Interview published in Newsline.
Her tilted gaze struck fear in the hearts of students. Those who attended Karachi Grammar School (and even those who did not) knew that Durainow Fatima Chishty Mujahid, the headmistress, was a force of nature. When she walked onto the schoolyard cloaked in a black gown and flanked on either side by prefects, the symphony of the ‘Imperial March’ rang in the ears of many. This was the Mrs Mujahid that I, like many others, knew. It wasn’t until I was taught a class by her that I saw a different side – one that made me want to find out more.
I was taught 10th grade biology by Mrs Mujahid on only one occasion – when she was filling in for our regular teacher. It was the only class, in my entire time in the school, that had my unbroken attention for its 35-minute duration; the only class in which everything being taught seemed interesting, accessible and easy to grasp; the only class that didn’t feel like a class. I walked away inspired by a new awareness of what a class could be. There was, also, something else – something harder to describe. A finesse, or brilliance of sorts. It was similar to the impression I would get every time I stumbled upon an idea or concept – in a book, film, or spoken word – that resonated with me on personal level. Like reading an essay that reaffirms your deepest convictions.
How did she manage to have such an impact? Mrs Mujahid walked into the classroom and started a conversation. This served a functional purpose. Being a substitute teacher, she needed to know where we were in the syllabus before she could begin. But it also served another purpose: “to gauge the wavelength of the class,” to put it in her own words. What followed felt like an extension of that conversation – a communication between equals and not teacher and pupil. It lacked the ceremonious ‘open your books to the following chapter, ready, steady, go…’ Her colleague Khalida Mehboob sums it up perfectly in The Life and Times of DFC Mujahid, a tribute compiled by members of the school staff: “She makes the things that the rest of us struggle with, seem easy.”
“There is a terrific kind of wiring between a good teacher and students,” Mrs Mujahid tells me, when I call on her one winter afternoon. My nervousness prior to the interview dissipates after she enters the room and it becomes clear that the person I am standing before is Mrs Mujahid the teacher – not Mrs Mujahid the schoolyard administrator. She points to a specific spot on a sofa and says “if you sit in that corner there, we can proceed.” Mrs Mujahid is not a proponent of having textbook chapters read in class – something that can even be done sitting at home. “Reading is re-enforcing; but all the concepts are cleared in class,” she says. “You punctuate the class with the application of real life.” She never disliked any of her students, she says, adding, “every student is an individual and is different – that is one of the joys of being a teacher; you don’t get money, but this is one of the positive sides to it. I get on a high every time I teach. I feel intoxicated communicating and interacting with young people.”
It is nothing short of ironic that I was introduced to the real Mrs Mujahid in her capacity as a substitute teacher. KGS too was introduced to her in the same way. At her wedding dinner in 1969 (Mrs Mujahid is married to Cricket Commentator Chishty Mujahid, who was Head Boy of the KGS Class of 1962), she was approached by J L Papworth, then vice principal of KGS and Mr Siddiqui, the senior master. “They asked if I would like to substitute for two weeks for a teacher on medical leave.” Two weeks turned into 46 years. She became senior mistress (second in command to the principal) in 1981 and had the charge of classes 7 to 11. In 2000, she was made headmistress of the newly built College Section (classes 10 to second year of A-levels). She taught biology throughout, till her last day.
Responding to my question of why the school has kept up the tradition of appointing British principals, she says “they have served as useful buffers against political interference [including sifarish].” Despite this, however, some parents have complained that politically connected individuals currently wield a great deal of influence within the school’s board of governors. Mrs Mujahid says that she can only speak for the period in which she was in charge. “Till I retired, in 2015, I tried to be as fair and as outspoken as I could be,” she says. C N Wrigley, a longtime principal of the school (currently serving as Stand-In Principal), has described her as “a very hard act to follow.”
KGS’s tradition of British principals has its roots in the school’s origins in 1854 as an Anglican foundation for the white folk living in the city. It is these roots, among other things, that differentiate it from Aitchison College, an all-boys boarding school that started as a Chief’s College geared towards catering for the sons of local aristocrats. “KGS encourages much more social diversity – in A-levels in particular,” says Mrs Mujahid. “We have a whole range of people now, including girls in hijab and students from rural-based families – and this is a good thing.”
One of the reasons why KGS charges a lower fee than some of its peer institutions is to encourage this diversity. The school offers a financial aid scheme for students from underprivileged backgrounds, which provides a 70 per cent to 100 per cent remission. This is not, however, linked to admission and students must qualify on merit.
Mrs Mujahid is someone who would be described in Grammarian terminology as an ‘Old G’. Durainow Fatima Ali was admitted into kindergarten at KGS in 1951 and graduated in 1962. She got offers from Somerville College at the University of Oxford and Girton College at the University of Cambridge and chose to attend the latter, graduating in 1966. “I owe a lot to my father in particular,” she says. “Even as early as the 1960s in Pakistan, he believed in equal opportunity for boys and girls.” An Edinburgh-qualified surgeon, Dr Munawar Ali kept all his savings to educate his son and daughter, spending an equal amount of money on both. During her student years at KGS, despite there being “limited resources available to teachers [compared to today], some of them were outstanding,” she says. Among these was Lorna Snelling, a literature teacher who was “firm, but lively and interesting,” and who contributed to Mrs Mujahid’s reading habits throughout her life, and Geoffrey Innis, a math teacher.
I ask her what she feels about schools in South Asia exerting greater pressure on students at a young age than those in the West. “It used to be even greater, but it has changed somewhat,” she says, referring to KGS in particular, adding that 15 years ago, the teachers were “so strict” and “less approachable,” but “the school does try. Questioning is encouraged, as is protesting in the right manner, without losing respect. Students are listened to much more now.” Citing the junior section as an example of how things have changed, she says, “Mrs Rahman and Mrs Siddiqui contributed towards reducing the pressure. But I think it is parents who exert the greatest pressures.”
Commenting on instances where teachers have struck students, she says, “they would be asked to leave; there was zero tolerance for striking anyone. If students were ever treated abusively, I would discreetly try to solve the problem.” The practice of caning was abolished in the school at the onset of the 1980s. Prior to that, although caning was exercised, it would usually be “just a sharp rap” she says. There was, however, one exception: “Mr Chapman, who was principal in 1979, used to cane viciously, even at nine in the morning.” She recalls with horror an incident in which a British principal who used to drink alcohol for breakfast, administered a severe caning on a student for arriving a few minutes late. It was soon after this that the practice came to a halt.
Responding to a question about why the school continues with the old system of Cambridge O-levels when British schools have switched to GCSEs and IGCSEs, she says, “Although we have a few IGCSEs, we stick firmly to O-levels as they cater to a more competitive ability range and students who do them have less of a problem adjusting to the jump to A-levels.” O-levels have evolved, she says, and now focus more on “reasoning and thinking skills, rather than just learning huge masses of information.”
I mention that the Pakistan Studies and Islamiat O-level exams were of a nature that encouraged rote learning. But these too have evolved, she says, and there is less rote learning involved, though they are not completely devoid of it. “Until 1987, students had to do these exams at the Intermediate Level (of the Matriculation System) before they applied to local colleges,” she says. “I found the text books rather dull and uninspiring. When John Reddaway [secretary of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate] visited Pakistan, I asked him if the board could do an O-level in Pakistan Studies and Islamiat. He said yes they could. One of my teachers, however, cautioned me that this may lead to an argument vis-à-vis the Sunni and Shia part of the syllabus. So when Mr Reddaway asked me what sort of paper it should be, I said that there must be a compulsory section on the Quran and Hadith, and an optional section of Shia and Sunni students.
“We started off with 50 people sitting this O-level, and the last count that I am aware of [of a single sitting], was 45,000 students,” she continues. “The text books were originally difficult to understand. But now, a lot of Oxford University Press books are used and these are more streamlined.”
In careers that have spanned over 40 years, both Mrs Mujahid and Mrs Ahsanuddin, a former senior assistant headmistress, provided A-level students at KGS with counselling, free of charge. In the sweltering Karachi heat, they sat in offices that lacked air conditioning – at least until they moved to the new campus in 2000. “Our counselling held credibility for transparency, integrity and accuracy of reporting, both locally and internationally,” says Mrs Mujahid. “Many observed that such services would come at a high cost elsewhere. We did not charge a single penny for our counselling.” She adds that “today, however, parents pay large sums of money to private agencies, to provide their children with counselling for college admissions.” According to her, in Singapore a school teacher is paid the same salary as a top engineer. “If you want dedicated teachers then you have to give them a decent standard of living.”
I inquire about the school’s lack of emphasis on sports based on my personal experience in the 1990s, when a 70-minute games period was held only once a week. “Now, there is much more emphasis on sports activities, which are organised every day between 2pm and 4pm,” she says. Referring to out-of-school tuition, a common practice in Pakistan, she says “there is too much of this mania. If the students are taught properly, then they may need to take tuition in one subject, but now there is an obsession with getting ‘A’s.”
Owing to the workload and expectations, Grammarians end up spending many hours of a day on homework, or revision. When I was in 6th grade, the revered Norma Fernandes, then headmistress of the junior school, called an assembly to impress upon us that we must not spend more than an hour-and-a half on homework. “We want you to play,” she said. I ask Mrs Mujahid if an hour-and-a-half was a realistic allocation of time, seeing the workload. “Yes, you can do a very good job in an hour-and-a half,” she retorts, “provided that it is concentrated work and you have understood the concepts in class.”
Responding to a question about whether she feels some of the attitudes inherent in Pakistan’s elite undermine the kind of ethos the school tries to inculcate in students, she says that this is a “blanket generalisation” and that “many elite families have sound values.” She adds, “I think the older families, in particular, have sound values. Yes, there is a rat-race for amassing wealth, which is itself useful but not wholesome. School isn’t against healthy ambitions such as reaching the top. School tries to make people aware of their surroundings and society and to respect those who are less privileged. It is very unfortunate when a person’s education results in their alienation from society.”