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Death of an icon

Death of an icon

By Ayesha Siddiqa

In this fast-moving digital world, it seems difficult to imagine times not too long ago when the passing away of a celebrity was felt deeply. I am talking about times when tempests would occur every time an icon breathed their last, or at least that’s what it seemed like. I am sure a few decades ago, the sun and sky would have all darkened at the news of the death of a great woman — an amazing history teacher, Ms Shameem Anwar who breathed her last on January 17 in Lahore.

I am sure many of those who read this paper will not be able to relate to her, let alone be able to understand and capture her brilliance. Since the teaching profession has become a slightly more socially acceptable one, especially at the tertiary level, it is not difficult to find many wonderful and well-paid professors in private universities and colleges. But I am talking about the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s when teaching in either the private or the public sector wasn’t that well paid. But that was not the challenge for Ms Anwar, who could often be seen sitting in the sprawling lawns of Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore after college hours, passionately talking about what she loved the most — history. These were not private lessons, but conversations aimed at satisfying the appetite for knowledge of those who were interested or who had burning questions.

Having graduated from McGill in history during the 1960s, there are few teachers who could match her love and dedication to her subject and her students. I remember the amazing way in which she taught us the history of the Indian subcontinent. She would lay out the history of a region in front of us, connecting it to events and developments all over the world. She didn’t dwell on conspiracy theories, but wanted her students to have a comparative picture of the world and other regions as we studied the history of our own. It helped us understand policies and their implications. She was provocative, motivating us to research and find answers. I remember feeling agitated by her discussion on the state of Muslims in 19th century India to such a degree that I went home, dug out books and read them to prepare a befitting reply. It was only after I submitted my answer and had cooled down that I realised that she had actually taught me much more than I could have otherwise learnt. Her intention was not to aggravate, but to excite her students to search for answers.

Ms Anwar was indeed a modern woman who encouraged her students to feel and visualise their independence as something more than just a physical phenomenon. She embraced modernity, especially politically. And this was indeed the lens she used when explaining Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah — all men about whom she would get very excited.

Ms Anwar taught me during the 1980s when Pakistan’s ideology was shaping up and taking a totally different direction. I remember a few other history teachers, who would try to be watchful of her under the pretext of national security. One wonders what they made of her deeply emotional connection with the idea of Pakistan and the movement for it. As students often do, we would sometimes privately joke about her that had Jinnah been alive, she would have reacted towards him as teenage girls do towards rock stars.

But the real test of the teacher is to be able to rise above his/her personal, ideological and intellectual prejudices to engage with contrary ideas. I know those, who despite being world-renowned, rip students apart for trying to question a certain notion of Jinnah. I once remember turning in an assignment about the 1971 debacle in which I had questioned Jinnah’s perspective on ethnic identity and language, and the centrality of these in the lives of Bengalis and other nationalities in the country. Her assessment of my writing was based on gauging the strength of my argument rather than her personal likes and dislikes.

And then like a good teacher, she would happily become the student and listen to her former pupils come and share their perspectives. I was in touch with her after she retired and would, once in a while, drop by to chat about political issues. Instead of silencing her student, she would sit and listen patiently and ask questions.

As I heard the news of her death, I felt deep remorse not just at the loss of a precious life, but at my own callousness and that of many others for letting her down. Life can be tough and it was for her, especially towards the last decade of her life. Having fallen on hard times, she had to take refuge in the house of a woman who had once been her housemaid. In later years, some old Kinnaird students got together to occasionally provide some financial help. But no one thought about her need to engage intellectually. In the vanity of our own lives, we never thought that her needs were not just about a few thousand rupees. How could we not attend to a woman who gave us the most important tool — knowledge and the ability to think?

Aren’t I guilty of ignoring a person who dazzled my imagination and that of thousands of others, perhaps more than any other celebrity ever could? Ms Anwar was single-handedly responsible for creating many women who went on to become leaders in their own fields. Each one of us who has made their mark are an extension of Ms Anwar. Trust me, they don’t make such teachers every day. She was a real star for having created intellectual, thinking minds. We must celebrate such people more; merely calling them on Teacher’s Day isn’t enough.

In her death, I have lost a teacher, a mentor and a beacon who can best be eulogised in the words of WH Auden:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone

Silence the pianos and with a muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He {she} Is Dead
Express Tribune

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