Don’t you absolutely love the delicious moment when life brakes to a halt and goes into an ephemeral state of reverse?
And so we smile into the huge back-view mirror that sharpens into focus hazy scenes from a shared past. The crisp wintery air is punctuated with laughter. Stress and worry are checked at the gates and disallowed entry. Joy roams freely.
For the men gathered here, this is social therapy for the soul. Humayun M has brought together classmates from Aitchison College and for this one evening grown men wondrously transform into teenage boys. Passing years have deposited sediments of time on all our faces, but the spirit of youth peeks through these sparkling eyes. Age tonight is nothing but a mask.
Breaking traditions: Aitchison College abolishes 'quota' system
This evening here in the plush confines of our host’s abode, we feel protected from the vagaries of the outside world — as we did decades ago inside the protective confines of our school. Inside the walls, there was friendship and camaraderie; outside there was martial law. Inside, there were games, tournaments, debates, Shakespeare, Hali and Newton, outside there was intolerance, bigotry and the beginnings of militancy. Inside, there was the innocent rivalry between Kelly, Godley and LJ Houses, outside there was a bloody power tussle between the military regime and its opponents.
Did the turbulence outside affect the peaceful existence inside? Perhaps in some indirect way it did shape our lives beyond the obvious limitations imposed by the era. Even though we were cocooned inside those red walls, our impressionable minds absorbed the social, cultural and political radiation filtering in through those walls.
Moulded within such a cauldron, we internalised the era in various forms. It still survives deep inside each one of us — providing context, perspective, discomfort, and yes, solace. It’s a solace that binds us through a shared experience of childhood and teenage years; a collage of daily events painted into beautiful memories on a canvas measured in years.
‘Unfair’ punishment : Aitschisonian allowed to take exams
More than three decades have slipped by since we walked out of the black wrought-iron gates of Aitchison College and into the wide expanse of space that defines the rest of our lives. Boys whose lives were intertwined, now scattered across the country, and the world, to find higher education, higher employment, and perhaps higher meaning in life. Some found one, some two, and the lucky ones all three.
Our lives unfolded in parallel to the events that shaped Pakistan through the late 1980s and into the turbulent 1990s. School mutated into college which segued into a career followed by marriage, family and responsibility. Somewhere, somehow, quietly, in the middle of this process, we grew up. Student, employee, husband, father, it all just happened. Blink — and we are adults.
And now look at us. Here this evening, there’s Zahid S whose school uniform was always impeccably ironed. And next to him grinning away is Haq N who sported his way through school. Today he sports a beard. And warming his hands on the fire this nippy evening is Meesam R. Tall and lanky, he dazzled all on the basketball court and now he’s dabbling in electoral games. Mahmood I has flown in from abroad to meet his buddies and he wears happiness on his sleeve. Omar N is infecting others with his humour while Nadeem D smiles away at life in general.
A kulfi seller from IBA
Times slows down. Sounds fade into the night. Fond memories pour down like a gentle summer drizzle. Smiling faces dissolve into laughing eyes. Lights cast deep shadows across the crowd, washing them in hues of mirth and levity. It’s a surreal scene painted into the night.
And then just like that, it’s gone. Like 30 years ago, we walk out of the gate and scatter into our lives. The world envelops us greedily. Down and down we go into a vortex of responsibility and requirements. The eyes move from the rearview mirror back to the windshield. We sigh, smile, buckle up and gun the engine to life. Here we go.
And go we do to islands of solace that have emerged from the deep since we left our school. The burden of age often feels weightless when measured against the layered satisfaction of consolidated years. Joy, it appears, can slowly be accumulated one smile at a time. It is a rhythmic awareness that sways to the beat of mornings and evenings, triggered by the melodious laughter of our children and the gentle loving warmth of our families. Happiness becomes a verb.
The 1980s shaped our teen years as today chisels our middle years. Time has hardened us, but like rocks carved by the gentle fury of flowing water, we too feel the tug and pull of events happening around us. Our country is on the mend. The worse seems to be behind us. The dark days of terror and mayhem have receded and mortal combat for power too appears to have settled down to a simmer. Once we were shaped by events; now perhaps we too can shape them to an extent. The unalloyed joy of childhood can often be matched by the deep satisfaction of purpose in later years. Ultimately, we are all looking for meaning in our lives; meaning that imbues within us contentment and a certain level of serenity.
This evening we are sharing a quiet contentment borne of a companionship that spans decades. Mortality is not a distant concept. Some buddies left us too soon. Imran A must be smiling down at us from the Heavens. So must Ahmad T who embraced shahadat in uniform. Many more who shared our dorms and classes have left us forever. A gradual acceptance of impermanence does not feel uncomfortable any more.
LUMS or IBA?
And so we sail along gently into tomorrow and the day after, holding on to cherished moments and searching for greater meanings that may lie ahead. This evening, surrounded by boys from the wonder years of Aitchison, I look up at the starry sky and glimpse the soft contours of a past that has reached out and touched our present in a strangely magical way. And I smile.
Thank you boys.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 22nd, 2015.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.