mother, seemed very far away at the head of the classroom.
This past April 1, 2018, my school, the Mama Parsi Girls Secondary School, turned 100 years old. It is a wondrous thing, in this era of short-lived everything and anything, to reach such a ripe old age without, as it were, having sacrificed the principles of the original. Schools come and go; what exists for one generation, even one sibling, is long gone before the other gets there; the houses and buildings where they were once housed taken up by newer and ever newer tenants. Karachi is a city of the speedy, of the now, and schools are not an exception.
Mama Parsi, founded in 1918 by Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, has persevered, endured, as two countries were cleaved from one, and then once more from the portion allotted to Pakistan. It has survived military dictators and democratic transitions, curfews and ethnic cleansing, through a new millennium until now and its centenary. The motto of the school ‘Let humility, charity, faith, and labour light our path’, was emblazoned on every blue notebook I ever used for school, and that cultivated a characteristic humility that was evident even in the celebrations last week.
The Mama Parsi Girls School, that turned 100 this month, has managed to create an environment of equality.
Simple and sedate, a cake in white and blue, and flowers for every student along with prayer and reflection, were the materials of the commemoration. In an era in which the grand and sensational are the order of the day, and even schools, particularly those for the better off, compete in offerings that tempt rather than educate (one school near my house routinely hosts very loud musical celebrations that seem to last quite late into the night), such equanimity is not the norm.
But that was never the Mama Parsi way, not when I attended and not when my mother did. We, differing in height and background and religion and sect, speaking different languages at home, eating different food at recess, were the same within the halls of the school, guided by the same rules, applied with the same severity.
There were of a lot of rules. There were rules that mandated how and in what order we would stand in line at assembly, how the gates of the school would close exactly at 8:05 and how even a moment of lateness, even a single misplaced or absent article of uniform, would land us in trouble, with huge subtractions from the marks we had earned that month.
Some, like the rules against henna (no exceptions ever), were much resented, particularly when chand raat came around and every single person in the family, except the Mama School student, got to have beautiful designs on their palms. Nail polish, earrings (save simple gold or silver studs), long nails, any hair accessories that were not black were also banned.
Childhood memories are inevitably inflected with rosy hues which dull the edges and file away any past pain. It is easy to explain away the annoying teacher, the tedious lecture and the unfair blame allotted after the Class VII sports day or the Class IV party. That may well be true about what I have to say about this school, and the gratitude I have both to the institution and to the teachers (Ms Tahir and Ms Romer) and the principal (Mrs Mavalwala) who first encouraged me to write and who handed me my very first prizes for being the best writer. It is also true that early praise is lifelong praise, particularly when it comes from teachers who are not, like parents, inherently biased. It is entirely true that you would not be reading these words in this newspaper were it not for these women.
Pakistan is a country based on difference; in the years since independence, we remain besotted and beleaguered by it, our difference dictating so much of what happens, who wins and who loses. Differences of class, differences of sect, differences of sub-sect, differences between geographic origin, linguistic distinction along with differences of just about any and all sorts are the basis on which we sort and sift, allot suffering and distinction.
Within this milieu, the Mama Parsi Girls School managed to create an environment of sameness and similarity, where merit was not based on the kind of car in which you drove to school or the powerful people you counted as cousins or whether you were the majority or the minority but rather on how hard you worked, how much you tried, how committed you were to intellectual excellence.
Within its halls, we were, as children should be, always simply children, bound by the same rules, judged by the same criteria and rewarded accordingly. As an all girls’ school, men, the lords and masters of so much else in Pakistan, were kept out, and as a consequence, every girl was taught that any girl who tried could excel, should excel, in any and every subject, in sport and extracurricular activity.
More of Pakistan needs that ethic, the belief in simplicity of form and primacy of merit, in the ability of our similarities transcending our differences. It is as easy as ever to discard all of these ideals as impossible and unreachable, but within the walls of one school in the very heart of Karachi’s Saddar area they are and have been realities for 100 years.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2018