Dr Ajaz Anwar recounts taking on a “monster of a man” in a punching match
Somehow no tailor had been able to stitch my coat true to my anatomical measurements. Not even at the Pitman’s. Finally, an old tailor master, upon my complaint/protest, asked me to take off my coat and began measuring my both arms. His findings, to my surprise, were that my left arm was about an inch longer than my right arm. Maybe because I was left handed (only when it came to bowling!). It, thus, was also more muscular and stronger than most of my friends’ right hands.
As the ‘D’ day arrived, in spite of Kishwar’s pacifying appeals (she was a next-door neighbour to the famous painter Iqbal Hussain of Cocoo’s Café; during the recitation of the national anthem in the school assembly we all looked towards her when it rhymed to “Kishwar-i-Haseen…”), my friends and foes alike carried me and Sultan on their shoulders only to be released like roosters trained to fight to the bitter end.
Now this monster of a man was more than a foot taller than myself and, thus, his arms had a greater reach, as was the case with the American professional boxer Sonny Liston. All I knew was that if he landed his punch on me I would be pathetically reduced to pulp, like what Muhammad Ali had done to Liston, even though the judges and referees had measured the heights, weights and pulses of the contestants in the USA.
But here I was, left to the mercy of the beckoning battle drums. While my smiling rival was taking it easy, I gathered courage and decided to make the first hit. I showed him my right-hand fist on which he was keeping a strict vigil. I landed a strong punch with my left hand, below his chin. That was easy for me because he was much taller than myself. I’m sure his tongue too got bitten by his own strong teeth that he had been flashing a short while back.
This was much more for his inflated ego to tolerate. Losing his temper, he furiously began to punch me all around. But he was only punching in the air. All my friends and foes caught hold of him, declaring it a draw. I could see him held by many, while he was angrily pleading to be released as he wanted to finish me. I too asked them all to release and let him come over as I still had to teach him whatever’s fair in love and war.
Secretly, I was also considering an escape strategy, should they let him go. His foes, pretending to be his loyal friends, cajoled him to leave it for another day. Maybe he thought that the one who runs away lives to fight another day.
It was never to be, because we never crossed paths again. But for me it was quite like what John Dryden had written: “Happy the man, and happy he alone/He who can call today his own/He who, secure within, can say/Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.”
Saulat Saeed, our class fellow, always came off first in class exams up till matriculation, but Sultan copied his answer sheets, seated diagonally behind him, ignoring the mandatory social distancing in examination halls and actually got good grades which were certainly not kosher. I am sure he adopted the same ‘method’ in his intermediate exams too.
Eventually, he was accepted in the armed forces. I was happy that we never had to settle old scores. I, too, after a long stint of joblessness and a brief teaching spell at the University of the Punjab, left for Turkey for my doctoral studies and, later, moved to Italy and Uganda for my teaching job at the Makerere University, Kampala. Sultan came to my mind when, as a boxer, Idi Amin, the then president of the Christian-majority Uganda, asked Julius Nyerere, the president of the largely-Muslim Tanzania, not to spill the blood of innocent civilians and instead settle the matter in a duel with his one hand tied.
I bore no grudge for my reluctant rival. In fact, I was happy that his name never appeared among the released POWs (Prisoners of War) of the East Pakistan debacle. I, however, longed to meet him in a friendly atmosphere where we could mutually identify our friends and foes through DNA testing.
That very opportunity arrived some 60 years later when we had our annual reunion at the Joan McDonald Junior Cambridge School (founded by the Irish lady who was the first principal of Kinnaird College, then located on Lake Road), 47 Lower Mall, Lahore. He held me tight just to remind me that he was still strong enough in spite of our golden ages. I told him that on that fatal day I had got really scared, should our mutual friends release him. His honest reply was that he too never wanted to be released as he was afraid of being punched once more under his chin, by my left hand.
Col Sultan had served in the ISI and later joined civil service on quota reserved for the armed forces, duly increased by Gen Zia. Sadly, Col Sultan died soon afterwards. “Rest in Peace” was all that I could murmur upon receiving the sad news. After all, it had been only a friendly duel between two juveniles seeking release of their bursting energies; the prompters were just looking for some fun for free.
(This dispatch is dedicated to the late Col Sultan)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]