'I love Pakistan and Chitral is best of Pakistan'

BY NEIL TWEEDIE, LONDON DAILY TELEGRAPH CHITRAL, Pakistan: Five years separate Major Geoffrey Langlands from his centenary, so it was to be expected that he would remain in his chair during the show marking his retirement from the school high in the Hindu Kush that bears his name. Yet, even at the age of 95, the old boy is far too wily to let a photo opportunity slip by. When pupils of Langlands School and College broke into a folk dance from their native Chitral, he was up, walking stick discarded, twirling around, hands raised above his head. The boys and girls of the school whooped with delight as their old principal temporarily abolished the passing years, mobbing him as he danced. Langlands, last survivor of the Raj, certainly knows how to work a crowd. “How do you follow that?” asks Carey Schofield, the woman who arranged the surprise party in Langlands’ honour late last month. “It is very hard to take over from the Major. He is quite literally irreplaceable.” Geoffrey Douglas Langlands is a phenomenon. When the British pulled out of India in 1947, he stayed on, first as a soldier instructing Pakistan’s fledgling army and then as a teacher to that country’s youth. Generations of Pakistanis owe their education to him. In a career lasting 60 years, he has sought to maintain the ethos of the English public school in an alien land, long after the sun set on the empire he served. Britain has changed out of all recognition since Langlands departed its shores in the middle of the Second World War to serve with the Indian Army. By going away and staying away, his old-fashioned brand of Britishness, involving service rather than gain, has been preserved. Now at last, he is retiring and handing over control of his school. Schofield, author of several books, has taken on the challenge of replacing a man regarded as a legend in Pakistan, if known hardly at all in Britain. The process of finding a successor to the major has been a tortuous one. For years now, candidates for the job of principal at the college he founded a quarter of a century ago have come and gone, backing out at the last moment. Security has been the main concern. Chitral, a former princely state hemmed in by towering peaks, is an isolated corner of the northwest frontier bordering Afghanistan, and thus potentially vulnerable to incursions by the Taliban. Only now, as Langlands nears his century, has his job been filled, somewhat to his regret. In post for only a few weeks, the unmarried and unattached Schofield has forsaken her home near London’s fashionable Sloane Square for a mountain fastness. So why, at the age of 59, has she abandoned an enviable lifestyle in Britain to come here? “Because it would be nice to make a difference,” she says, speaking for the first time about her new job. “It is good in middle age to be able to do something useful. The college and its associated primary schools educate a thousand pupils. If we can turn them around it will improve a thousand young lives. The job is daunting but worth doing.” And the Taliban? “Chitral is safer than Chelsea. There have been a few incidents but most of them involve goat rustling, not terrorism. There was a bad incident in 2011 when members of the Chitral Scouts were killed during an attack from Afghanistan but that was further south. Chitral is unlike the rest of the northwest frontier, more tranquil. The risk is very slight.” Langlands has shown a similar lack of concern. There is something poignant, solitary, about him. Born in 1917, with a twin brother, he lost his father almost immediately to the great flu pandemic of the following year. His mother succumbed to cancer when he was 10 and he and his brother and younger sister were left in the care of grandparents. The kindness of a family friend allowed him to be put through public school at King’s College Taunton. With no money, university was out of the question and teaching followed. A mathematician, Langlands was working in a private school in Croydon when war broke out in September 1939. Joining up immediately, he was selected for the commandos, taking part in the disastrous Dieppe Raid in 1942. Following his commission, he was sent to India, and life changed forever. Attached to the Pakistani army for six years following independence, and with no wife to return to in England, Langlands decided to stay on, transferring back to his old profession. As a teacher at Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan’s answer to Eton, he became mentor to the country’s elite, including a less than assiduous pupil by the name of Imran Khan. A period in Waziristan, a lawless Pashtun province, followed, during which the Major was kidnapped by a disgruntled warlord. Then, for the last quarter of a century, there has been Chitral, his mountain home. Now, Langlands is returning to Aitchison, where rooms have been prepared for his “retirement.” Having earned a pittance during his teaching career — the principal’s salary at Langlands School and College is 35,000 rupees a month, or about $300 — he must rely on the generosity of his former employer. But as preparations for his departure have progressed, it has become clear that the Major does not want to go. “I want to stay,” he says, in a voice still strong but punctuated by long pauses. “But it has been decided that I am of more use in Lahore helping to raise money for the College.” Schofield is never less than complimentary about the major, praising him at every available turn for his contribution to education in Pakistan. But the truth is that the Langlands School and College is in something of a mess. Understandably for a man of his advanced years, Major Langlands has allowed things to slip. Schofield is attempting to rejuvenate an institution lacking money, books and teachers capable of conducting lessons in English, supposedly the school’s raison d’être. Although a fee-paying institution, the college is in dire need of cash. Fees are minuscule by western standards — maybe $15-$20 a month — but many parents escape them by pleading poverty. Invariably, when parents asked that fees be waived on such grounds, Major Langlands agreed. The result is a financial black hole only now being delved into by a firm of auditors in Lahore. “I have no firm information until the completion of the independent audit I have commissioned but I know the financial situation is pretty precarious,” says Schofield. “The headline fact is that even if all families paid fees we would not have enough money to pay the teachers.” Signs of decay are all around. The college library is a small collection of dusty old books, and the power supply extremely erratic. There is no school hall, no Internet and no heating to soften the bitter Himalayan winter. Computers donated by a school benefactor last year gather dust for want of someone to install them. Above all, there is a palpable sense of drift. Many of the 50 Pakistani teachers at the Langlands schools cannot speak English properly and lessons are often conducted in Khowar, the language of Chitral. Schofield has found herself wading through interminable conversations, trying to get straight answers about the state of the school. “You need structures,” she says. “Step by step, you must impose order. My allies are the teachers here. They are not perfect — I am not perfect — but they care about the students. This is an English-language school and we need to improve the level of English, and for that we need English teachers.” Schofield wants new backers for the college and new teachers, ideally from Britain. “Keen graduates would do, or in my dreams, young teachers in search of adventure. Or maybe people like me, in search of a life change.” What should they expect? “The unpredictable.” And the pay? “They wouldn’t starve, that is all I can say.” But why come to this remote place? The answers are all around. The college sits on high ground, commanding a view southward towards the fortress town of Chitral — and what a view. On clear days the mountains gleam, great, slab-sided monuments of white streaked with black granite, towering over lower slopes. In the valley all is green, houses dotting tiny fields crammed with crops. Cultivable land is at a premium in Chitral, but never beauty. When the clouds come, grounding the tenuous air-link with Peshawar and Islamabad, they hang on the mountainsides. One can stand on the rough piece of ground that passes for the college cricket ground and look down on clouds, not up. Chitral oozes history. It was the last piece to be added to the jigsaw that made up British India, the arena for the closing stages of the Great Game which had seen Britain and Russia vie for advantage in the mountain passes guarding the routes from Central Asia to the subcontinent. In 1895, a small British force found itself besieged in Chitral Fort, overlooking a bend in the River Kunar. The field guns that kept the besieging tribesmen at bay are still there, pointing rustily towards an unseen enemy. Inside, an ornate dining room gathers dust, decorated with portraits of long-dead turbaned princes and framed letters from equally dead British viceroys. “I love Pakistan and Chitral is the best of Pakistan,” says Schofield. “People here are friendly and life is infinitely interesting — there is always something going on, so many layers. Pakistanis, and Chitralis in particular, are warmer than we British, hopeless in lots of ways but inclusive and truly welcoming. There is a joyful approach to life. Sometimes I try to adopt a stern countenance in meetings when expressing displeasure at this or that, but always find myself smiling in the end. It is impossible to be angry for long with such people.” Language barriers aside, British teachers would be pleasantly shocked when dealing with the pupils at Langlands. Rudeness to a teacher is almost unheard-of and a visitor is greeted time after time with the words “Good morning, sir” or “Good morning, madam.” The Britishness of the school — grey trousers and jumpers for the boys — is tempered by Muslim sensibilities. The girls, who wear white headscarves, or hijabs, are educated in a separate building at the college. The best of them beat the best of the boys academically, but they are in a minority. Langlands has some fine success stories among its former pupils but not enough, and Schofield wants more. “It’s worth coming to help here,” she says. “The children are bright and the place is amazing. They have respect for their elders.” Gaining the trust and respect of the teaching staff will take time. Schofield — the pupils still battle with her name, preferring “Showfield” — has yet to meet some of the more elusive ones. In the 21st century, a Pakistani school run by a British principal and functioning in the English language may be regarded by some as a patronizing anachronism but teachers at the school recognize the value of operating in the “world language.” Rehmat Abdullah, the college’s biology teacher, is a confirmed fan of the new principal. “Without getting English education in science and technology we cannot advance as a country,” he says. “To be a dignified nation we need this. There may be a few elements who oppose it, but few.” Down in Chitral town, with its busy bazaar and muddy, poorly-paved streets, lie the three primary schools that make up the rest of Miss Schofield’s new empire. The children in the playgrounds are happy but the classrooms in these converted houses are dark and dank, lacking natural light. There is no power and the children strain to read their books. Shahida Azeen, one of the three primary school heads answering to Schofield, earns just $250 a month. The lack of money for good teachers is, she says, stark in comparison with state schools. “Things are very tough,” she says. The very low salaries mean teachers must adopt the attitude of missionaries, working for the good of the children rather than themselves.” What of a female principal? Is there resistance locally to a woman being in charge? “Chitrali men are very gentle and kind,” says Azeen, “so there will be no problem with a female principal.” And the fact that she is British, a foreigner? “Totally not. Major Langlands is the most favourite person of the Chitrali people. The security he has is a formality — he does not need security at all. We have had very good experience with British people.” Schofield has inherited Langlands’ bodyguard but insists on a more discreet presence. Her personal protection officer is dressed in civilian clothes and does not brandish the ubiquitous Kalashnikov. Her best defence, however, resides in the alertness of the local population to strangers. Foreigners are rarities here. In 2001, before 9/11, there were 2,500 visitors to Chitral. After the attacks, in 2002, that number plummeted to 320. Last year, the figure was just 530. There are few Westerners to be seen, apart from those working on development projects. Major Langlands is due to take up residence in his retirement home later this month but he will still influence events in Chitral. As chairman of the college trustees, he oversees the endowment fund that produces about $70,000 a year in income. Geoffrey Langlands refuses to simply disappear. For him, retirement is a wholly alien concept. There are things still to do, not least mastering the iPad given to him by a well-wisher. And there is no doubt about his continuing popularity, despite the problems he is leaving behind. “We pay tribute to Sir G.D. Langlands and, dear fellows, his remarkable services,” proclaimed one of his pupils at the leaving event. “Dear sir, you are leaving Chitral but will always be in our hearts.” Will he be sad in Lahore, away from his beloved mountains? “I like it wherever I am,” he says. “When people say, ‘Which place do you like best of all?’ I always give the answer that came from my grandmother: I like best the place where I am.” He has already selected his final resting place. “Pakistan, definitely. No one in England knows me. They are already choosing me a plot in the Christian cemetery in Lahore. I said that it must be near the main gate because some people would not like to walk through a Christian cemetery.” And there you have it: Geoffrey Douglas Langlands, an Englishman forever abroad. The London Daily Telegraph