Qasim Khan sat in Mother Gertrude’s office, silent, motionless and without a trace of any emotion on his stoic, weather-beaten face. He had been especially summoned by the Principal of the all girls missionary school in the mountain resort town of Murree. After the sanctification of the Church in 1857, missionary schools had mushroomed across the picturesque town that was located at the foothills of the Himalayas. By the late 1980s, third generation conventarians were graduating from these institutions of academic learning and character building. Like so many other girls of the privileged set across the country, Qasim Khan’s daughter too had spent a large part of the last 10 years of her life as a boarder at the Claudine Thevenet Convent under the tutelage and guardianship of mostly Irish Catholic nuns. She was now done with her O’levels and on her way out of the Convent, together with 15 of her contemporaries.
Qasim Khan was a matter of fact man; not given to flights of fancy or intrigue or even introspection. He lived a respectable life; did what he had to do and kept himself securely grounded in all that was tangible, objective and real. He had neither the inclination nor the desire to poke into the deeper, more profound meaning of things just because he suffered momentary pangs of conscience, had unrequited aspirations or felt any other sensation of inadequacy. The space between his two dimensional view of life and Sublimity was largely apparitional and elusive to Qasim Khan. And so he sat with dead pan detachment, neither wondering nor concerned about the purpose of the meeting. He would know soon enough.
‘Good afternoon Mr. Khan. Thank you for coming to see me’, said Mother Gertrude as she walked briskly into her office.
Qasim Khan nodded with a smile and waited to hear the reason for the meeting. This was not a new turn of events; he had over the last few years, been summoned by his daughter’s school principal on more than a few occasions.
The 70 year old abbess had in her lifetime as the guardian of scores of girls entrusted in her care, learnt a thing or two about family psychology. And Mishal Khan’s homestead was one of those complicated types that had over the years given rise to more than a few such requests to meet with her parents; of the two, her father appearing every time. Whenever the girl came back from one of her vacations at home, she was subdued for weeks afterwards. In her senior years, the strained quietness had morphed into academic rebellion as Mishal’s grades plummeted. Over the last three years in fact, she had performed temperamentally on her quarterly assessments and barely scraped through her year-end exams. Every effort made by her teachers to talk to her and then to discipline her, had failed. The conversational, psycho-therapeutic attempts made by Mother Gertrude had also had no effect on the girl’s erratic behaviour. And now she had sat for her O levels and no matter what the outcome, she’d be permanently wrested from the refuge of her boarding school and the daily camaraderie of her friends, both cathartic mainstays such as they were, in her seemingly troubled life otherwise.
Mother Gertrude felt a rush of anxiety and concern for her ward. This was it. She had to try and get through to Mishal’s father. Qasim Khan had over the last few years attended every one of the beginning of term meetings she had requested to discuss his daughter’s academic and behavioural issues; had listened politely but disconnectedly, and promised to sort out whatever the problem was. And then Mishal came back, and the cycle continued unchanged, unabated. The wise old nun knew however that the angst and grief that Mishal doled out to her teachers and caregivers, was a balancing act of nature; a burden undertaken, a load dispensed. In the greater cosmic harmony of things, Mishal healed, rebuilding her spirit, even as she acted out.
‘Mishal will be going home for good this time Mr. Khan, and I continue to be worried about her. She is a sensitive girl and requires care and attention. She hesitated before continuing on, ‘It may be a good idea for her to get some professional psychological help’. She looked at the man sitting in front of her for any signs of having understood the seriousness of his daughter’s situation. He looked back at her unblinkingly, robotically with a small smile plastered diligently on his otherwise impassive face. This was definitely not going to be one of her triumphant, meaningful moments where she was able to bridge trust and understanding gaps between a parent and child – a parent and one of her girls; and the implications were disheartening. She swallowed hard with a sense of foreboding settling in the pit of her stomach.
Qasim Khan, together with fifteen sets of one or both parents, waited outside on the parlour flat for their daughters to be released for a final time, into their care. It was already 4pm and he was going to make the four hour journey back home the same day. As a rule, he preferred not to travel after sundown along the tortuous roads, winding 7500 feet down towards the plains. Mishal came down the stairs finally, followed by one of the school’s handymen who was carrying her trunk balanced expertly on his left shoulder. Somewhere in some vague recess of his mind, he had marvelled at the strength and agility of these mountain men as they ran up and down dozens of steep steps, multiple times, transporting laden trunks to waiting cars. Consciously, he was only aware of a critical task being done to expedite their departure.
‘Salam alaikum Baba*’ she said simply and followed him to the car parked at the end of the serpentine driveway. She looked back one last time at the stone steps, at the red painted flower pots where yellow and orange geraniums bobbed their heads in the wind; at the entrance to the visitor’s parlour; at the volley ball court; at the monkey bar; at the Teachers Cottage and finally at the dormitories – those safe havens that during the day, held the entire school in their immediate vista and at dusk, the twinkling lights of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad on their horizon. She was suddenly, without warning caught in a flood of emotions. She blinked and responded as she always did when she was overwhelmed by the vulnerability of pain, grief or even joy: she frowned and looked straight ahead, blocking out the memories and the feeling, steeling her heart, making it impenetrable.
Once in the car, she took out a square piece of white linen from her backpack and put on her hijab. Qasim Khan sat in front with the driver. Father and daughter began their journey towards Peshawar in silence; neither was wistful nor remembering nor talking about this epic last journey away from the school and the sanctum that had been a home away from home for Mishal for more than half her life.
* Dupatta: a shawl traditionally worn by women of the Indian subcontinent.
* Baba: a term of respect used for an older man; also used for one’s father.
Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/30/paisley-dupatta-part-two/