So, the splendid old gent is finally retiring. I knew him briefly some quarter-century ago when he was merely old; now he is 94 and trading an enchanted mountain paradise in the former princely state of Chitral for the hot, Punjabi flatlands down-country.
Major Geoffrey Langlands began teaching in England in 1936, the year in which Kipling died. He was sent to India as a serviceman in the Second World War, and then he stayed on…and on.
By the time that I met him, he had already taught for twenty-five-odd years at Aitchison College in Lahore, the Eton of India and later Pakistan; an Indo-baronial pile almost resembling an Oxbridge College.
“I’d spent quite a while dragging the fat sons of maharajahs on forced marches up and down the hills when I decided to retire,” he recalled. “But President Zia (Zia ul Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator in the 1980s) said ‘You can’t go back to England, we need you here.’ Of course, England had changed a lot, so I went to teach in Razmak.”
Waziristan was, then and now, among the wildest Afghan borderlands of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, more so than even the Khyber Agency, and Razmak is the most remote part of Waziristan.
“Oh, Razmak. I spent some time there in the 1930s with the Frontier Scouts,” interrupted our mutual friend, the late Col. Khushwagt ul Mulk, a Chitrali Prince. He passed the bottle to me.
Khushwagt (whose name translates to “Colonel Good-times”) had served downhill in the British fort at Wana in Waziristan, shortly after the departure of Airman Shaw otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. Earlier I had asked him about the mystery surrounding Lawrence’s assumed name: “No great mystery to us,” harrumphed Khush, “the blighter kept signing copies of his book and leaving it in the mess. Not that he ever bought a round of drinks, mind you.”
There Khush had been under siege by the Faqir of Ipi, a freedom-fighter to the Pushtoon tribes but a “mad mullah” to the British. The Faqir had dragged a stolen howitzer far across the high hills from Razmak (of course) and fired his single remaining artillery shell smack into the middle of the parade ground at Wana.
Khush recalled, “The English colonel had lost his pet dog, named Fifi I believe, and so every man-jack of us was sent scurrying under every bunk in every barracks and in every go-down (storeroom) calling for the blasted dog, so it was not until the next morning that we saw the dud projectile stuck into the parade-ground and realised that we had been under attack. By then the Faqir had given up because we had not retaliated; he disassembled his field-piece and meandered back to Razmak feeling utterly miserable, poor thing.”
“But you had been kidnapped in Razmak,” I said to Major Langlands, who nodded modestly. It had been on the front page of every newspaper in Pakistan three years before, and I had wondered what eccentric English schoolmaster had lived in so remote and lawless a place.
The elder brother of one of the Major’s students, he explained, had lost a local election and so, “with peculiar tribal logic, he thought that if he kidnapped a sahib then President Zia might overturn the results.” Zia did not, and Langlands remained a captive for several months.
It must have been difficult, I suggested.
“Oh no!” he enthused. “We ate plenty of goat! And they were a pleasant family, all told.”
From there he went to Chitral, a close approximation to Shangri-La, high in Pakistan’s Hindu Kush mountains bordering on Afghanistan and Chinese Turkestan. The former princely state, peaceful, poor and remote, is full of tiny medieval villages, snowy mountains, raging rivers, an occasional two-humped Bactrian camel grazing in flowery meadows, and ancient, tumbling-down, mud-walled fortresses then containing Khushwagt and his various relations.
There the Major established The Langlands School, the first and still the only one of its kind in Chitral, which now has more than 1,000 students who often go on to study at universities in Pakistan and abroad. Finding teachers was a problem when I knew him, so he had begun to import English debutants who were often taking a “gap-year” break between school and university.
I had journeyed to Chitral to live briefly among the few thousand remaining Kalash people, the last pagans in Central Asia. Thanks to an American anthropologist with commissary privileges from his embassy, I had been given a huge flagon of Ernest and Julio Gallo’s finest, with which to found the Kalash-American Wine Tasting Society in tandem with their own local bottling often sealed with a corn-stalk. In town, Colonel Khush introduced me to the Major along with, um, a certain Johnny Walker whom I had met before.
In those days, the Chitrali gossip focussed almost exclusively on what we called the Bouncing Debs; wholesomely glamorous, mostly strawberry-blond, long-haired English Roses who persisted in galloping on horseback through meadow, village and town, their tresses flying behind them like banners.
The local mullahs were outraged, of course, while the Muslim multitudes cheered the foreign maidens. The score, when last I saw it, was Debs: 10, Mullahs: 0, and soon the clerics threw in the towel (if not the turban along with it). Then, as the Book of Chronicles might have mentioned, debs begat more debs, or were in other ways replaced by the same.
The Major, as everyone calls him, retires this autumn and an English headmistress takes over; the local people insisted on a British educator. The modest but still gallant man will retire to Kipling’s Lahore, to spend his final years being revered at his former school, Aitchison College, where no doubt some of his students are now senior instructors and administrators nearing the age of a more conventional retirement.
He earned five pounds sterling a month while teaching in Croydon in 1936, and until autumn makes forty pounds a week (US$ 60) as headmaster. His has been a life of duty and adventure, dedicated wholly to education, labouring for more than three-score years and ten; almost, as Kipling’s gentlemen-rankers would have said, “since Jesus was a lance-corporal.”
Join me only if you wish, but I will raise a “chota-peg” to a great man and a valiant servant of the permanent things.
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