Formidable Chitral school losing its founder

By Delcan Walsh

CHITRAL: During a grand gathering of tribal elders in this rugged and remote mountain district recently, one of the guests of honor stood out: an elderly Englishman in a suit and polished shoes, his snowy hair carefully combed, the morning newspaper folded on his lap.

That man, Maj. Geoffrey D. Langlands, has had a front row seat on Pakistan’s many dramas since he arrived, at the country’s chaotic birth, 65 years ago. He has taken tea with princesses, dined with dictators, been kidnapped by tribesmen and scraped through several wars. Now, at 94, Mr. Langlands, a former British colonial officer and a lifelong educator, is striking out on a fresh adventure: retirement.


For the past quarter-century, his home and work have been in Chitral, a sweeping district of snow-dusted peaks at the northern tip of Pakistan. The institution he founded and ran here, the Langlands School and College, has become a watchword for excellence; each year, the best of the school’s 1,000-plus students, one-third of them girls, go on to universities in bigger cities, the United States or the United Kingdom.

That success is all the more startling for its setting in a region awash with violence and intrigue: to the east of Chitral is the Swat Valley, where Pakistan’s army fought Taliban insurgents in 2009; to the west lies the Afghan province of Nuristan, where American troops have seen some of their toughest combat. Some years ago mysterious Americans turned up in town asking questions about Osama bin Laden; locals said they worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.

But for “the major,” as he is known, this has been a cherished chapter in a life that has mixed adventure and arithmetic in his adopted homeland. He is turning to the next one with a discernible touch of reluctance.

“Time to take life a little easier, I suppose,” he said, sitting on a terrace overlooking a broad valley dotted with modest, tin-roof houses. Then he sat up. “But there’s still so much to do.” Doing nothing has never been an option for him.

Mr. Langlands fought in a commando unit during World War II, assaulting German defenses on the French coast. In August 1947, he was stationed in British India, where he witnessed the bloody partition of the subcontinent at close quarters. Stuck at station on a train filled with Hindu refugees, he came under fire from Muslim gunmen; farther down the line, he saw Sikhs attack a mosque. “It was terrible,” he recalled. “Nobody knew what to do.”

After the other British left Mr. Langlands stayed on, taking a teaching job at Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan’s most prestigious boarding school. Over a quarter-century there, he imparted algebra to the offspring of the Pakistani elite, some of whom went on to lead in politics, sports and the military. Former charges include Zafarullah Khan Jamali, who swas prime minister between 2002 and 2004, and Imran Khan, the cricket hero turned politician. “He stood out,” Mr. Khan said. “He had this mixture of being firm yet compassionate.”

In 1979, he moved to North Waziristan, in the tribal belt, to run a school in a district that is today better known for American drone strikes — Al Qaeda’s deputy leader was reported killed there on Monday. Mr. Langlands, however, remembers the tribesmen as rascals more than villains. At one point, he said, tribesmen held him hostage for six days in a bid to overturn an unfavorable election result. It did not work, but his captors treated him decently, even insisting he join them for some rifle practice. “It wasn’t so bad,” he said with a soft chuckle. “They were very polite once they found out I was 71. And before I left, they insisted on having their photo taken with me.”
In Chitral, life is quieter. In the northern corner of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa Province, it has escaped the Taliban firestorm thanks to its geographic and cultural isolation. The spiked peaks of the Hindu Kush form a formidable palisade, although an insurgent attack on the Afghan border last year jangled nerves. Unlike most of the surrounding region’s people, the Chitralis are not ethnic Pashtuns, and their passions lie with playing a rambunctious version of polo (imagine horse-mounted rugby), educating their children and cutting loose.

 
During the recent gathering to install a hereditary tribal prince, things became typically raucous: tipsy young men danced wildly in celebration as they swigged from a bottle of moonshine, watched quietly by police officers.
Mr. Langlands is in some respects the quintessential Englishman of old, a living relic of the Raj. He lives in a ramshackle little cottage in the town center, where he rises every morning at 5:40. Exactly 40 minutes later, a servant appears with breakfast: oatmeal, a poached egg and two cups of tea, always. Mr. Langlands flicks through the latest newspaper, which, given the valley’s erratic plane service, may be several days old.

Then an assistant, who answers his phone and juggles his e-mail, turns up to take him to work. Famous visitors watch from dust-smeared photographs on the wall: Diana, Princess of Wales, who visited Chitral in 1991; and Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the Islamist dictator, whom Mr. Langlands knew well. “Once,” he says in a stentorian voice, “General Zia kept Henry Kissinger waiting so he could see me.” Behind his chirpy laugh lies a cool intelligence and a diplomatic reserve. It is an old-fashioned, low-key style at odds with the multimillion dollar budgets and media-driven philanthropy of modern development aid. He pays himself a $270 monthly salary — paltry even by local standards — and travels on public buses. He speaks Urdu but declines to use it: “I’ve always felt my job is to improve the level of English,” he said. Not much of his family remains: he was orphaned at 12, he never married, and his twin brother, who lives back in England, has visited Chitral just twice.

“I just take life as it comes,” he said when asked about his philosophy. Chitralis consider him one of them. “The major is invaluable,” said Multan Mehmood, a local development worker. “We cannot replace him.” But replace him they must. A minor stroke a few years ago left his hands trembling; doctors worry about the effects of another freezing winter in Chitral. A current of worry courses through local conversations: when the major goes, will his proud school survive him?

The answer, they hope, is another English principal — but this time a female one. From September, the Langlands school will be run by Carey Schofield, a writer who has published books on French gangsters, Mick Jagger and, mostly recently, the Pakistani Army. Ms. Schofield, 58, admits to no teaching experience, but says Chitralis were insistent on another “Britisher.”

“They have so much respect for Major Langlands that I think they wanted to clone him,” she said by phone from London. Urgent work awaits. As Mr. Langlands has slowed in recent years, problems have piled up: unpaid school fees, lagging teacher wages, a lack of computers, organization and money. Already, Ms. Schofield has raised $55,000 to improve the bumpy track that curls up a steep slope to the senior school: last year a school bus with 14 students on board tumbled over the side; miraculously none was badly hurt.


Mr. Langlands, meanwhile, will move to Lahore, where his former students have arranged a small apartment for him on the magnificent grounds of his old school, Aitchison College. He has also, quietly, chosen his spot in one of the city’s Christian cemeteries: near the gate, he says, so friends can visit. But first, he says, there is more work to be done: a memoir to write, a 95th birthday to share with his brother, and more fund-raising. His dream, now, is to build a proper dormitory in Chitral, creating an ever better academy. “I refuse,” he announces firmly, a gimlet sparkle in his blue-gray eyes, “to sit back and do nothing.” –The New York Times

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