At a time when Matric/FSc. students mattered I remember reading interviews of top achievers splashed prominently in newspapers following the announcement of results. A common refrain in these interviews was that Pakistani syllabi are outdated, needing urgent attention to bring them up to speed with the rest of the world. These opinions were largely expressed by students who had topped the ‘science group’. I am not quite sure what those topping the ‘arts group’ said, I guess they were just thrilled to be mentioned in the same breath as the science students. As one studying the humanities myself I recall reflecting upon my own feelings for the courses I was taught, and finding to my surprise that I rather enjoyed them.
The year I did my BA a new syllabus was introduced for compulsory English Language. This syllabus was perceived to be so difficult and beyond the pale of the average student across the province that there were actual protests against it. Many students I knew trembled at the prospect of the English Language exam, and it was possible to understand why, even if you didn’t share their trepidation. This new course spanned four books, one each of essays, short stories and poetry, as well as Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’. The book of essays I found to be particularly riveting, and in the sixteen intervening years since I was first introduced to it I have shared some of its essays countless times with people who did not go through the local BA system. A masterfully handpicked anthology of essays that spanned not just different eras and genres but a vast variety of moods and aspects of human endeavour and thought, it started with Liaquat Ali Khan’s speech at the University of Kansas immediately after the creation of Pakistan, the very picture of an articulate statesman shaping the newly born country’s first ideas on foreign policy. It is a marvellous insight into Pakistan’s beginnings and the thought processes behind the early policies of our founding fathers which could lead to an excellent debate in the classroom if led by an intelligent and inquisitive teacher. The D.H Lawrence essay on death and resurrection, depression and the inevitable bouncing back of the human spirit should be compulsory reading for everyone. It is something I have gone back to again and again over the years when life has seemed just a little too overwhelming. There is a harrowing, personal account of the Nagasaki holocaust, enough to turn any human being into a pacifist and an essay by the last man on the moon, a tale of endurance and courage that is sure to make any human spirit soar. It has also been a great source of trumping moon-landing conspiracy theorists, most of whom don’t know that there were six successful manned expeditions to the moon before NASA decided to terminate that particular branch of scientific endeavour. There are great essays by Virginia Woolf, Stephen Leacock, Alduous Huxley and W.B Yeats, addressing many areas of superstition, behaviour and lack of knowledge that all also make sense in the Pakistani context. Just consider some of the titles: ‘The Beauty Industry’ (Huxley’s damning indictment of the cosmetic industry), ‘Are Doctors Men of Science?’ (G.B Shaw’s tongue-in-cheek takedown of the sense of scientific superiority many doctors exude) and the bittersweet tale of Leacock’s tailor representing our odd relationship with those in the services industry.
As I sit back now and rifle through that book once again, I am overwhelmed by the depth of reading that its author must have undertaken in his lifetime to have come up with this small gem. The author is one Professor Sajjad Shaikh who passed away two months ago largely unnoticed, it seems, by the vast majority of Pakistanis. The news of his death did not appear in any of the local English language dailies; however, a couple of newspapers did carry a report on a memorial session held for him a month later.
I had never met Professor Shaikh (although my father, himself a professor, knew him somewhat), but his sensitive choice of essays for Pakistani students so impressed me as a young student that I felt something personal in the news of his death. The picture my father painted of him – that of the studious professor equally well-versed in both Urdu and English holed up in his study seriously pursuing reading and writing – seems to be fast fading into the archival memory of our nation.
I realized the value of Prof Sajjad’s book when I started teaching O’Levels students several years ago. In many well-regarded private schools where English Literature is not a compulsory subject beyond class 8, students will probably never even have heard of William Wordsworth, which might not sound like such a catastrophe when placed against the active hatred and intolerance embedded in subjects like Urdu and Islamyat, but in the larger scheme of things does effect the overall thinking and feeling capacities of a nation. Even those who take up Literature as an elective subject at the O’Levels do not get exposed to as vast an array of writers as those who take the FA and BA route, thanks to Pakistani scholars like Professor Sajjad Shaikh. If only we would produce a few more of his ilk with greater regularity.