Why We Traveled to Pakistan: Gordon College, Rawalpindi, and our search for Dr. Stewart

dr_stewart_3.jpgWe did not come to Pakistan simply to wander the country for travel’s sake. That we are able to do so — to browse the silk stalls in Rawalpindi’s Rajah Bazaar, to trek across glaciers in the Hindukush, to seek out qawalli singers in the streets of Lahore — is merely icing on the gulab jamun (deep-fried milk ball coated with hot syrup and rose water).
We are here, simply put, to fulfill my wife’s dream to see the place where her great-grandfather, Dr. Ralph R. Stewart, spent 50 years of his life; to know the country where his work as a botanist, educator, and explorer earned him a place in Pakistani history, making him a personal hero to multitudes of his students and colleagues.

In addition, we came to Pakistan to walk in the hills where Tay’s grandmother, her “Jamma,” was born and raised before sailing for the United States at the age of 18.

We are on a historical scavenger hunt across the Himalaya.

We arrived in Pakistan possessing little more than the name of the institution where Dr. Stewart spent so many years: Gordon College of Rawalpindi. We didn’t know what we’d find there, how we’d be received, or how far we’d be able to follow any clues that came up. We didn’t know if any of Dr. Stewart’s students were even still alive (he died in 1993 at the age of 103).

But, we reasoned, even if we failed utterly in our quest to find just a little more about Tay’s family history, we will have succeeded in coming to and discovering this place for ourselves. And if the clues do push and prod us across this vast subcontinent in unexpected ways, so much the better.

As Vonnegut’s prophet Bokon says, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” And we can be fairly certain that Dr. Stewart — who allowed flowering plants to take him from Tibet to the Hunza Valley to the plains of Quetta and Karachi — would have agreed.

Tay and I have been in Islamabad and Rawalpindi for a week, adjusting to the food, clime, and culture; making preparations and trying to book passage for our trip to the mountains; and, as I have reported, beginning to have some success in our quest.

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And so we took a taxi to the towering gates and peered in at the place where Great-grandfather spent 21 years as director of one of the subcontinent’s most prestigious learning institutions. We’d called the day before and were ushered in by a succession of robed and turbaned servants who led us through the hot, dilapidated grounds. The Principal, Professor Choudry Saleem, a distinguished man with graying hair and a neat, short-sleeved loose gray suit, greeted us with what, I suspect, was uncharacteristic emotion.

“Here are the ambassadors from America! The descendant of Dr. Stewart! Oh, he was a great man! You are most welcome!”

Prof. Saleem proceeded to gush about his mentor: “Dr. Stewart was a great teacher, a great scientist, a great administrator; he was a complete teacher, a great human being.” And, I joked, a great grandfather, which got everybody laughing as a tall, white-frocked man brought us cold glass bottles of 7-Up, wrapped in soaked napkins. After peering through some of Dr. Stewart’s old ledgers, photographing signatures dates 1920, we toured the grounds, stopping to drink chai in the staff lounge under a loud, rattling ceiling fan which did nothing but push the heat around.

There, after our conversation turned to world politics and, of course, the dispute in Kashmir, we were given another clue: the address of a home in a posh residential Islamabad neighborhood.

That night, in his living room, Professor Kwaja Masud, who served as Principal of Gordon College after Dr. Stewart left for the United States in 1960, looked at us and said,

“I am 83 now. Very soon I shall be no more; if at all I lived, I lived to know Dr. Stewart.”

Tay’s eyes welled up with tears, but I’m not sure if Prof. Masud noticed. He was fiddling with his hearing aid and shuffling through a large envelope of yellowed documents and faded photographs. He was a smallish man, with deep creases leading from his eyes, nose, and mouth, but he was filled with conviction in this moment. He proceeded to read to us the farewell address he had composed and delivered on the event of Dr. Stewart’s departure from Pakistan, goose bumps on his skinny arms.

We dined with Prof. Masud and his family that night, a feast of curries, lamb, chicken briyani, and rice, plus hot-off-the-oven chapattis which were brought out every couple of minutes by a silent, white-robed servant; we were surrounded on all sides by long shelves of Urdu and English books (the Quran, Marx and Engel, Tolstoy) and a curious assortment of objects (autographed photo of Arafat, framed picture of Che, hollow-eyed Buddhas).

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It must be noted that just as these esteemed Pakistani Professors worshipped their beloved Dr. Stewart, they also revered their alma mater, Gordon College. The College has faded in recent decades, wilting under Government administration, and Prof. Masud wished the Presbyterians would show interest in returning (they founded the College in 1893). Both men bragged about the school’s glory days, dressing their stories with the names of famous Gordonians. The Khazad Kashmir, the Chief of the Indian Army, 77 generals in the Pakistani armed forces – all Gordonians! There was an association of Gordonians, they said, based in New Delhi, we must look them up; the new Pakistani Secretary of State, a Gordonian.

Any of these people, we were told, would take us in. Dr. Stewart’s legacy was large, his name was weighty, and surely, his great granddaughter (and her humble husband, scribbling away in his notebook) would be taken in. And when we mentioned our plans to travel north, we were told of another Gordonian, a student of Dr. Stewart’s who resided in the mountain village of Karimabad, just north of Gilgit on the Karakorum Highway. His name was Ghazanfar Ali, patriarch of mountain state’s Royal Family, the Mir of Hunza.

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