By Dr. Ali Madeeh Hashmi

"What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from."
              - TS Eliot

In 2013, my family and I had been back in Lahore for 3 years. After much soul searching, we had finally taken the plunge in 2010 although a few months earlier we had watched in horror as gunmen had stormed the Ahmadiyya house of worship in Model Town Lahore massacring 94 people and injuring over a hundred others, a kilometer from my family’s house. Less than two months later and just a few weeks before we landed in Lahore, two suicide bombers blew themselves up the ‘Data darbar’, the shrine of one of Lahore’s patron saints, the mystic Abul Hassan Al-Hajveri killing fifty people and injuring more than two hundred. It reminded me of our move to the small Arkansas town which I finally left to come back home to Lahore.

Jonesboro, Arkansas is a small farming community close to the banks of the mighty Mississippi river in Northeast Arkansas. Before we moved there in 1998, I had never heard of Jonesboro, or Arkansas, for that matter except in connection to it being the home state of then President Bill Clinton. While we lived there, that became our anchor for how to introduce our state to people in Pakistan: ‘President Bill Clinton’s state’. In March 1998, a few months before we moved to Jonesboro from Houston, two young children, 11 and 13 years old, took up position outside their school armed with a variety of weapons. One of them pulled the fire alarm and as the students inside the school filed out (in the USA, if a fire alarm in a building goes off, everyone has to exit the building in an orderly manner until the alarm is turned off, or until the fire brigade arrives in case of an actual fire).

 Jonesboro, Arkansas

As their school mates and teachers filed out of the building, the boys, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson opened fire and killed four students along with a teacher and injured ten others. The incident came to be known as the ‘Jonesboro Westside School massacre’ and was one of a string of school shootings all over the USA during the late 1990s and into the 2000s. I had watched the news coming out of Jonesboro as a student doctor in Houston. By this time, I had already accepted a job as a consultant psychiatrist in Jonesboro and I wondered what I was getting myself into, going to a place where schoolchildren were shooting and killing other school children and their teachers.

At any rate, despite our misgivings, we landed back in Lahore in July 2010 and, thanks to a job offer from Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) which I had received via email (a wonder in itself considering the bureaucratic inertia in Pakistan), I joined KEMU as a junior faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry immediately after arriving in Lahore.

In February 2013, I was in the process of trying to get my annual teaching contract renewed, without success. This had happened each of the previous three years where HEC had sent me a new annual contract but the red tape and the clerk mafia at KEMU had given me the run around for weeks before it could be signed. It would get so frustrating that every year I would consider quitting rather than having to make repeated rounds of the offices of innumerable clerks and offices, including the Vice-Chancellor’s office where I would be repeatedly rebuffed. 
To me, someone who had spent a large majority of my post-MBBS career in the USA, it was excruciating and mystifying. I was a highly trained professional, a US trained psychiatrist in a country with a total of less than 500 psychiatrists for a population of 220 million people!

At the Department of Psychiatry in KEMU itself, there were just two faculty members with several teaching positions vacant. Every year, like clockwork, HEC would send me a letter asking me to get it signed by the Vice-Chancellor’s office so they could renew my contract and every year, the clerks in the various offices at KEMU’s famed ‘Patiala block’ would make me come back over and over again, to no effect. Eventually I would get the signature I needed but not before I felt angry, frustrated and more than a little humiliated at having to prostrate myself before a variety of ‘superintendents’ and ‘admin officers’ etc.

In 2013, my contract was again up for renewal in July and HEC, as usual, sent my annual renewal a few months early. By January, we had started hearing murmurs that Faisal sahib might be our new Vice-Chancellor. I was both slightly apprehensive as well as a little excited that I might get to meet him again but was not sure when or how I would approach him since, if he did come to KE, I would now be a part of his faculty rather than a student. In addition, after 16 years in the USA and now several years in Lahore, I had become a little jaded. All I wanted was for my annual contract to be signed and to be left in peace to teach and see patients in my Department.

2013 was also when HEC informed me that they were phasing out their ‘Foreign Faculty’ program under which I had come to Pakistan from USA. They were replacing it with another program, modeled on the US university system, called the ‘Tenure Track’ system, a performance based program which required faculty members who were on it to publish high quality research and provide comprehensive feedback of their teaching, clinical and, if needed, personal performance before their contracts would be renewed. 
By this time, I was quite familiar with why people in Pakistan wanted government jobs such as teaching positions in KEMU. It was a steady job with an unspectacular income but the guarantee, if one behaved oneself, that one would never be fired. In addition, after 20 or 25 years of working, one was guaranteed a modest pension and could then go on, if one so desired, to work in other jobs through the contacts one had acquired in government service. The downside of this bargain was the enormous bureaucracy and red tape that one constantly faced which made doing anything meaningful practically impossible.

Since government jobs in Pakistan are a way for the powerful and the influential to grant favors to people, most government enterprises (KEMU included) are top heavy with extraneous workers with minimal skills and zero motivation to do anything. Many employees in government institutions are ‘ghost employees’ meaning they draw their salaries from the government while working other jobs and never even reporting to their government job for work. I found this out when swimming one day in KE’s pool, a perk of working at KEMU. I asked the pool chowkidar where the swimming instructor of the University was since I needed to ask him something. After some hemming and hawing, he told me that the man was at his ‘other job’ at a private school (this was during working hours at KEMU). It so happened that my two sons studied at the private school and I ended up running into him at a parent teacher meeting there where I laughed and threatened, in a light vein, to report him to KEMU authorities (I never did since I discovered later that he was far from an exception-this was the norm). 

As the end of my annual contract grew nearer, I got more and more anxious and finally worked up the courage to go meet Faisal sahib in the Vice-Chancellor’s office. As I walked up to the door, the doorman automatically opened it since he knew me (I had been at KEMU for almost three years). I hesitated as I walked in and paused at the door. Faisal sahib was at the desk at the far end in the large room, engrossed in some papers. The first thing I noticed was the shock of white hair, still thick and full but now almost snow white. It felt odd, as if time had sped up and I had been transported into the future.

In Faisal sahib’s presence, we all felt like medical students again. With some trepidation, I walked up to the desk and sat down in one of the chairs in front of his desk. He looked up and fixed me with his piercing gaze. One of his admin officers was standing next to him. They had been discussing some papers. It so happened that this was the same person who had been holding up my contract renewal and recently had turned a deaf ear to my pleas to hire me on at KEMU as an HEC Tenure Track faculty member, meaning, essentially, that once my annual contract ended in a few months, KEMU would let me go despite the fact that there was already a critical shortage of psychiatry faculty.

“Yes?” Faisal sahib said to me curtly.

I did not expect him to remember me from our brief interactions in the past and I certainly did not expect that he would remember me from having done a house job with him over 20 years ago. Having been a teacher now at KEMU for almost 10 years, I know that only the brightest and most motivated students stick in a teacher’s mind since they are a testament to our work and a source of perpetual pride for us. I had always been a middle of the road student and other than my large stature, was not very noticeable. I had also, for a variety of reasons, always made an effort to make myself unobtrusive and as inconspicuous as possible. 

I haltingly explained my situation to Faisal sahib trying to make it as short as possible. He listened intently for a couple of minutes then said brusquely

 “Tum ne Professor lagna hai?”
(“Do you want to be Professor”?). 

I was serving as Assistant Professor at the time and knew that I did not have enough research publications according to HEC’s very stringent criteria to qualify as Professor. So I responded that I wanted to be promoted to Associate Professor.

‘Seat hai tumharay department main?’
(‘Is there a vacancy in your department?’)  Faisal sahib asked.

I told him that the seat of Associate Professor in KEMU’s Psychiatry Department had been vacant since I had joined there in 2010 and for several years before. Faisal sahib swiveled in his chair and fixed his admin officer with a glare

“Sir, banda aap k paas hai, seat khali hai, aap lagatay kyun nahi hain?”
(“You have a qualified candidate and a vacancy, why won’t you appoint him?”).

When I heard those words from his mouth, I felt like crying with relief. I had been trying to make the bureaucracy at KEMU including the previous Vice-Chancellor’s office understand this for months, to no avail. But Faisal sahib was here now and all would be well.

                               ....TO BE CONTINUED 


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