A visit from Mr P

Over the weekend, during a holiday pause in the jackhammering of Castle Maynard, I had the honour of receiving a certain Mr P to tea, up here in the High Doganate. (The workmen are now on my very balconata as I write, armed with machinery to detach my railing.) A long-time reader of my obnoxious columns, when they appeared in a certain newspaper, Mr P assumed that I had perished when I disappeared from its pages. Only recently did he discover that I had not been “cancelled” entirely, and was still squeaking electronically, eight years now since I was removed from my last gigue in the Canadian meejah.

His politics probably don’t match mine, very closely, but I loved him on sight for other reasons.

Mr P is an Old Antonian. Like me, he attended St Anthony’s in Lahore, but as he is one full Metonic cycle older (or enneakaidekaeteris, if you prefer) — he was a live-in pupil before Partition. Whereas, I was a day-boy after that unfortunate event. He fled Pakistan, thus, when it was created (in 1366 of the Mohammedan calendar, 1947 on the Christian one). As they were not Mussulmans, it seemed to his parents to be the right thing to do. For Catholics, other Christians, Jews and Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and most numerously the Hindus — half the country — were being “ethnically cleansed.” Whole trainloads of them were being massacred, as they attempted to leave.

Some stayed, however, and managed to keep their heads sufficiently down to survive, if not to flourish, in what was once their homeland, no longer under the protection of the British Raj. And yet to this day, Pakistanis exhibit a common heritage with others of the great Subcontinent, and traces of British rule.

I arrived much later, after the bloodied dust had settled, towards the end of the 1950s, as a wee tot whose father was teaching in the College of Art. As Partition was no longer discussed by the elders — in fact it was quite verboten — I was barely aware of it. Children have the luxury of imagining that everything was always as it is now, whether they live in a time of war or peace. That is why they are so conservative.

And while Mr P has never been back — he thinks of himself as coming “from India” — I have revisited the scenes of my childhood several times over the last growing number of decades.

St Anthony’s is utterly transformed. The liturgical desecrations that followed Vatican II reached even to Pakistan, and the Mass is now celebrated in my old school chapel with tabla drums. (In my day, as in Mr P’s, they did it in Latin.) Too, he doesn’t remember any girls about, but by my time there was a girl’s section next door, behind what I remember as a forty-foot wall. (Fortunately, I had a little sister at home, so I was able to learn what they look like. Her Urdu was also more fluent than mine.)

In other respects, nothing really changes, and we could both fondly recall the kites (hovering vultures) swooping down to steal little boy’s lunches as they crossed the principal quad. Clever birds, they could judge from a distance which part of the boy was most immediately edible, and take it from his hands.

The character of the teaching, under Irish Patrician brothers and their hangers-on, had likewise not yet deteriorated. My papa sent me to St Anthony’s, even though I wasn’t a Cath-o-lick child, because it had a reputation not only for “toughness,” but for academic excellence. On the former point, I think neither Mr P nor I have much sympathy for the “survivors” of Canada’s Indian “residential schools.” Buncha whiners.

What fascinated me, was Mr P’s (very charming) demeanour. It is like an accent, formed in a far-off age, that you still have as an octogenarian. But it was not the voice, precisely, in his case. Within a minute I could tell he was a genuine Old Antonian, and had the dry humour of the classical Lahori.

This is what a person is: particular. As God intended, a whole species, within himself. He may be like an old tin can, that has been kicked around the world until it has acquired its distinctive shape. (A former girlfriend gave me this compliment.) No ideologist will be able to smooth him out. We are marked by our irreducibly particular histories, and this applies also to those lucky ones who “never went anywhere.” We are NOT “the peeple.” We are more than Black, White, or Orange. We have individual souls.