Use Your Heads

For the life of me I can’t figure out why Aitchison College students still have to wear those things on their heads. I was reminded of them when a retired teacher shared a chapter of the autobiography he is writing adorning it with the picture of a bevy of boys milling around him all capped in that anachronistic headgear. 

Before jumping to conclusions I decided to check with a former student and was educated about the origins of the institution as the Punjab Chiefs’ College in 1886. I was informed that this headgear was part of the proper attire of the Punjab chiefs of the times and it was only natural that their offspring, the future chiefs, would continue the tradition. 

That much made sense except that very soon after, the British renamed the college for a wannabe chief of their own, one Mr. Aitchison. Not just that, they showed the chiefs who was boss by putting the same covering on the heads of their bearers whose principal task it was to open doors for the Sahib, the Memsahib, and the babalog. They must have taken a perverse pride in doing this to the very people they had themselves elevated to chiefdom for siding with them in 1857.

In that context, it was quite understandable that, as long as they stayed, the British would enjoy rubbing the chiefs’ noses in the dust by continuing to parade their offspring visually at par with the minions of the Empire. But why did this tradition survive once the British had left and the students joining the college were no longer little chiefs? Surely it was not because Aitchison College was preparing its graduates to compete for the positions of doormen at the Punjab and Sind Clubs, those relics of the Raj that prominent Pakistanis were dying to worm themselves into.

I apologise for venturing down this irresistible rabbit hole when my intention was really to pull some very different rabbits out of the hats. I wanted to explore their unexpected relationship with the real world and to draw therefrom some potentially useful conclusions. 

It struck me that mandating something, even a thing as silly as donning a hat, could trigger a mini enterprise. At Aitchison, turbans were to be worn once a week at the general assembly and on special occasions. But that meant they had to be produced in quantity. So a small living quarter was assigned to a craftsman and a room allocated in the Department of Supply and Rationing (DSR) where he would make the hats (kulla) around which the cloth (blue in winter, grey is summer) would be wrapped. This cloth had to be starched every week for the Aitchison turban (pugree) was particularly flamboyant with its plume (turra) rising high and splayed like a Japanese fan or a rooster comb. It would wilt after one use and the hat would need retying with a freshly starched replacement. 

In the 1970s, when Taj was in command, a hat cost Rs. 20 and the charge for tying it was Rs. 10. Kamal Din took over when Taj passed away and the hat is now about Rs. 300. In short, the mandate spawned a veritable mini-economy and to prove the point it also had its black market. A number of peons began a rent-a-turban operation for those little chiefs who could not remember to have it tied in time. There was also a Muhammad Sharif and Sons, turban designer, on the Mall, presumably for those who favoured the high end of the product line.  

The lesson I take away from this is that if things were to be mandated intelligently they could have significant multiplier effects. For example, if it were mandated that every high school student should graduate knowing how to play a musical instrument, it would give rise to a huge industry of instrument making as well as provide employment to very skilled performers who are on the severely endangered list. Very few know that the most revered instrument maker of the subcontinent, Rikhi Ram, started in Lahore before being driven away to Delhi. Now it is almost impossible to get a sitar repaired, let alone made, in Pakistan.

The beneficial effects of such a mandate go beyond economics. With a cohort of discerning listeners we might be spared the new breed of performers who are completely ignorant of the grammar of music. We might also, if we extend a mandate of voice training to madrassahs, get to hearing the kind of mellifluous azaans that their sanctity demands instead of the most grotesque cacophony to which they have been reduced today.

Imagine a mandate that all candidates for the civil service exam would need to demonstrate proficiency in one regional language other than their own. Academies would spring up overnight, language education and teachers would be in demand, books would be printed, and the impact on national integration would be phenomenal.

Or imagine a mandate that entrance test to colleges would include a section testing knowledge of literature in a local language. One would witness the amazing sight of parents, presently contemptible of all things desi, breaking down the doors of schools to improve the teaching of indigenous literature. Just with one stroke of the pen we would eliminate the whining that students are ignorant of literature and simultaneously boost the index of critical thinking that has touched rock bottom — ik nuqte vich gal mukdi ae.

So retire the turban but think seriously of intelligent mandates with positive multiplier effects that can revive local economies, create employment for the marginalized, and rejuvenate society at the same time.    

This opinion was published in The News on Sunday on July 19, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi 2019, Karachi 2020.

By Anjum Altaf

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