In the first semester of our final year at Burn Hall, we applied to the Pakistan Military Academy. Besides the entrance examination, there were interviews and background checks to clear before the final list of interviewees were posted at Burn Hall. Hassan, already a student at PMA, made time on the weekends to prep me for the entrance exam and interviews. Ajmal was much more casual about the whole process.
“Why are you trying so hard? PMA is not difficult to get into when you have the right people behind you. I can have my father write a letter of recommendation for you.”
My own, casual attitude towards my studies had disappeared in my first year at Burn Hall, when I had faced possible suspension due to low marks. I hadn’t gotten to the top five positions in my class without the numbers and respect of my instructors. Ajmal was first in the class without studying as hard, but many of us thought that his marks were due to his ‘having the right people behind him.’
Even with Hassan’s tutoring, I had not scored as high on the examination as I hoped. I got the marks that I needed to put me into the running, but not enough to make sure that I would make the final list straight away. In each incoming class, there were only a few spots available for Burn Hall students.
Ajmal had invited me to stay at his home the weekend prior to the interviews. He thought that maybe a weekend away from campus might improve my spirits and help me relax. When we arrived at his stately house in Rawalpindi, Ajmal took me up to the guest room and told me to get settled before we had afternoon tea with his father.
As I changed into fresh clothes, I wondered if I was making the wrong move in enrolling at PMA so soon. I knew that the Academy was the doorway to the life that I wanted to lead, but maybe I was making a mistake enrolling now rather than spending another two years at Burn Hall College.
Ajmal’s father had graduated in ’67 from the Academy and spoke very highly of the training and institutional value of an education from PMA. He shared tips and advice on what types of questions would be asked and the best ways to answer them. I felt as though everything was pushing towards PMA, including my friendship with Ajmal.
Dinner was not a small affair. The General had invited other PMA graduates to join the family for dinner. The number of high-ranking officers was intimidating for a young cadet like me. For Ajmal, it was just another dinner party with his father’s friends. Everyone he met said that he would have no problems clearing the interview and that he would have a great career at PMA and the military. I stuck out like a sore thumb not knowing any of the officers, though that lasted very briefly. Each was kind enough to take the time to speak with me and learn more about my background, but I was not showered with the accolades that Ajmal was. Maybe it was because he had known these men since his childhood. Maybe it was because they respected his father so greatly; they assumed that the son would be just like his father in the service to the nation. I felt more and more dejected as the evening progressed.
Then an interesting thing happened. The General invited me to his study for a private conversation about my future with the military.
General Khan was someone with whom I had had many interactions over the past three years. He had always treated me as a son, so I was apprehensive when I walked into his study. My apprehensions weren’t entirely unfounded; there were four other men there with the General. My heart sank. I had spoken to each of these men at different points of the evening and knew that I had not made a great impression on any of them. General Khan started the conversation very soberly, setting my mind into further disarray, “Kamal, we have each had the opportunity to speak with you throughout the evening and we’ve had a conversation among ourselves to discuss you.”
Intimidation by men who had spent their lives serving the nation, this could not be going in a good direction. “We wanted to speak with you jointly so that we could share our observations and thoughts about your potential enrollment at PMA and future with the military. Please have a seat.”
I sat at the chair that stood farthest away from the coffee table, partly because I didn’t have a drink nor was I going to smoke in the presence of this group of men.
“We don’t want you to feel intimidated or pressured by what we are going to tell you, but having graduated from the PMA, we wanted you to know what we thought about your chances and future there,” said Lt. General Asghar, commander of the Punjab Regiment. “I graduated from PMA in the same batch as General Khan. In our time, the person that worked the hardest was the most successful at the Academy.”
Part II will be available tomorrow.