During the last 64 years in Karachi, the most peaceful, joyful and memorable Eids were the ones which were celebrated during the period from the 1950s (when people had chosen to put behind them the horrors of the partition killings) to 1969 (when the sturdy rose that Ayub Khan had grafted onto the country’s soil began to wilt). The blossom continued to wither when the hawks in West Pakistan started to lay the foundations of the dismemberment of Mr Jinnah’s Pakistan and finally disintegrated during the dark ages of the grand inquisition when an obscurantist, retrogressive dictator made jolly sure that all semblance of secularism was wiped out.
During the presidency of Ayub Khan, life was peaceful and predictable. Motorists weren’t relieved of their wallets at traffic signals and there were no suicide bombers or terrorists blowing up public transport. Worshippers went to their mosques, temples, churches and gurdwaras in the knowledge that they would come out alive. I believe there was also a synagogue where a clutch of local Jews prayed to Yahweh. A healthy respect for one another’s religion was the order of the day. People were civilised. There was decency everywhere. Eid was indeed a joyous occasion.
The happiest Eids, however, were the ones I spent during the war years in boarding school in Panchgani, a tiny hill station tucked away in the western ghats of India. As far as I can remember, the Eids always seemed to occur during the rainy season which lasted from the beginning of June to the end of September. We never could spot the Shawwal moon during the monsoon because at the precise time the heavy clouds that had repeatedly ploughed some northern mountain, stubbornly blotted out the sky. We came to know about the sighting of the moon by telegram from some place in the UP or the Deccan where a Muslim cleric had spotted the thinnest of crescents.
The majority of the students in St Peter’s were Christian and either English, Australian or Anglo-Indian. There were 10 Muslim students, 12 Hindus and seven Jews, six of whom came from Basra in Iraq, while the seventh was an Ashkenazi from the US. We all got on like a house on fire. It was camaraderie at its best. There was no Hindu-Muslim tension or rivalry in the school. We never knew to which Muslim sect the maulvi who led the Eid prayers belonged. He was a Muslim and that was enough for us.
The principal of St Peter’s was a protestant missionary by the name of Rev FM Mckeown. He was a devout Christian, an upright, strict disciplinarian who smoked a pipe, went for long walks in the evenings and, after dinner, listened to Brahms. The teachers were terrified of him. On occasion, he became quite unreasonable, like the time a delegation of Muslim students led by Talal Asad, son of Muhammad Asad, author of Islam at the Crossroads and The Road from Mecca called on him to give Muslim students permission to fast during the holy month. It looked as if the principal would break into an apoplectic fit. “The next thing we know,” he said with a scowl on his face as he tamped aromatic tobacco into the bowl of his briar, “the boys from Basra will want to celebrate Yom Kippur and the Passover and the Hindus will want to throw coloured water on each other.”
But Talal was tenacious and obstinate and wouldn’t budge. Sir Richard had met his match in Saladin. At first Rev Mckeown was unyielding, but the thought of 12 young lunatics going on a hunger strike and The Times of India getting hold of the story must have flashed through his mind. After all, Indians went on hunger strikes at the drop of a hat. Eventually, a compromise was reached. Sehri would be served. But instead of iftar, which would create logistic problems for the staff, the devout would be served a double helping at dinner. That was the best Eid I ever had.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 31st, 2011.