Study in Pakistan  
After secondary education in Mauritius, I applied for a scholarship to pursue technical studies in Pakistan under the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme. It was a three-year full time Diploma of Associate Engineer (DAE) course at the Government Polytechnic Institute in Rawalpindi. The course included regular studies having classroom lectures, workshop assignments, lab experiments, and an industrial tour in Karachi, and was supplemented by a professional attachment to an industrial unit.

Most of the other applicants were also students from the John Kennedy College. Two of us were selected; myself for a course in Radio and Electronics, and another candidate for a course in Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning. Under this scheme, everything was paid for us - return air tickets, hostel and course fees, an annual allowance for clothing, books and other course material, and we received a monthly stipend for meals and other expenditures. Medical treatment was free.

When we started our studies in 1970, the examining body was the West Pakistan Board of Technical Education. After the Indo-Pak war in 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh and West Pakistan became simply Pakistan, and the board became the Punjab Board of Technical Education.
Travelling by plane was not commonplace in those days and most of the Mauritians going abroad made the journey by ship. The Pierre Loti ship was well known for carrying many Mauritians to England for nursing studies and jobs. So we had no idea what exactly to expect once we boarded the plane and our parents had insisted that we take some food along with us. I had fried chicken in my handbag and my friend had a big loaf of pastry with him. Of course, meal was served on board but I was so upset that I could not bring myself to eat. The air hostess thought that I did not like the food which was being served and asked me whether I would like some vegetarian food, which I politely refused. All I wanted to do was to sleep.

We left Mauritius by Air India at night in September 1970 and reached Bombay in the midst of the night. We were lodged in a hotel as transit passengers and spent the next day touring Bombay. After dinner, we were told that there was going to be some film shooting of a song and dance sequence at the hotel and if we liked we could get a chance to see some Indian film stars. We missed the film shooting as we had to leave for the airport to catch the East African Airways plane to Karachi. In Karachi, we roamed about the airport until we found out that our connecting flight to Islamabad was due many hours later. My friend succeeded in convincing an airport employee to put us on an early flight and, to reward him, we happily got rid of our fried chicken and pastry loaf. Some minutes later we boarded the Pakistan International Airline plane for Islamabad on the last lap of our journey.

We were greeted at the airport by Mr Issabhay Nabheebaccus, a third-year Mauritian student from the same college, who had been informed of our arrival by the college authorities. The taxi we travelled by had a punctured tyre on the way and as the driver got down to kick and curse it in Punjabi language, we started to learn our first foul words of the local language, which Issabhay laughingly translated for us.
The Government Polytechnic Institute of Rawalpindi is a huge complex covering 80 acres (with an additional 50 acres earmarked for future development). The campus is located on Peshawar Road, 13 Kms from the heart of Rawalpindi and 15 Kms from the center of the capital Islamabad (Rawalpindi and Islamabad are known as Twin Cities). It consists of the training blocks and workshops, the administrative block and auditorium, three hostels (for first, second and third year resident students) and one mess room, living quarters for teaching and supporting staff, football, volley-ball, hockey and cricket playgrounds, a mosque, a shop, a bank, a post office and a dispensary, all well laid out in spacious surroundings with plenty of green spaces. Diploma courses in eleven technologies are offered and the curriculum is a nice blend of technical, management and social studies.
First year students were lodged three in a room in Hostel A and second year students in Hostel B while third year students were lodged two in a room in the more luxurious Hostel C. Foreign students, or foreigners, as we were known, stayed one in a room in Hostel C as from the first year. But due to a shortage in accommodation, I and my friend had to occupy a single room for the first year. There were two more foreigners in their final year and both were from Kenya.

A view of the campus in the 1970's

A training block
As I settled down in my room, I slowly realised that I was away from home in a boy's boarding school, alone but free, and about to start living a wonderful adventure which I had often dreamed of. In fact, when I was in secondary school, I used to read the books of Anthony Bukeridge about the adventures of Jennings and Darbyshire at the Linbury Court Preparatoty School. The books vividly described life at a British boarding school and I wished I could go through something similar. The three years I spent in Pakistan turned out to be among the best in my life.

Strict discipline reigned in the hostel. The warden was a bachelor teacher who occupied a room in Hostel C and there was also a prefect for each hostel. Routine checks were carried out almost every night by the warden accompanied by the prefect, to see if we were in our room and studying. We had to observe study hours every night from eight to ten except on Sundays. Once in winter the warden came to my room and noticed that I was not wearing any warm clothes. Although I told him that there was a heater in my room, he insisted that I come to his office after study hours to show him that I had put some warm clothes on. And just to tease him, I decked up in my best suit and marched to his office with the other culprits who had been caught on that day!

The hostel balcony in the 1970's

New look of the uplifted hostel
Travelling in Rawalpindi was by bus, taxi, auto-rickshaw or the tonga horse-carriage. Because of their slow moving speed, tongas are now prohibited in the large city centres. Highly decorated buses are common sight in Pakistan and blasting music could always be heard from them. On long distance trips the luggage were hoisted up on the roof rack and the passengers had to pay a separate fare, which depended on the number of pieces of luggage they were carrying. On my first trip in a bus, I found some empty seats at the front and quickly occupied one, wondering why the others preferred to remain standing at the back. The bus conductor was horrified and rushed to pull me back to the rear, yelling at me that the front seats were reserved for ladies only. Very often, when we missed the bus at night after visiting friends or coming from the movie theatre, we would get a lift on cargo trucks in their roomy cabins. Moreover, buses rarely stop on the way; they merely slow down to allow passengers to jump in or out.

Many buses refused to carry students from the city centre to the college because of the low student fare they paid, thus depriving them of higher revenues they would have received from passengers travelling longer distances. When the students were exasperated, they would set up a barricade in front of the college and stop all buses passing by, gathering them inside the yard and forcing them to negotiate with the Student Council and the school management. Some buses did not stop, their driver firing pistol shots in the air and frightening the student rioters away. It was agreed that each bus would take on board a minimum of three students, leaving it to the bus owner's discretion to take up more. But all too often the same scenario would repeat itself, and we really enjoyed the show because as hostel residents, we did not have to travel by bus everyday to attend college.

The Tonga horse carriage

The auto rickshaw

Art-on-Wheel bus

Decorated cargo truck

A rural railway station
Food was in abundance, be it cereals, meat, vegetables or fruits. Mutton was a noble food while beef was considered to be low-grade food. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were meatless days but the Polytechnic Canteen managed to get chicken for us for the Tuesday lunches. When we chose to eat outside in downtown Rawalpindi, Saddar or Raja Bazaar, it was mostly meals made up of grilled meat known as Tikkas and Kebabs with whole-wheat Naan, a sort of flat bread baked in an open-pit oven. In town, fruit sellers also sold fresh fruit juice, with or without a pinch of salt and pepper. You could even choose your own fruit and ask him to extract the juice for you which you drank on the spot. The most common fruit was the mandarin or Kinoo. Everything so tasty and healthy! Another favourite delicacy was the golden Gajar Halwa, a sweet dish made with carrots and pure ghee, and the portion you ordered was weighed on a small balance before being served to you. Most of the time it was one pao, roughly equivalent to 250 grams. My health, weight and look greatly improved during my stay in Pakistan and once the Mauritian ambassador, who was receiving us for dinner, remarked: "You sure have put on some colour!". I absently glanced at the colour of the shirt I was wearing and it was only when we were leaving that my friend explained what the ambassador actually meant.

Rawalpindi town centre

Mutton Tikka and Kebab being prepared

Road through Saddar Bazar

Raja Bazar shopping centre

The Kohinoor Textile Mills near the Polytechnic College.
We guided some taxi drivers to our college by using this landmark.

Entrance to Liaqat Baagh Memorial park (now with fence and gates!).
It used to be a major bus station and venue for political rallies.
Apart from students, the other Mauritians in Islamabad were those working at the Mauritian embassy, as well as at some other French speaking embassies. We met those families very often for social gatherings and some outings in their cars. On many occasions football matches were organized against the staff of other embassies and, as we were short of good players, we would choose some Pakistani friends to reinforce our team.

When the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, visited Pakistan in 1971, all the Mauritians living in Rawalpindi and Islamabad were invited to greet him at the airport. The Polytechnic guys were the last to arrive and we found ourselves at the end of the row, from where we followed all the official ceremony. We were the last ones with whom the Prime Minister shook hands while the Pakistani president, General Yahyah Khan, watched from a short distance. The P.M. was smiling as he said "You are in large number here!" Mauritius television reported on this official visit and one proud uncle wrote to tell me that he had seen me on TV shaking hands with the P.M.

The Prime Minister Secretariat in Islamabad where we reported
for matters concerning our Scholarship.

The InterContinental Hotel in Islamabad where the National Day
(12th March) parties were hosted by the Mauritian Embassy.

Paddle boating at Ayub National Park in Rawalpindi.
In our days we used oars to row the heavy wooden boats.

The Odeon cinema house in Rawalpindi
A strong bond of friendship linked all students, whether they were from Rawalpindi, Satellite Town, Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi. Students in Karachi were mostly from the Dow Medical College and they often came to Islamabad for their admission and medical seat formalities, staying with us at the Polytechnic Institute for this period of time. We made the long journey to Karachi by train only once, for an industrial tour. Most often we travelled to Lahore, a six hours journey by bus, for sightseeing and to stay with friends at the Punjab University, and they would often come to spend their holidays with us in Rawalpindi. I still remember visiting the splendid, snow-clad mountains in Murree in winter, the Taxila museum and orchards, boating at Ayub National Park or on the canals at the Punjab University in Lahore, admiring the Tarbela dam which was under construction and staying with two Mauritian friends there who were working for the project, and spending some time in Swat, a paradisiacal nook in a lost spot in Pakistan.

The Tarbela Dam on the Indus river

Taxila archaeological site

The Badshahi Mosque in Lahore

The Minar-E-Pakistan in Lahore, Symbol of freedom

Shalimar gardens of Persian design in Lahore.
Built by Shah Jahan who also built the Taj Mahal.

The canal at the Punjab University campus in Lahore.
When hiring the boat we left our student ID card as "deposit."
Murree was the place we visited most every winter because of the snow, which we do not have in Mauritius. The first time I came across frozen water in Pakistan was when there was a hailstorm. We were having a practical session in class so I quietly slipped out and picked up a few of the ice pebbles which I inspected curiously. Even in Pakistan only the highest regions like Murree are heavily covered with snow in winter. So many people flock there, making the place a colourful and lively one, although great precaution must be exercised on the road to avoid slipping and skidding. But travelling to Murree by bus was quite risky as the last part of road is very slippery and there are deep ravines on the side. The return down-slope journey is more hazardous and one could only admire the dexterity of the drivers as they manoeuvred to prevent the bus from skidding on the frosty road. At the start of the journey, the passengers would loudly recite a prayer in unison and no music is played on the bus until the road becomes safe again a few kilometres away.

Road to Murree in winter

Snow-clad Murree in winter
During the holidays most of the local students returned to their home place and we were left alone in the hostel without any catering. We relied on sliced loaves of bread and roasted meat, known as hunter's beef for our meals as eating outside every time would have been costly. When the Lahore friends came to stay with us, we pooled our money to purchase ingredients and cooked our own food in the kitchen of the canteen.

There were no hard and fast groups of Mauritians in Pakistan. Sometime I would be with those at the Polytechnic, or I could be with the Lahore guys, or with those who were visiting Rawalpindi, or alone roaming in Saddar Bazar, Raja Bazar or the Malls of Rawalpindi. Very often I went to stay with my Pakistani friends during the holidays and it was most heart-warming to see the welcome I received everywhere, as if I was a member of the family. Typical Pakistani life style. Language was not a barrier as I was familiar with the Urdu language which is spoken in Mauritius also, and I tried to improve during my stay in Pakistan. There are two types of schools in Pakistan, the Urdu-medium schools, and the English-medium schools for the more well-off. I was at ease with both groups of students, although the Urdu-medium friends, because of their lesser fluency in English, tended to shun foreigners. But I found it the best way to learn Urdu by talking to them.

Nuptial garland made of bank notes
I had the chance to attend two wedding ceremonies. In a poor family in a village, the groom arrived on horseback and the women folks would throw coins at him from the terrace as he approached. In a rich family in the city, the groom arrived in a lavishly decorated car with musical band in front. As he entered the bride's place for the nuptial ceremony, he was decked with a garland made entirely with bank notes. Later on the bride and groom left, with truckloads of furniture following them.

During my holidays in the rural areas, I came across people living in rooms they had hollowed out of mountain sides, with a mere piece of cloth hanging over an opening to serve as a door.
We also had the chance to travel by bus and train abroad. To go to India we had to cross the border either at Ferozepur or at Wagah. In India we visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and stayed with friends at the university in New Delhi and Aligarh. They later visited us in Rawalpindi. We also went through the Khyber Pass to Kabul in Afghanistan, where many (apparently smuggled) goods were sold at cheap prices. But students being a poor species by nature, we could not buy anything. We only enjoyed travelling, sight-seeing and merry-making.

Wagah border with India

Ferozepur border at Hussainiwala

Gateway to the historical Khyber Pass

The winding road of the Khyber Pass
But the greatest event that took place at that time was the war between Pakistan and India, leading to the creation of the state of Bangladesh. In Islamabad and Rawalpindi we witnessed very little of the war, although we were subjected to the usual curfew and other constraints, like not smoking outside at night and covering the head lamps of vehicles with brown paper for night journeys. The sound of sirens announcing air raids soon ceased to be taken seriously, most people thinking that the authorities were merely testing their gadgets. On one or two occasions we saw bursts of black smoke far away in the sky, and our Pakistani friends assured us that dog fights were going on, that is, Pakistani and Indian fighter planes chasing and firing at each other. We clang to our radio receivers everyday to get the latest news, listening to both the Pakistani and Indian sides, with each one claiming that it had downed the greater number of planes, destroyed the greater number of military vehicles and other installations and captured the greater number of prisoners of war.

Our parents at home became anxious, but after the war we wrote to reassure them, and they wrote back to tell us that all our letters seemed to have been opened and then roughly pasted back. Ironically, it was during this war that the student community in Karachi and Rawalpindi lived some of their happiest moments. The students in Karachi were in greater danger and wanted to be repatriated, so they wrote to ask the Mauritian ambassador to "send tickets or send coffins". They were given shelter in Rawalpindi where they occupied many rooms for many days in one hotel. But they were still angry that their safety had not been taken into consideration, and one day they stormed into the office of the Mauritian ambassador, closing the door behind them, and spoke out their minds. Diplomacy won over, and on two successive occasions they were invited to a big lunch party in a posh hotel in Islamabad.

All Mauritians in Rawalpindi and Islamabad went to meet the Karachi fellows at their hotel. On many nights, dancing parties were organised, the embassy employees bringing in drinks and cigarettes and others their portable hi-fi equipment. Very often, after such parties, the local students had to spend the night at that hotel. Although there was war outside, it was very cosy inside. The hotel proprietor never minded the Mauritian revelling, but on the contrary he and his staff shared our happy moments. When, after the war, the Karachi fellows left, this man became sad, then angry, and asked where they had gone. No doubt he wanted his hotel to stay booked like this for quite a longer time!

When the war was over the Polytechnic hostel residents were asked to prepare gift boxes to be sent via the Red Cross Societey to the Pakistani prisoners of war. The list of items included safety razor and blades, sewing needles, thread and scissors, nail clipper, and other similar things. I and my friend were the first to drop our boxes in the warden's office and this pleased him a lot.
As a sequel to the war, Pakistan withdrew from the Commonwealth. Although we continued to enjoy our scholarship, other Mauritian students could no longer apply for technical studies in Pakistan under the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme. A very sad outcome.
After the final exams, Hostel C students were required to vacate their rooms. But as we had to wait for the results and collect our diplomas before returning to Mauritius, we were allowed to occupy our rooms for some more months. This caused a lot of inconvenience to the students who had been allotted our rooms.

We were given a wonderful sendoff by our Mauritian friends in Rawalpindi and Islamabad who gathered in a hotel to treat us to dinner and offer us foreign exchange money for shopping on our trip back. From Islamabad we flew by PIA to Karachi where we spent the night in a transit hotel with some of the Karachi friends. The next day we took another PIA flight to Nairobi and we spent the day roaming in the vicinity of our hotel and doing some shopping. Early the next morning we left Nairobi for Mauritius. Up to now we had been travelling by smaller planes but the last flight was in a big Air France Boeing 747 plane which was quite a novelty at that time.

After we graduated in 1974 and returned to Mauritius, the Pakistani education minister visited the institute and announced its upgrading to a technical college offering four-year courses leading to a degree of Bachelor of Technology (BTech). The institute then became known as the Government College of Technology, Rawalpindi.
It was shut down in 1984 following recurrent protests by the students who usually blocked the road. One day, the official convoy of the then President, General Ziaul Haq, got stuck there leading to the closure of the institution. The building remained closed for many years, after which the military took it over and later established the College of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (CEME) to train army technicians.
Almost 26 years later, the Rawalpindi district got a polytechnic college in the public sector. The new college was set up at Hattar Road in Taxila.

The Government Polytechnic Institute Rawalpindi now a military institution

A view of the campus in the 2010's
July 2014

Home Page