“YOU HAVE BEEN CAUGHT,” sneered the director, his eyes twinkling like malevolent pearls in a face like grey cement. Reclining in his chair, he put his hands behind his head and looked down his nose at his victim.
The room was cold, so cold that Rahim Tufail, a lean young man of twenty and a final year student of Computer Science at the National University, shivered in his seat. Sitting across from the director, staring into his eyes, he found it hard to blink.
He opened his mouth to utter a response but no sound came out. And at that moment it seemed to Rahim that silence, perennially, had been the state of the world; from the beginnings of the universe to this moment, there had been only silence. Time seemed infinite and stationary, and the room was cold, very cold.
But then, as if from far away, he heard his own voice:
“Sir, it was a mistake, sir, it was a sin. I admit, we admit. Sir, for the last three consecutive semesters I’ve been on the dean’s list. Sir, I’m studying on a university loan, so sir, how can I transfer my credits to another campus, as you’ve kindly suggested, and still keep my funding? Sir, my father is a rickshaw driver, my grandfather was a coachman, sir, how will I pay my way? It was a mistake – a sin but a mistake, sir. For Allah’s sake pardon me. I didn’t… we didn’t mean anything by it. It was … just a touch.”
The director turned to the head of the disciplinary committee, Madam Ismat Unais, a PhD from a renowned English university in the newly emerging field of Cloud Computing. Madam Unais had been browsing through the text messages in Rahim’s mobile phone throughout his impassioned plea to the dean.
“Let me read you this, sir, if you permit,” she began viciously, “this boy’s phone was confiscated on the spot, as soon as we caught them, and it contains all the evidence to prove him guilty”
The director nodded, and madam Unais continued, “Just listen to this sir, it says, ‘Thanks for making my day’. And this was sent in the morning. Only Allah knows what’s happened since then, which hasn’t been caught on any camera.”
The director quivered slightly before he spoke again, “Only two weeks back I had dispatched an email to all students. Now, Mr. Rahim Tufail, did you receive that email?” Rahim nodded meekly, “Could you please recount for us the contents of that email?”
“Please speak up,” said the director emphatically, “we don’t have all day.”
“Sir, it contained guidelines on the campus dress code, for female students, forbidding flashy clothes, no makeup, nothing revealing, sir. And it was advised that they wear dopatta.”
“We know that part,” the director snapped, “enlighten us on the code of conduct please, particularly the part about maintaining physical distance.”
Rahim spoke shrilly, “It said sir, that clear and visible distance between male and female students is essential at all times. No physical contact whatsoever is permitted. It also said, sir, that boys and girls sitting together in the corridors, or on the stairs, is strictly prohibited. And at nighttime, students must remain in lighted areas; nobody should venture into the darker parts of the corridors or gardens.”
“Correct,” the director said, strangely triumphant at hearing these words, “and it was made known, very clearly, that a surveillance system is active throughout this campus. No event can go unnoticed. The penalty for digressions was also stipulated, in bold italics: EXPULSION. In your case, you would of course be required to also return your loan immediately. Your grades, and your progress thus far, shall stand nullified. It was all stipulated, Rahim Tufail; and yet, you went and shamed yourself.”
“Sir please…” Rahim started, but he was immediately cut short.
“What else have you done? Tell us!” Madam Unais thundered.
Rahim blanked out for another moment.
He knew that Madam Unais spoke on behalf of the entire disciplinary committee at the National University. The committee was responsible for maintaining discipline on campus, and for handing out penalties to transgressors. When a student was deemed guilty and a punishment was handed out, the news was posted on notice boards and disseminated via mass emails. And punishments were handed out often.
It was also well known that certain misdemeanors were considered unpardonable, and none more so than a breach of the code of physical conduct. There were several instances of students being expelled for such activities.
Rahim remembered a story about one such incident, where a boy and girl had been caught acting ‘inappropriately’ on the mobile phone camera of a mathematics teacher. The teacher had hid behind a table to film the guilty pair. Once the students had been expelled, the video, which was used as evidence before the disciplinary committee, had been mysteriously leaked. It was an accident, it was said. But the video had soon made it to several websites, drawing the attention of the entire campus, and much of the student body throughout the city, and soon, people throughout the country had seen it. The girl had attempted suicide, and the boy had faced much disgrace.
The thought of the incident jolted Rahim entirely, and he listened, once again, to the questioning voice of Madam Unais, “What else have you done?”
“Nothing madam, nothing,” he pleaded, “I swear by Allah, this was just a message, and it was sent last night, not this morning. It was a mistake, sir, a sin, but a mistake.”
Madam Unais shook her head dismissively as she read out another damning message. She seemed full of professional zeal, almost relishing the situation before her. There was a certain stubbornness about Rahim which exasperated her; and his pathetic please for mercy didn’t help.
Eventually, the director said “The only way out for you, as I’ve already stated, is to change campus by transferring your credits, or simply walking away. We have no place for the likes of you on this campus.”
“I appeal for mercy, sir. Madam, I appeal for mercy. Nobody in our family has a degree from anywhere. My father, sir, has never seen the inside of a university, but he takes great pride in my being here. I tell you, I am genuinely sorry for what I’ve done. Sir, it is against my religion, and against the values which I’ve been brought up with. It was a mistake, madam, a sin, but a mistake.”
The director looked severely at Rahim, “We take great pride in our traditional values. This was no mistake Mr. Tufail, but as you said yourself, a sin. More importantly, it is a matter of university decorum. We don’t just teach our students the mere technicalities of their fields; we are here to make them cultured individuals and cultivated and productive citizens. The ethical and moral conduct of our students is of paramount importance to us. And from what I’ve seen on that video clip, your atrocious physical misconduct (which I will not elaborate upon in a lady’s presence) is simply unpardonable.”
“It might be in your favor though,” said Madam Unais, looking over her thin steel-frame glasses at Rahim, “to explicate a full account of your activities over the last months. Explain these messages, and you may be offered the option of transferring to another campus, albeit with your funding discontinued. Are you willing to do that? We would need a written account, duly signed and dated, ready by tomorrow evening. This is the most that can be done for you, keeping in mind your need, and the fact that you have a clean track record.”
The air around him seemed suffocating as Rahim began to ponder the possibilities.
A fast-forward version of his three years at National University: How in the beginning he was simply clueless. How he had struggled to communicate in English and knew little about computers. And then how, one day, the professor of computer programming had asked a subtle question to which nobody – the sons of industrialists, landlords, doctors, engineers, and even computer programmers – had an answer. And how Rahim Tufail Hussain, son of the rickshaw driver Tufail Hussain, grandson of the coachman Azam Hussain, had felt something click inside his brain, and had felt his heart surge and race, hearing himself articulating a response. And how the professor had praised him for his knowledge. And how, in those twenty seconds of miracle he, Rahim Tufail, had shrugged off the fate of his ancestors from his teenage shoulders…
… and then there was Naima, the daughter of a surgeon, niece of a brigadier. How he had yearned for Naima, dreamed about her. How he had wished but never dared. Never dared, because it was not his level of corruption. A sin, it would’ve been, and one much beyond a rickshaw driver’s son. And then how, in a moment of madness.…
Rahim burst into tears. Before Madam Unais or the director could react, he had flung himself at their feet, and there he cried and convulsed, his lips touching the leather instep of the directors boots, tasting the salt of his own tears.
For several seconds he remained there, with the two teachers watching in shocked silence as he shuddered violently at their feet.
“Fine, fine,” cried the director, finally drawing his feet away, swiveling on his chair.
Madam Unais had moved away too, but was finding it hard to recover from what she had just witnessed. Eventually, she mumbled, “You should’ve thought about this when committing that heinous act. I think, sir, we should dismiss this meeting for now.” She moved away, dusting her clothes as if trying to remove the memory of a few minutes ago from her mind.
But Rahim continued to cry and plead for mercy, until finally the director consented that once he had written up a detailed account of his wrongdoings and submitted the same to his office by the next evening, his case would be reconsidered. And this because he was a good student, and a genuinely needy one.
Rahim left the director’s office feeling much lighter than before. He walked briskly out of the corridor and into the lawn before the university. He avoided the other students, for the news of his disgrace had already spread and he could feel the heat of a thousand stares. He walked straight out of the lawn, then out of the university gates, pondering over the contents of his confessional report.
He was in a quandary about where he should begin, and what details he should add to make a complete case. What other instances, what shrouded, shameful truths, must he invent so as to satisfy the disciplinary committee? He racked his brain, gazing blankly at his past, trying in vain to recall a relevant memory. The effort made his head spin, but again and again he concluded that there really was nothing. Nothing except that moment, now captured on the university’s surveillance system. Nothing that could be counted as sin.
However, unbeknownst to Rahim, the case against him and Naima had been dismissed almost as soon as he had stepped out of the director’s office. The reason was a certain phone call that the director had received: orders from the Vice Chancellor of the National University to dissolve the case. This phone call had been preceded by another call made to the Vice Chancellor an hour earlier: a renowned senator demanding that the VC should take immediate action to drop the charges against the two students.
And the ball was set rolling by the brigadier, Naima’s uncle, who had met the senator at his Margala Hills residence earlier that day and mentioned to him, amongst other more important things, the little problem pertaining to his niece.
In the end though, it was really an accident. A recently installed camera on the top corridor of the laboratory building of the National University had turned, and focused like the eye of God, on Rahim Tufail.
And an hour before, Rahim Tufail had laughed.