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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 30 page 20

memoir

students protest at university gate

Comrade Says Life is Good!

by Naeem Ashraf

Last year, a friend of mine informed me that Yusaf alias Comrade had moved back to his native village in Pakistan. I went to see him. (I’ve altered his name for his protection.) Though a little aged now, he looked as handsome and exhilarated as ever. He took me to a large living room that had pinkish walls on which hung a large portrait of himself from his student days.

Ah, yes. I first met Yusaf when he was arrested for quarreling with policemen outside the university gate, where the police had halted a students’ protest procession. Their intervention attracted more students to the site and what began as a peaceful protest swelled into an unruly mob. The use of tear gas and baton charges by the police force further aggravated the situation, leading to scuffles. About a dozen students were taken into custody. But after initial interrogation all were released except three. Comrade was one of those three.

I went to see him in the judicial lockup where he was kept for investigation. In his early twenties, tall and stout, wearing whiskers like those of Genghis Khan, Comrade had radical revolutionary ideas that he often expressed on social media and at student meetings. Any small deviation from standard operating procedures by university management would provoke a call for protest by Comrade. His flaming speeches railed against gender discrimination, underage marriage and harassment of women. Such polemics had made him popular amongst male and female students alike. He pledged to change the system through revolution, making it free of corrupt practices, to replace inept leadership with honest leadership, and to provide equal rights to women.

No sooner had Yusaf alias Comrade finished his graduation than his father, a traditional man, a mediocre landlord in the Punjab, started to worry about getting his son married. Yusaf, however, refused all proposals. His last refusal was his father’s brother’s daughter (that is, his cousin) Nazia. Though a year older than Yusaf, Nazia had recently finished her college. Raised on pure countryside grain, fruits and milk, Nazia had turned out to be a perfect beauty from top to bottom. His father wanted him to marry Nazia but Yusaf refused on the pretext of Nazia’s age. When his father continued to press the matter, Yusaf went to live with an uncle in Multan, an old city of Southern Punjab.

Six years later, after I myself graduated from university, I had an opportunity to visit Italy. The museums and ancient churches of Rome have always inspired me. St. Peter’s Basilica and the National Roman Museum were items on my list. As I embarked on the Tour-Rome bus, I was in for a pleasant shock. I recognized the commanding voice that addressed the passengers about the history of important sites. I remained perplexed for a while, then I recognized that it was Comrade driving the bus! As he snaked through the winding stony roads of ancient Rome, Comrade’s speeches and gestures from university days kept flashing on the screen of my memory. When the bus reached Vatican City, I reintroduced myself to him. He exclaimed and gave me a warm hug. We parted with a promise to meet in the evening.

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