Ab dus-Salam was employed as an English teacher in an institution named Anjuman-e-Muslimeen where a great deal of emphasis was laid on instilling and expanding religious values. Scarfs were mandatory for girls. Even while playing kabaddi, boys could not commit the sacrilege of taking off their skullcaps. They were told that if they did, God would abandon them. Abdus-Salam would be astounded when he saw boys from both teams wearing white and black skullcaps, protective amulets and talismans tied to their arms and ankles. At such times he would muse: On whom shall God bestow victory now? Would God be confused in this situation? Then he would tell himself that the Almighty would align Himself with the powerful, for the Almighty was the most intimate with the essence of power.

The teaching staff of the school comprised five men and fifteen women. The female teachers would arrive at the school clad in burkas, and then take them off within the premises. They claimed that the staff room was hot and stuffy. To Abdus-Salam, some of these female teachers themselves were instrumental in making the staff room “hot”. Over time, the male teachers had acquired an effeminate tenor in their intonation. Their long beards, however, allowed no room for misperception about their male identity.

In their free time, they would engage in conversation with the female teachers about matters ranging from the reasons for the decline in religion and faith and the educational backwardness of Indian Muslims to the partisan attitude of the police during riots. The female teachers, in the midst of their stitching and crochet work, or while savouring fritters and samosas, or while checking students’ notebooks, would listen indulgently to their banter. All of them had a gripe against Abdus-Salam that he steered clear of participating in their discussions on such grave and sensitive issues; he had no compassion for society. He would ordinarily be absorbed in a newspaper or a book, with a soft smile on his lips.

All the female teachers concurred that students whose medium of instruction was English became proficient in reading and writing far more rapidly compared to the students in Urdu medium schools. It is on these grounds that they deemed it appropriate to educate their children in English schools. This was the sole area of agreement among the female teachers; otherwise, they routinely contradicted one another on most other issues.

A dearth of time, burden of work, stratagems to save money from their salaries so the in-laws would not be able to raise objections, smooth and coquettish guiles for the fulfilment of demands imposed on husbands, were condoms permitted or forbidden? Does pleasure escalate or diminish when using this rubber contraption conceived by the British and Jews? Is there a Zionist conspiracy behind its creation? These were some of the issues on which the female teachers argued intensively when alone, and as was their wont, would never be in accordance with one another. It is possible that they indulged in these arguments solely to amuse themselves. God knows!

On the other hand, those among them who were immersed in extramarital liaisons conferred with each other furtively about how much they should squander on their paramours. What gifts should they lavish upon them? Which hotels afforded them inexpensive rooms? Which hotels were sufficiently far away from the city to be safe to spend time there? Often, they would speak candidly about sex, inquiring as to who had experienced the most luscious orgasms. What all should be done to achieve orgasms? Hand-in-hand, they would also exchange notes about who prayed all the special prayers on the holy nights such as shab-e-qadr and shab-e-me’raj, and who fasted for how many days during the holy month.

Abdus-Salam had surmised that the female teachers were engaged in the process of extracting paramount pleasure and delight from life; whereas the male teachers, decimating and annulling their individuality, shackled to the inevitability of becoming like everyone else, were steadily morphing into innocuous, faceless human beings. He would be bewildered on observing that even the clothes they donned were featureless, lest they reveal any element of individuality. “The act of eking out an existence within the straight-jacketed dictates of community and society has turned most male teachers into gandu-aadmi, lily-assed catamites.”

He inscribed this line in his notebook, and then, after mulling over it a bit, struck off the words “gandu aadmi”. In their place, he wrote “non-human”. He had expunged those words because this notebook was kept in the staff room, and he was worried that if a colleague accidentally came across those words in the notebook, it would be unnecessarily hurtful. In Abdus-Salam’s assessment, a teacher was a creature who had no identity of his own, no personality, no individuality. He always wanted to look like others. He wanted people to look upon him as a good human being, as an educated human being, and to respect him. For this very reason, he transformed into a meek species, which executed every governmental diktat with a bowed head. He ran away from asking questions. At official functions, he perched like a frog but never offered a contrary opinion on anything. He performed clerical duties for the administration during elections, censuses and other such extraneous events or occasions. In Abdus-Salam’s view, a teacher was an entity whose chemistry harboured no trace of critical thought, innovative inquiry, indignation or rebellion.

Excerpted with permission from On the Other Side, Rahman Abbas, translated from the Urdu by Riyaz Latif, Penguin India.