I distinctly remember being smartly turned out at age six as I clutched my father’s finger while we ascended the ochre-pink staircase of the Principal’s residence at Aitchison College. My parents were palpably nervous. My father had his distinct furrowed brow and my mother, despite being dolled up, had spent the last week up in prayer reading all sorts of ayats and dums, daroods and giving sadqah. All this in anticipation for my admission interview at Aitchison College. Securing admission would mean the world to my mother, for this was the college for the landed gentry, the creme de la creme, the high society elite that dabbled in polo in the afternoons and swigged whiskey cocktails at the local golf club at night.
Soon enough, a peon dressed in a coarse green sherwani wearing a white and gold turban announced my name and we were led into a room with a stuffed deer hanging perilously close to the fan. Shamim Saifullah Khan, a stern yet classy 60-something administrator dressed in a beige safari suit, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles shook our hands as we took the long-backed chairs in front of the table. Chit-chat ensued as Khan put my parents at ease with a lengthy anecdote about how some minister’s son wanted his group of security guards to accompany him throughout the campus as he went about his day. He proudly flaunted that he did not allow it and that the aforementioned student chose to leave the college. After thirty minutes of polite conversation we were shown our way out.
Whatever little I remember from the conversation must have gone well because a month later my name was one of two hundred that had secured admission to the college. My mother, who had become a nervous wreck at that point, was relieved, which again made me wonder why she was so obsessed with getting me into Aitchison. Nineteen years later it all makes sense.
This institution was the Chief’s College where rowdy privileged boys were sent to become gentlemen. An oversized fraternity house as one friend calls it, where one establishes life-long friendships and a social network to rival the Bullingdon club’s members. Today, the premiership, the defence ministry, the foreign office, many provincial departments, chieftaincy of many tribes, bureaucracy and a number of leading firms find themselves being led by Aitchisonians. This, of course, is no coincidence. Such a cesspool of elitism ensures that only its own excel. This is the model of Pakistani society and the capitalist mode of running things at large. Allow the one percent to flourish at the expense of the ninety-nine.
The current Prime Minister is an alumnus of the college but has minced no words about his distaste for the elitism in the college. Many of his friends are schoolmates but he vividly recalls how kids at the National Cricket Academy from far-flung villages had more grit and passion than a kid from an elite school ever could. There is a story of him allegedly hitting a fellow politician with a hockey back at the school, but we will never be able to verify. Nonetheless, Khan possesses some of the hallmark qualities that Aitchisonians possess; excessive hubris, self centered-ness, an inability to see the fault in one’s own ways and be flexible.
Often called Eton of the East, Aitchison enjoys a similar reputation. Commenting on a battle in the second World War, a historian once observed that it was won and lost on the playgrounds of Eton. Lawyer Saroop Ijaz commented that we could replace Eton with Aitchison and it would hold true for Pakistan. Etonians can be squarely blamed for the Brexit crisis as can Aitchison’s old boys for the miserable 7 decades their country has had. This is not an unfounded claim, all you have to do is throw a cursory glance towards the list of Aitchison’s alumni. From the Legharis, Noons, Bugtis and Magsis to the Aitzaz Ahsans, Chaudhry Nisars, Shah Mehmoods and Zafrullah Jamalis each and everyone lived in the elitist bubble on the Upper Mall; an elitist bubble where even those that hailed from far flung areas were either tribal chieftains or soon to be chieftains. You would find the surname Sardar and Chaudhry dotted across the student’s attendance roster at any given point in the college’s history. An excessive respect was accorded to those who could speak English well. This, perhaps, made sense given the fact that the college was named after a Scottish civil servant and reserved in its initial years for the subcontinent’s landed elite, be it Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala or the Nawab of Bahawalpur. The colonial baggage is well and truly alive. Many of my talented classmates who otherwise possessed excellent academic and co-curricular skills missed out on securing that coveted co-curricular blazer or that prefect’s tie because their spoken English was comparatively wanting. This frenzied obsession with the language of our ex-masters persists even today.
In Pakistan it is considered fashionable to pin the blame for the country’s ills on the less educated. The “Jaahil awaam” is often seen as the raison d’etre for the country’s poor state. Such a perspective absolves those at the top that loot the lower classes.
Back in 2010, annoyed at having to sit through the day in 40 degree heat with no air conditioners and the lack of a towel and soap in the toilets, I submitted a piece that critiqued the institution for the college magazine: the editor, despite being a close friend said no. Today, a similar suppression takes place; those in charge are not responsive to criticism. Despite half hearted attempts under some principals, taking the student and parent body’s concerns into account was never fashionable at AC. I recall how the parents of prefects were once called in to table their concerns as a new administration took charge. The meeting ended in petty bickering and little ground was gained. The administration today is seemingly cutting edge and whilst certain logistical problems seem to have been taken care of, to truly be great and produce students that give back to the country the college needs to be, as Weber would put it, more reflexive.
AC can not compare to KGS, LGS JT etc. in the current climate but alas ‘waqt kabhi ek sa nahi rehta’. A concerted effort to be more receptive to criticism and moving on from its sordid past will do well to allow Aitchison to take its once guaranteed place as a breeding ground for future do-gooders who were not stubborn like the one that tries to rule us today but rather empathetic to the less fortunate who were not able to make it in the gates on SunderDas Road.
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