HARKING BACK: Victoria School and a walk through four eras

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Jan 25, 2015

If you enter Mori Gate and walk about a hundred yards, you pass on the left the now dilapidated Moti Haveli, an exquisite Sikh era building. Take the first ‘gali’ to the left and you are in Kucha Darzian. A right turn and you are in the courtyard of Haveli Nau Nihal Singh.

This beautiful ‘haveli’ once housed, for a very brief period, the young ‘hotspur’ grandson of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who was maharajah of the Punjab for a few hours. He died in a mysterious accident, some say killed, within a few minutes of ascending the throne.

The British converted it into a school for girls, and appropriate to that age named it Victoria School. Last Sunday I went to see this old school where my grandmother Syeda Begum taught starting 1921. So it was a sentimental trip of sorts.

I asked around and discovered from a ‘chowkidar’ that the oldest living school teacher, now a retired lady in her nineties, a Razia Begum, lived in nearby Bhati Gate in her old house in ‘Khajoor Gali’.

I had a fair idea where it was and went in search of the old lady to see if she knew my grandmother. A shopkeeper in the ‘gali’ when asked about an old schoolteacher of Victoria School lit up: “You mean Apa Jee”. Well, I suppose so, I blurted. “She is an angel in human form. Let me take you there myself”, he said with delight.

So we walked into a side lane and a small house with a blue door was her house. He knocked and stood there. A young boy opened the door and the helpful shopkeeper gleefully said: “Apa Jee has a special guest, go tell her”. The boy ran inside and soon an elderly lady came and asked me, with a broad smile, just how I knew her mother.

My response was that I was searching for some colleague of my grandmother who taught at Victoria School. From then on it was easy sailing.

I sat down on a ‘takht’ with a thick mattress and in came a bent old lady and quietly sat down opposite me. She adjusted her round spectacles and gave me a good look, and then firmly said; “Toun Hamid Jan da putttar hain?” I happily shook my head, for I knew I had found a rare species, a schoolteacher of Victoria School who had taught with my grandmother and knew exactly who I was.

She got up and took my head in her knotty old hands and kissed my forehead. She then sat down and said: “Syeda Bibi daddee see, dukh barray waykay, ustani sub toon changi, naik aurat tay bari aimandar” (Syeda Bibi was very strict, saw a lot of tragedy in her life, was the best teacher and was exceptionally honest). It was clear she knew the old woman very well.

She described the old school in detail and how she went to school from this very house in a ‘doli’ every day. She laughed and said that like the schools of today where cars line up, at our school hundreds of ‘doliwallay’ stood outside when school closed and teachers and students went home in their own ‘dolis’. I imagined the sight this must have been. Probably the students of today would never understand that age almost 100 years ago and the quantum change that has taken place.

We talked over tea about the school, her family, what Syeda Begum used to do and then I asked her what was wrong with education today. She was forthright: “First is the curse of tuitions, and this is because parents are not putting in enough effort, and if parents are illiterate the school teachers are not doing justice to their students”.

She was clear-headed about what was wrong. Then with a pause she went on: “Partition destroyed the very soul of Lahore. Now we have Afghan invaders again like they came before the Sikhs, and they will spread illiteracy and lust for money”.

Her daughter interrupted, looking embarrassed, and said: “Amma Jee often does not know what to say. I apologise for she is too old”. I immediately put her at ease by saying that what she is saying absolutely correct for she has an amazing grasp of the real situation. Everyone looked surprised.

The old lady was delighted and said: “He is the ‘asli’ grandson of Syeda Bibi, now I am sure”. I smiled at the compliment while everyone else probably thought both me and Amma Jee were crazy.

It was a very interesting session, for here were four generations who had grown up in four different eras. Each had a very different perspective of what was wrong with education and Lahore.

The good thing is that because Amma Jee was educated, her entire family was educated, with one great grandson of a Victoria School teacher is now studying on a scholarship at MIT in the USA.

If anything, for me, this family represented the power of education among females. For that matter even the great granddaughters of Syeda Begum of Victoria School had made it to Oxford and Cambridge.

In this lies the positive lesson for those who bomb girl’s schools in our dear country, more so there are a lot of lessons to be drawn by our rulers, for on a per capita basis Pakistan invests the least among the 219 countries of the world on female education. What ails our country is because of this disinterest in education. Even Mr Jinnah wanted a fifth of our national wealth spent on educating the poor.

After this amazing meeting I walked back to Victoria School and stood outside looking at this magnificent ‘haveli’ and the amazing history that it holds. It would make great sense for our younger generation to visit this school, learn about the ‘haveli’ and its history and try to meet its teachers and students. It will be, for a lot of students, a return to their roots.



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