x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

In 1937 our tranquillity was broken - blame it on the bull

The bull falling down the school's well was exciting and alarming in 1937, but it's part of some good memories today.

In 1937 in Lyallpur, now known as Faisalabad in Pakistan's Punjab province, my school was confronted with an epic crisis. "The bull has fallen in the well," exclaimed my distraught classmate to the rest of us.

Our school hostel did not have any taps so we got our water from a well in the compound. To draw water from the well, there was a mechanical apparatus powered by our bull, which was harnessed to a central driveshaft. As the bull walked in a circle around the well, it turned a wheel that brought water to the surface.

Now, this well did not have a wall around the perimeter. On this occasion the ground was wet and slippery, and the poor bull lost its footing and fell in.

To understand the gravity of the situation, a few details about the modest yet well-rounded life we lived as students are in order. Our school days were as simple as they were pleasant. We did not know movies, discos, computers or the internet. Perhaps we were happier for it.

Most of us received from our parents a monthly allowance of 12 rupees (about Dh1 by today's exchange rate) for meals. The hostel food cost us 3 rupees per month, school fees were another 4 rupees per month, and trips to Lyallpur on the weekends and sundry expenses amounted to about 3 rupees.

We managed to live comfortably on 10 rupees a month, with 2 rupees to spare. Today this budget must read like a fairytale, but it was a reality in 1937.

The repast reflected the modest budget as well. The food was simple, even Spartan, but delicious. A daily meal invariable included daal (lentils), a vegetable and roti (bread). Even pickles and chutneys were off the menu. Dessert was such a luxury that it was only served weekly - either kheer (boiled sweet rice with nuts, fruit or spices) or moong dal halwa (sweet lentils). Salads and poppadum (crispy flatbread) were as yet unknown to us.

As much as the simple fare and lifestyle defined our days, the attitude and example of our much-respected teachers affected us even more. Our high school headmaster was a fine human being and an effective teacher. He had a unique way of making us heed his words by appealing to our better emotions.

To illustrate the point, picture the elegant garden of well-manicured green grass and beautiful flowers that lay between the school and our living quarters. There was an earthen path between the two buildings, but most of us would take the shortcut across the grass. We would also merrily pick the flowers.

Until our headmaster made his appeal. "If you walk on the green grass, it is like trampling on my chest," he told us. "If you pluck flowers from the plants, it is like pulling the hair from my head."

After this impassioned plea, none of us could ignore our duty and stray from the designated path. The grass, and the dainty flowers, had been rescued. Thus we received our first lesson on respecting nature.

It was into this tranquil environment that the bull fell, sending considerable reverberations as you can imagine. As students, we had our own worries. The water from the well was our lifeline: we drank it, used it to bathe and washed our clothes in it. With the bull trapped in the well, we worried about how we would survive even for the next day.

There was a tremendous commotion in the school. How could we lift the heavy bull out of the narrow well? And all the while, the animal was in an agonised panic, with its bellows resonating up the well.

But in 1937, as it turned out, there were specialists in extracting bulls from wells. Finally the school summoned some men from Lyallpur. They managed to entwine the bull in thick ropes and haul the shocked animal back up to the surface.

That ended the drama; the bull was given one day's rest after its traumatic experience and the next day it was back at work. Our routine returned to normal for a time.

Even seven decades later, I look back on my teachers of those days, and my experiences, with respect and affection. I even fondly remember that troublesome bull.


Hari Chand Aneja is an 89-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work