Remembrances of things past


By Zubeida Mustafa

As she lays out before you her rich treasure of teaching aids, you are struck by her deep fascination for them. Oblivious of your presence, she chatters on, speaking more to herself as a child would, explaining the use of the board games, flash cards, cubes and charts she has herself devised for her students. Crafted from little odds and ends one normally throws away — ice-cream sticks, milk cartons, strings and shoe boxes — these sturdy but inexpensive little kits open up a wondrous world of learning for young curious minds and restless fingers.

It needs an artist’s creativity and a teacher’s sensitivity to produce stuff like this. In Chris Abbas the two have blended beautifully. When I asked her how she identified herself, she replied instantly, “Fifty per cent artist, fifty per cent teacher.”

Then she hastened to add that she enjoyed her teaching role much more, though. “I committed myself to painting, so I do it. But I don’t love it. I get angry and depressed when I paint. It gives me a tough time, which teaching doesn’t. I love teaching little children. They are at a stage when they can easily be put off schooling for life. If you can steer them happily through this phase, you have won the battle,” she says.

This is so typical of Chris Abbas. She never boasts of her work of art, as other people with her choices would. After all, isn’t it more fashionable to be an artist than a teacher? Not that she has not made her mark as an artist. Using watercolours, she paints landscapes and people and her paintings sell. She has held two exhibitions in London and two in Karachi. She has a loyal band of admirers who constantly keep dropping in to buy her paintings. She never prices her work too high — Rs 1000 to Rs 1,500 at the most. “I want my art to be affordable,” she remarks. This approach is something extraordinary in a society where avarice knows no bounds. But then Chris’s values are extraordinary, as extraordinary as her life has been.

She married the renowned Urdu short story writer, Ghulam Abbas, in England where he was working with the BBC on deputation from Radio Pakistan, (“We met at a rambling club in London”). She followed her husband to Karachi in 1952 to live with his mother and his first wife and their four children in three servant quarters over the garages of Radio Pakistan.

Christian, as her parents called her (“what a boyish name, I was named after my grandmother, but I don’t want to change /f,”she remarks), was born in England to a Greek father and a Scottish mother. In deference to Ghulam Abbas’s wish when she married him the Muslim name Zainab was added to her first name and that is how her passport identifies her, as also a book on Pakistan which she wrote in 1964. But now she wants to be called simply Chris Abbas (“it doesn’t sound so heavy,” she adds). How did she as an Englishwoman feel about fitting into this role of “making both the families a part of her life?” (to use her own words). Full of praise for Zakira, the senior wife, for having adjusted to the new situation, Chris declares, “I have taken life as it has come by accepting and accommodating whatever came my way. I have made the choices as they came and I made the best of them.”

This unusual marriage arrangement opened up many opportunities for her. To begin with, she could launch her teaching career without worrying about who would take care of her three daughters and a son while she was away at work. Today Chris has a large and loving family even though she has lost two of her own daughters (one in a road accident in her childhood and the other more recently when cancer struck). Last year Chris could vacation in bliss in fiv homes in Canada and the US. To take care of her was “Abbas’s other family of whom I am very fond as they are of me.”

How did Chris become a teacher, especially when she has received no formal teacher’s training? Initially she wanted to be an artist. When she was nineyears- old and attempting to draw tulips, her teacher told her to feel their shoulders. How strong they were! “I felt my own shoulders, and suddenly I felt the link. It gave me an identity and I knew art was something worth chasing after,” she describes her discovery of the artist in her. Hence it was natural that she joined the Chelsea School of Art in 1938 to study under Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. Then came World War II and Chris left the art school because to her sensitive mind it somehow did not seem right to be enjoying art when her country was at war. So she joined the Admiralty to trace detailed drawings of Bofors guns for the navy.

But being unable to detach herself from her art she joined evening classes at the Bath Art School and would “squeeze” in an hour of painting in the lunch-break. Those were hectic days and they lasted for two and a half years. Then came a change of job and another rare experience. Chris joined the canal boat women’s force and found it quite an adventure ferrying war material from the London docks to the Midlands, returning with coal for the factories near London. When the war ended, she left her boating job with a heavy heart for she had rather enjoyed it. She still has a number of drawings she did of the canal boats to remind her of her peripatetic life of those wartime years. She returned to the world of art and joined the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London to complete her art studies in three years.

In 1948, Chris was accepted as the art teacher for the London County Council and was sent to conduct art classes in the evening institutes of Ersinth London that were attended by stevedores, wives of butchers and their like. They were simple folks who were thrilled if they managed to design a card or a cushion. “These students really brought me down to earth and I liked it. They too derived pleasure from art but unlike the high-browed artists of the art school their approach was humble,” Chris observes.

In 1949, she began to teach sub-normal children who had been evacChris-Abbas-07-05-1996-8uated to the countryside when London was under attack. On their return, these children found the city life too restrictive. But they enjoyed school and Chris loved teaching them art. It was then that her interest in teaching blossomed. So it was not unusual that in 1954 when money was needed, Chris set up her own school in her PECHS home. It lasted till Begum Majid Malik, widely called Baji, and a friend of the family, invited her to come and teach in the PECHS school. “Chris, your school will never thrive in the baghal of my school,” Baji would say, Chris recalls.

That is how Chris Abbas became a teacher in Pakistan — first in PECHS school (1955-1960), next in PECHS College (1960-1970), then the Karachi Grammar School (1970-85). Eversince she has been teaching sporadically at her daughter’s school, the Froebel Education Centre.

In these years she honed her innate teaching skills especially when she was taking remedial classes. She developed her unique and personalized teaching aids for the benefit of her young students. She devised so many of these aids that when she went to conduct a workshop at the Teachers’ Resource Centre, she had to carry them in a suitcase. It needed 14 tables to lay them out. It was therefore heartbreaking for her when the driver of the taxi she was to ride home in disappeared with the suitcase before she could board it.

Having succeeded with little children, she finds it strange that there are not more teachers’ training institutions around. “I feel mad at this neglect.Maybe that is the English part in me,” she says. Considering the lack of facilities, she gives credit to the teachers for whatever they are doing.

Chris-Abbas-07-05-1996-8But the artist in her has not deserted her. She has difficulty with painting, she says, because she always faced resistance and had to struggle to be allowed to throw herself in her art. As a child, she had to fight with her parents to let her take extra art classes in school. During the war, art classes meant extra work after a full day’s job at the Admiralty. On the canal boat she would sketch in the cabin top while steering the vessel with her left hand. As a result she feels she can never paint until she works herself up into a difficult frame of mind. “The time space elements in teaching and painting are so different that it is difficult to reconcile them. The turnover in teaching is very quick. In painting you have to give yourself time. It is like going through a long tunnel. Until you come out of it you cannot paint. It can leave you moody for quite some time. And when at last you feel you are ready to paint there might be an interruption and you have to put away your paint and brushes,” Chris observes philosophically She has won recognition as Chris Abbas the teacher, and Chris Abbas the painter. But there is yet another relatively unknown dimension to her personality — Chris Abbas the writer. She has not explored this potential of hers too much, but whatever she has written (a few newspaper articles, a book for children on Pakistan and an unpublished teacher’s guide and the history of art which was used by her students in PECHS college) has been in a lucid and highly readable style. She says that she owes her writing skills to her husband

“Abbas was a great writer with a distinct style of his own,” she says. “He taught me how to write.” She speaks fondly of him. No she never felt overshadowed by Abbas. He was a gentle soul, a family man. He never liked going to meetings.

He just wanted to stay home and write and play with his children, she adds. In 1954, Chris co-authored with him a book of Pakistani folk-tales. But she insists it was mostly his work. “He had great skills as a storyteller. When he was working on an interminable folktale, he would create a climax and restructure the action, transforming it into a readable narrative. His English was so good, he could have done it all on his own. But he insisted that I sit with him and we argued on the choice of each and every word,”

Chris says. Hanif Ramay illustrated this book and in Ayub Khan’s days it was presented to visiting dignitaries. In 1964-65 when Ghulam Abbas wrote Chand Tara (a book of Urdu poems for little children) Chris made her contribution by illustrating it. Unfortunately with this book everything went wrong. Ghulam Abbas had lovingly guided the book through the calligraphic and printing stages. The government sent the printed copies to Islamabad for binding. It was then that their five-year-old daughter Kausar came under a truck and was killed. “A few days later six advance copies were received by us but the glitter had gone out of our pleasure,” Chris recalls.

The book never appeared on the shelves. It later transpired that some pages in the binding process had been put in upside down and the entire edition was ditched — left to rot in some distant godown.1965 was the year of the war with India. Chris received the Pakistan Book Society’s illustrator’s award for that year but the monetary payment was waived because of the war. It was tough. Her son lives in Jamaica and Chris off and on goes and stays with him for extended periods.

In 1991 when she had sold off her house in Karachi she had headed for Jamaica with all her worldy belongings in two suitcases, planning to settle there permanently. But she was soon back in Pakistan. Jamaica provides her plenty of raw material for her landscape painting. But she soon gets restless because she feels she must be involved in something actively. That is her way of describing her love for teaching

So she returns to Karachi. For even at the age of 75 Chris Abbas feels she cannot be inactive and Karachi offers her the opportunity to teach little children and paint Juma Bazaar scenes and the dhobi’s donkey, which she misses in Jamaica.

Source: Dawn 07-05-1996