Just after Christmas in 2007, my best friend and I received a call from Kinnaird 's debating club. Everyone was away during the winter break and a surprise debating tournament had come up. We were new to debates and very keen to participate, so we readily agreed.
She dropped by at my place from Valencia, a suburb of Lahore. My grandfather was supposed to drive us to Government College University (GCU), on the other side of Lahore, but our car broke down on the University Road near the Punjab University.
We took a rickshaw and went on. My friend said that if her parents found out what was going on here, they would never let her come out again – her parents were very protective, and very uncomfortable the safety standards of rickshaws apparently. Usually GCU, with its majestic clock tower and stone arches, is bustling with young people in maroon blazers. But today it was all empty and quiet.
|The desolate GCU, Lahore in winters.|
We were welcomed by Siddique Awan, the faculty member who always escorted the GCU debating team. He explained that this tournament was organized on the insistence of the then Punjab Governor, Khalid Maqbool, whom he jokingly referred to as the "Patron Saint."
Miss Saira, a Political Science teacher from Kinnaird, was going to join the tournament as an adjudicator.
This wasn’t unusual. Miss Saira was an unfaltering comrade of Kinnaird's Debating Society. She was a motherly figure for us, with an enormous body frame, a tender smile, and gregarious nature. Above all, she had an enthusiastic and warm voice that helped us remain calm and confident during rough debates.
She also taught me two Political Science courses. In class, where I was the only non-political science major, she was much kinder to me because I was in her debating society. She used to tell this to everyone with pride. And whenever I asked a question she used to say "Ma sadke" (“mother sacrifices”, an endearing saying in Punjabi).
However, the best feature of the class was that it was often held outside, in one of Kinnaird's dreamy gardens. One could see her sitting there, with her girls around her on the ground or benches. Somehow, we all wished to take that class.
|Miss Saira taking a class outside in Kinnaird. ( Photo by Ms Sheeba alam)|
On that unsparingly chilly December day, when I entered the room for debate, I asked Miss Saira why she was so late. She said the situation had worsened outside. "Benazir Maari Gaye hai," she said.
Benazir has been killed.
"But you please focus on the debate," she directed me.
We lost the debate. I don't remember what it was about. Everyone dispersed soon after and it was dark already. Political events in Pakistan often trigger violence but a high-profile assassination like this can cause massive riots. My friend's sister was in the Secretariat nearby, she came to fetch her swiftly. Miss Saira offered to take me to her home. Since GCU was in the city's centre, she feared that I might get stuck in the unrest.
When we reached the Upper Mall Road, there were herds of young men, lighting up tyres and forcefully shutting the shops down. They were running around frantically and one or two even tried stopping our car. But Miss Saira didn't stop or even slow down. We quickly reached her home in Shadman.
Soon, I was sitting in her bedroom, watching the news of course. It was a sad moment. We were already arguing if Benazir should have come out of that vehicle. In the bedroom was a photo of Miss Saira as a young bride in a blue dress, much thinner and younger than she was now, the mole on her left cheek was much smaller.
Her daughter Maheen, who was also a debater, was present there. Soon my grandfather came to fetch me. He met Miss Saira and was very grateful to her for bringing me over.
In October 2014, Miss Saira died after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. She was just 50 years old. And my grandfather died soon after. The only one who probably still remembers this event is Miss Saira’s daughter.
But I am the only one who was in that car with her when she braved through a street full of hooligans and brought us home safely.