My best teacher

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Nizam always wore homespun clothes because he'd come of age when Gandhi was agitating against the wearing of foreign materials

My father had studied and had a great time at St Anthony's, Lahore, a private school for boys run by Catholic Reverend Brothers from Ireland, who had schools all over the subcontinent. The only alternative was another feudal school. My father had become a communist in the 1930s and was trying to break himself and me from his ultra-feudal, Muslim ruling-class background, so that wasn't an option.

I went to St Anthony's in 1951, aged eight, with great expectations, and was shocked to find how awful most of the teachers were. There was a lot of teaching by rote, formal and rigorous. The teachers seemed to have been hired, not for their skills, but for how effectively they could whip our hands and backsides. They all had beautifully oiled canes in their cupboards, and corporal punishment was used for any reason.

My history teacher, Brother Logue, told us the world's greatest leader was General Franco. The principal, Reverend Brother Xavier Henderson, claimed to have been in the IRA. The school was an awful experience.

My father was editor of the country's largest newspaper, the Pakistan Times, and he knew and liked its librarian, Nizam Din, with whom he'd worked years earlier in the nationalist movement. Nizam was well educated, and when I was about 12, and my father decided I should learn more about Islamic history, he chose Nizam as my tutor. It turned out to be an inspired move.

Nizam was from a peasant family. He was short, dark-skinned, wiry, and always wore homespun clothes because he'd come of age when Gandhi was agitating against the wearing of foreign materials. They were in traditional north Indian-style, and in winter he wore beautiful homespun shawls.

He would come to our house once a week to teach me, from the end of school until supper. He took me through the Koran and its history, but after a few lessons I got bored. "I know you're being paid by my parents to teach me this stuff," I said, "but there are other things in the world." He burst out laughingand asked: "What do you want to talk about?" I said politics, and he gave me an account of the Indian nationalist and communist movements. We soon forgot about Islamic history and would discuss Punjabi history and literature, and English literature.

He was a great fan of Walter Scott, and as my father had a large library full of politics, history and literature, I went and read Scott, just as I read the great English and Russian novelists. Tolstoy had a big impact on me - a great one at mingling history and fiction.

Nizam encouraged me to read widely, and we'd discuss whatever I was reading. Our lessons were informal. It was the best education I had as there was no compulsion. If grown-ups passed the room where we worked, he'd burst into Arabic and pretend we were discussing the Koran.

He taught me for about four years, until I took the equivalent of O-levels, at 16, and then I went to university, where the first two years were the equivalent of A-levels.

Nizam was a gentle soul with a tremendous sense of humour. We have never lost touch. He is in his late eighties and still quite alert. He works as a librarian for the Commission of Human Rights, so when I'm writing an article on Pakistan I ring him up and he sends me clippings.

When I or my children go to Pakistan we meet him, and he tells tales of what I was like as a kid, which entertains them. They say: "He's still like that."

Historian and novelist Tariq Ali was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

The story so far

1943 Born Lahore, Pakistan

1951 Attends St Anthony's school, Lahore

1960 Punjab University

1963-66 Exeter College, Oxford. First Pakistani president of Oxford Union

1968 Active in protests against Vietnam war

1970 Writes first book, Pakistan: military rule or people's power?

1990 Writes first novel, Redemption, followed by Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree and The Book of Saladin

1997 With Howard Brenton, writes the play Ugly Rumours, a satire of New Labour

2000 Publishes Masters of the Universe: Nato's Balkan crusade, followed by latest novel, The Stone Woman (Verso pound;17)

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