Modern in every sense
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

Delhi’s Modern School recently celebrated its 90th birthday. I am perhaps its oldest living product — so old that the celebration committee was not aware I was still around. I would like to tell you about its birth and early development. It is the child of a well-known Jain family, which owned a lot of real estate in the walled city of Shahjehanabad, including a large mansion along the Mughal wall in Daryaganj facing the house of Congress leader M.S. Ansari.

The patriarch of the family, Rai Bahadur Lala Sultan Singh Jain, had one son, Raghubir Singh, who was a nationalist and wanted to raise children with patriotic ideas. My father Sobha Singh was a friend of Sultan Singh. So he persuaded my father to lend a hand in his venture and made him president of the governing body.

Modern School was truly modern in every sense. It was the first co-educational school in the city with as many women teachers as men. The first Principal was a Bengali Christian, Kamla Bose. She brought two of her nieces to join the staff. It started off with about 30 students, three of them were girls — one Kaval Malik was later to be my wife. We were the first Modernite couple. Besides the normal curricula, Modern School also introduced painting (with the eminent Bengali artist Sarda Ukil), music, carpentry, scouting and military drill under an English sergeant.

Sialkot has produced eminent poets and novelists, including Allama Iqbal
Sialkot has produced eminent poets and novelists, including Allama Iqbal

At the same time Raghubir Singh invited national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu to address the students. Altogether, it was way ahead of the times, which the older generation found unacceptable. One of them was my grandfather Sujan Singh after whom Sujan Singh Park is named. He preferred living in Punjab where he owned a lot of land and factories. He happened to be in Delhi on the third or fourth anniversary of the school’s founders’ day celebrations. My father took him along to see how his grandsons were doing. He was shocked to see so many women teachers. He called us brothers rann mureed — disciples of low class women. He was more enraged to see us learning classical music. Back home he berated my father: "You want your sons to become mirasi beggars?" he asked. In any event, he called his grandsons bharooas (pimps), no doubt, affectionately.

Pak writing

There must be something in the climate of Sialkot which produces eminent poets and novelists. Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, both top-ranking poets of Urdu, were Sialkotias. Recently, I discovered another son of Sialkot who has made his mark as a novelist and a poet in English who comes from the same town, Zulfikar Ghose. Because of his surname Ghose, I had assumed he was a Bangladeshi. I presume Ghose derives from Ghaus.

During World War II, the family moved to Bombay. Many of Ghose’s poems are about India. As the war ended, he migrated to England. Ghose was educated at Sloane School at Keela University. He lived in London for many years and made his living as Sports Editor of The Observer, besides reviewing books for the Times Literary Supplement and The Spectator. Finally, he moved to Austin (Texas) where he was appointed professor of creative writing.

Recently, the Oxford University Press, Karachi, published a selected collection of his poems — 50 poems; 30 selection and 20 new.

Reading them was an enchanting experience mainly because most modern poets are hard to comprehend whereas Ghose is lucid, easy to grasp and truly lyrical.

The first of his anthology is about India. I quote a few lines:

India lies still in a primeval intactness of growth;

The great alluvial plains are sodden with trees;

Neither city nor village intrudes with temples and towers;

In this riotous land of flowers and creepers.

Ghose affirms: "Age makes cowards of us as youth makes fools". This is partly illustrated by a poem entitled Ask the Women. I quote a few lines:

Ask the women who knew me in my youth;

Of the love we made when twilight cast;

A welcome gloom under the plane trees;

Those long June evenings in London’s parks;

Will there be one whose memory coincides with mine?

Or breathing again those night fragrances?

When cool gusts blow away the traffic fumes;

And the air swirls with currents from the flower beds;

Will she feel again her lips swollen with kisses?


On paper JPC stands for Joint Parliamentary Committee. In fact it stands for jab Parliament collapsed.
(Contributed by KJS Ahluwalia, Amritsar)