Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A Pakistani Dream (including some Goats being sacrificed)

It all started from a tweet. I don’t remember who tweeted it. All I know is that it mentioned a fantastic opportunity. I was facing a rough time in those days. Due to a quirky mixture of fate, my own failings and administrative errors, I was among the three people from my class of medical graduates that didn’t get a job. I spent days marching up and down the corridors of my college and the hospital attached to it, in pursuit of the job. There was little light at the end of that tunnel, and at times, it felt as if there was no tunnel either. I was surrounded by despair. I seriously thought about leaving the profession at one stage. It was only because of my parents and their supportive phone calls from hometown that kept me going. Amidst all that, I saw that tweet.

It was about a fellowship in the United States(by a Think Tank)  being offered to fifteen young Pakistanis with leadership skills. I should confess that I have never been comfortable with the title ‘leader’ ( too much resposibility on my frail shoulders eh). Anyhow, I thought I had the relevant experience to be considered for this fellowship.It was already the last ten days of April and the deadline for submitting the application was on the first of May.  I filled up the form, answered the lengthy essay questions, contacted two people to provide references(one was my Professor of Pathology, the other was one of my editors and mentors). I managed to send it before the deadline. 

I managed to get the job at the hospital after countless pleadings and arm-twisting. Within a fortnight, I had received a call from the Think Tank. There was a Skype interview, which went reasonably well(at least according to my standards). Then there was an in-person interview in Lahore for which the interviewer flew all the way from the US to Pakistan. That went alright as well(I still think I gave some stupid answers ). After a few hiccups in the selection process created by certain people with whom I had been associated in the past, the final call came.

I was sleeping in the living area of my house on a mattress, and woke up at the usual time to get ready for hospital(6:50 am, Pakistan Standard Time). A week before that, there had been a major strike in our state’s hospitals and most of the doctors(including myself) had abstained from working at the hospitals due to attack on one of our hostels and arrest of many of our colleagues. I had spent that whole week glued to twitter and had written three emotional blogs on that topic for Pakistani newspapers(Self-Promotion Alert:My work was even mentioned in Foreign Policy Magazine during that time). While the strike had ended after a week, we were facing a high patient load in our wards. I was supposed to fly to Karachi that evening(for the first time in my life) to attend the inaugural Indo-Pak Social Media Summit.

As has been my routine over the last few years, my first chore after waking up is to stop the alarm and then check my mails and facebook. There was a mail from the Think Tank’s director. My eyes were still hazy when I opened the mail. After going through the first line which mentioned that I had been selected, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt as if I was still watching a dream. I read it again. And again. And again. And then I jumped. I jumped up and down the living room. It was a moment of pure joy, something I had waited too long for. I don’t remember what happened during the rest of the day, partly because I was delirious. Until I reached the airport for the Karachi Flight. It was Thursday, 12th July, 2012.

Three months after that day, I was waiting for my Visa. I had submitted the Visa application and had undergone the interview process. Six people out of fifteen from our group had received their visas within a month. I was among the people who hadn’t gotten it yet. We had a pre-departure briefing a day before the flight. Despite the uncertainty that I might not make it, as my visa was yet to materialize, I decided to drive to Islamabad anyway.At that point in time, six people out of fifteen had yet to receive the Visas. I packed my bags and left Lahore. I was almost a 100 Kilometers away from Lahore that I stopped at a gas station. There was a long queue there so I checked my email during that time. There was an email from our contact at the U.S Embassy. He wrote in the first line: I have good news and bad news. Three out of six have gotten their visas, the other three are still on the waiting list.
My heart sank. I didn’t want it to go all downhill at that point. I had invested too many hopes in this venture. At first, I didn’t want to read those three names. What If my name was not there? What would I do? Go back? No, I thought, I am NOT going back, come what may. After making that mental decision, I glanced at my mobile screen again. The first name wasn’t mine. Nor was the second. Then I read the third name. I HAD MADE IT. I had almost the same feeling that Archimedes had, while discovering the principle now used in fluid dynamics. While Archimedes was in a bath at that time and ran out naked, shouting Eureka! Eureka! I was not in a bath, and not naked. So I just decided to share the happiness around. Called my dad and texted all the friends who had cared enough to keep tabs on my progress.

The drive(of more than 300 Kms) from Lahore went smoothly until I was almost 90 Kilometers from Islamabad. My car engine got very very hot and the thermostat needle was going through the roof. I had fortunately brought a spare bottle of car coolant with me. I tried pouring it at the requsisite place. It didn’t work. I had no chance but to drive somehow to the nearest service station. It was about 20 Kilometers away and I couldn’t drive at a speed more than 20 Km/hour on the best built motorway in Pakistan. Somehow, I managed to reach the place. It took the mechanic almost four hours to fix the problem. Thankfully, I was in Islamabad by mid-night.

Our flight was scheduled to leave at 4 a.m. on 27th October, 2012. It was Eid-ul-Azha in Pakistan on that day. It was the first time in my life that I was not going to be home for an Eid. During the 17 hour journey, I kept remembering everything we usually did on Eid Days.

A typical eid day at my house starts very early, by the call for Morning Prayers. I usually sleep late on the nights before eid, so it is always hard waking up so early. The grumpy, sleepy me then take a bath and get ready for Eid Prayers. Eid Prayers have different timings, with our sect(the Wahabbis, similar to the Saudi version of Islam) leading this race. I have had to participate in prayers as early as 6.15 am.!! Other sects have prayers a little later(many people just wake up and drive around to find which time suits them the best and join that congregation). Traditionally, eid prayers are supposed to be held in big grounds, so that more people can participate.  During the drive to the place, the roads are clean(probably the only time in the year, courtesy the municipal corporation) and slaked lime is scattered along the roads, giving the whole occasion a festive look. People dressed in traditional shalwar kamees dresses move towards the Prayer place.

After the prayers, there is a small sermon(although it depends on the Mullah, who tries his best to prolong it) followed by a prayer for proseprity in the coming year. Afterwards, evevryone hugs their relatives/friends(this goes on throughout the day).Due to some quirky reason that I have yet to find, people hug each other three times, in a robot-like sequence(I refuse to do this and almost wrestled a few cousins in the last two years by putting a kibosh after one hug). On Eid-ul-azha, people are in a hurry as soon as the prayer finishes. This is because they want to find butchers to sacrifice the goats/cows. Because of a disparity between the number of customers and service-providers, a lot of makeshift butchers also throw their hats in the rings. People who can’t find a butcher in time resort to trusting the temporary butchers(a diverse category actually, some are clerks, some are policemen, some from other professions).

After the sacrifice, the meat has to be divided into three equal parts. One part is supposed to go to people who can’t afford to buy meat, one part for relatives and the last part is for the consumption of the family that made the sacrifice. I personally do not witness the act of slaughter(despite watching enough blood and gore in the hospital) but many parents ask their kids to watch, a practice that I find disgusting. Following the sacrifice, people make packets of meat in shopping bags, for the purpose of distribution. People who sacrifice every year find a horde of beggars outside their homes, begging for the meat packets.

While men are busy in all this fuss, the real enjoyment on Eid is reserved for the ladies. They get to wear new and sometimes fancy dresses, apply henna on their hands, wear bangles, and visit relatives.
Following eid, most streets of Pakistan resemble sets of Zombie apocalypse movies, with intestines and offal of slaughtered animals littering the streets. Happens every year. Is not a pretty sight to watch.

Being the Grinch that I am, I do not always enjoy Eid. I feel that its terribly boring. I spend a good part of the day sleeping or on the Laptop. During med school years, I was usually worried on Eids because of approaching exams. But even after graduation, my enthusiasm didn’t increase. In fact, I was on duty last year on the third day of Eid-ul-Fitr(which follows the month of Ramazan).

My cousins who live abroad, tell me that they can’t feel the ‘spirit of Eid’ when they are in other countries. I wonder if I would miss this as much If I leave?    

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Dr Abdus Salam-The Forgotten Son of Pakistan

On the eve of another Pakistani on the verge of a Nobel Prize,I am reproducing the biography of Dr Abdus Salam(the only other Pakistani to be awarded a Nobel, in 1979), as recounted by eminent historian, K.K Aziz in his book THE COFFEE HOUSE OF LAHORE, from page 200-209.
I hope Malala doesn't suffer the same fate.

   DrAbdus Salam

Salam was the son of Chaudhri Muhammad Husain, a schoolteacher of Jhang and Hajirah who belonged to Faizullah Chak near Batala. Muhammad Hussain was Jat and Hajirah a Kakkezai. Faizullah Chak was an almost exclusively Kakkezai Village. The Kakkezais were a close-knit community. Born in 1926 and educated at the Government High School and Government Intermediate College, Jhang, Government College, Lahore and St. John’s College, Cambridge, he made it a habit to excel in every examination he took. He stood first in 1940 in the matriculation of the Punjab University and again in 1942 in the F.Sc. Examination. He joined the Government College, Lahore in 1942 to study mathematics A and B and honours in English. He graduated in 1944 winning every laurel in sight: 300 out of 300 marks in Mathematics, 121 out of 150 in English Honours, standing first in the University and breaking all records in the B.A examination. In 1946, he took his M.A in Mathematics, scoring 573 marks out of 600, and topping the list.
In September 1946, he left for Cambridge on a Punjab Peasant Welfare Fund Scholarship to study Mathematics at St. John’s College as an undergraduate (Its worth mentioning here that this fact was recently mentioned in an article by Javed Chaudary, and the origin of the said fund was the money that was left over from the War tax, after the war had finished-AM). If in India, his academic career was brilliant, in Cambridge, it was dazzling. He got a first both in preliminary in 1947 and Part II in 1948, and then gave up Mathematics for the time being because on the higher level it could not be fully mastered without a good knowledge of physics. In an unprecedented performance, he read Physics for one year and took its Part I and II together in 1949; scoring a first and surprising even his teachers.
His scholarship was extended for two years (it should have been three years) to work for his Ph.D. He came to Pakistan in the summer, married Ummatul Hafeez, and returned to Cambridge in 1949, deciding to tackle theoretical Physics for his doctoral thesis.
The year 1951 was the time for him to harvest the fruits of his labour. He completed his thesis(though he could not get his PhD till the following year because the university statutes required that the candidate spent nine terms before being eligible to receive his doctorate), won the smith prize(From Wikipedia: The Smith's Prize was the name of each of two prizes awarded annually to two research students in theoretical Physics, mathematics and applied mathematics at the University of Cambridge,Cambridge, England-AM), was elected Fellow of his College, and named Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University.  Pending the award of his degree, he came to Lahore and was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Head of Department of Mathematics at both the Government College and the Punjab University. In 1952, he went to Cambridge for his viva voce and to receive his doctorate.
His problems began almost as soon as he took up his job at the Government College. Instead of honouring him for his brilliant achievements, he was humiliated by the College and the Education Department. He was not given an official residence, as was his right. Temporarily he stayed with Qazi Muhammad Aslam, the professor of Philosophy at the College, and continued his efforts to get a house allotted to him. Disappointed with the indifferent attitude of the officials he asked for an interview with the Minister of Education, Sardar Abdul Hameed Dasti. Salam told him that he had a family to accommodate and was entitled to a residence. The minister brought an end to the interview by refusing any help and declaring: “If its suits you, you may continue with your job; if not, you may go” (Translation from Punjabi-AM). Salam was so frustrated with that he was considering a resignation, but soon a house was found for him and he stayed on.
But that was just the beginning. A little later, the Principle, Professor Sirajuddin, asked him to do something to earn his keep besides his teaching. He was given three choices: to act as Superintendent of the Quadrangle Hostel or to supervise the college accounts or to take charge of the college football team. Salam chose to look after the footballers. Occasionally, at the end of his chore at the University Grounds, he would drop in at the Coffee House and tell me (K.K. Aziz, the writer-AM) about his bitterness on being forced to waste his time. A man who had worked 14 hours a day at Cambridge as a student had now hardly any time to read new literature on his subject, and the facilities in the college laboratory were dust and ashes compared to the Cavendish Laboratories where he had worked as an undergraduate and a doctoral student. It was not difficult to take the gauge of Salam’s frustration.
A more serious contretemps occurred in the Christmas Holidays of the same years. Professor Wolfgang Pauli, the 1945 Nobel laureate of physics and a friend of Salam, was visiting Bombay on the invitation of Indian science association. He sent a telegram to Salam wishing too see him and asking him if he could come to Bombay. Salam, who had been craving to talk to a peer in his field, at once left for India, and spent a week with Pauli. On his return to Lahore, he was charge sheeted for absenting himself from his station of duty without prior permission. Salam was shocked. He was used to European freedom of movement and had been part of Pakistani bureaucratic set-up for a mere three months. The principal made so much fuss about the incident that Salam feared that he might be dismissed from the education service. At this point S.M. Sharif, the director of Public instruction of the Punjab, intervened and the period of Salam’s absence was treated as leave without pay.
When Salam had been elected a fellow of St. John’s College in 1951 he had accepted the honour on the condition that he would be allowed to go to Lahore and teach there and live in St. John’s only during the long vacations. St. John’s was so anxious to have him that it made an exception and accepted his condition. This was a measure of Salam’s love for the Government College; he was prepared to forego the considerable honour of a fellowship of St. John’s for the sake of the prospect of teaching at the Government College. But he had been insulted and humiliated so often by the College he loved so much and for which he had sacrificed the full facilities of the St. John’s fellowship that he now forced to look somewhere else for his professional future. As luck would have it, in the middle of the same year (1953), the Stokes lectureship at St. John’s fell vacant. The holder of the lectureship, Nicholas Kemmer had been offered the Tait professorship of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He had been Salam’s teacher at St. John’s and a fellow at Trinity College. He was so keen on Salam’s succeeding him at St. John’s that he wrote to the Punjab University, pleading that Salam should be persuaded to accept the offer. The vice-chancellor, Mian Afzal Husain, had kept in touch with Salam since his departure from Cambridge and 1946 and had great admiration for his work. He advised Salam to accept the lectureship and go to Cambridge. Salam’s love for Pakistan and the Government College was boundless. Notwithstanding the treatment he had received from the authorities of College, he was still reluctant to snap the umbilical cord that tied him to his alma mater. Finally, s.m. sharif solved the problem by suggesting and sanctioning an arrangement that satisfied Salam. He was to go to St. John’s on deputation from the Government College for an unspecified period and would receive a deputation allowance of Rs. 181 per month. He left at the end of 1953 and took charge of his lectureship on the new year’s day of 1954.
He stayed at St. John’s for exactly three years, and on 1st January 1957 took up a professorship at the Imperial College of science and technology in London; he was then 31 years of age, and thus won the distinction of being the youngest professor in the British Commonwealth. He retired from here in 1993 for health reasons. Between leaving the Government College and his death, his march to the summit of his profession was phenomenal. At St. John’s he taught some advanced courses and made his reputation on the international level by the research papers he published and by his work as scientific secretary of the first United Nations atoms for peace conference in Geneva in 1955. His research and teaching at Imperial College attracted favourable attention of the greatest scientists of the world. He acted as the chief scientific advisor to the president of Pakistan from 1961 to 1974. In 1964, he established the International Centre of Theoretical Physics and served as its Director from 1964 to 1994 and its President from 1994-1996. 
He won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979(he had come very close to winning it in 1957). Immediately after the news of his Nobel Prize was published in October, Government of India and Indian scientific bodies invited him to tour the country. There was no reaction from Pakistan until the Pakistan high commissioner in London informed his Government of India’s invitation. Only then did the Government of Pakistan ask him to visit his home country. Salam decided to visit Pakistan first and India a year later.
In December 1979, on his arrival in Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad, he was received by junior army officers who were military secretaries to the provincial governors and the president. The convocation of Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad summoned to bestow upon him the honorary doctorate of science was cancelled because of the warning from the students belonging to the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami to disrupt the function, and the venue was shifted to the hall of national assembly. In Lahore, his lecture arranged to be held at the campus of Punjab University, had to be moved to the senate hall in the city because certain groups had demonstrated earlier and threatened to murder Salam. The University of Punjab refused to honour him with a degree. The Government College did not even invite him to visit its precinct.
A year later when he was in India, five universities gave him honorary degrees, including the guru dev Nanak university of Amritsar where he delivered the convocation address on 25 January 1981 in rural Punjabi, and the university, on his request brought to Amritsar four of his old teachers who has taught him in Jhang and Lahore. The Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, invited him to her residence, made coffee for him with her own hands, and sat on the carpet throughout the meeting near Salam’s feet saying that was her way of honouring a great guest. Later in his tour of several Latin American countries including Brazil, he was received everywhere at the airport by the head of the state.
In 1986 the director general-ship of the UNESCO fell vacant and nominations were solicited. Salam wanted to be considered and everyone was sure that he would be elected. But the rule was that a candidate must be nominated by his own country. Pakistan nominated Lt. General Yaqub Khan, a retired army officer. Both Britain and Italy offered to nominate Salam if he agreed to become their national. He refused. The Pakistani general received ONE vote. A French member, when pressed by her Government to vote for the Pakistani candidate, resisted, protested and then resigned, saying “An Army General will run the UNESCO over my dead body”.
Salam died, full of honours and laurels from across the world, on 21 November 1996, in oxford. His brother, who lived in Lahore, asked the Government if it would like to provide protocol on the arrival of the coffin. There was no response. He was buried in Rabwah, on 2 November at 11 A.M at the foot of his mother’s grave.

For Reference
Aziz K.K. Abdus Salam. The Coffee House of Lahore. 1st ed.Lahore; Sang-Meel Publications;2007. p200-209.