Sometimes fate plays an important part in one’s life and so it was with me as well. As is generally known, I belong to Bhopal, one of the most beautiful places in Central India. To us, it was paradise on earth. After passing high school in 1952, I studied at Hamidia College for three months and then left for Pakistan via Khokhrapar. Since all admissions at colleges in Karachi had already been completed, I could not find a place that year, so I turned my focus to shorthand and typing instead. The latter became useful to me in later years, but I never practised shorthand.
After completing a BSc degree from DJ Sindh Government Science College, I joined government service as inspector of weights and measures. It was a somewhat interesting and easy job and I came to know the whole of Karachi and its suburbs well. In 1961, I decided to go to the Technical University of Berlin for higher technical education. All I had in my pocket was an admission letter, a one-way ticket and 30 pounds sterling. I first went to Dusseldorf, where I had secured a place to complete the required six-month technical training to start my course and to learn German. It was the most difficult time of my life. The weather was cold and dark. There were no English newspapers available. No English programmes on TV. Films were dubbed in German and hardly anyone spoke English. There seemed no other Pakistanis around either.
Within a few weeks, I was terribly homesick. Every Sunday, I would trek out to the railway station to buy the Sunday Observer, which was published from London. The station was comparatively lively. The English newspaper would keep me occupied in the evenings for the whole week when I was not at my German lessons. During this time, my ex-colleagues in Karachi were continuously asking me to come back. One day, I saw a job advertised for a science teacher at a grammar school in Benin City, Nigeria. I immediately sent off an application with copies of my certificates and received an appointment letter after just two weeks. The salary was good and the job came with a furnished bungalow and an advance to purchase a car. I was permitted two months’ leave to go home every two years and my travel expenses would be covered.
My younger sister, who was very close to me, suggested it would be better not to return to Pakistan without assessing the possibilities that a further degree would offer. She was not averse to the idea of me going out to Nigeria. In those days, many Pakistanis were going to Nigeria and Ghana – since these were English-speaking countries who liked Pakistanis.
Before departing for Nigeria, I thought I should at least visit the university where I had planned to study and meet Dr H Stark, who was the head of foreign student affairs and a professor of Mathematics. I had already exchanged many letters with him – first from Pakistan and later while doing my practical training in Dusseldorf. I had taken a white marble model of the Taj Mahal and an onyx plate with semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers as gifts for him. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to consider that it was Saturday and the university was closed. I went to his residence and was informed by a woman at his residence – probably his wife – that he was out of town. I gave her the gifts I had brought for him along with a note explaining why I was about to leave for Nigeria.
After four or five days, I received a letter from Professor Stark (I still have that letter) requesting me to meet him at Bonn airport after three days as he was going to Paris and had two hours there to change planes. I was to go to the Lufthansa counter and have his name called over the announcement system. Immediately after the announcement was made, he appeared by my side, took me to a table, ordered coffee. Dr Stark was about 5 feet, 10 inches tall and handsome with blonde hair and he spoke English fluently.
After he heard what I had to say, the professor said: “Mr Khan, you have come a long way to study in Berlin after a long correspondence with me. The decision is yours, but mark my words: once you are living as a teacher, you will retire as a teacher and die as a teacher. Once you leave Germany, you will repent all your life that you came all the way to the river and then did not drink the water. There are many foreign students in Berlin (about 25 percent of the total number of students) and once you join us, you will forget this tough time. You show me progress in your studies and I will give you a scholarship.”
He sounded so convincing, genuine, interested and sympathetic that I promised him I would write to the Nigerians school, decline the job offer and join the university after a month when the new semester began. I could see that he was genuinely pleased. We shook hands and Dr Stark said he would see me soon in Berlin.
This visit and the genuine interest shown by Professor Stark changed the course my life was to take. I became convinced that this was the right course to take and was mentally prepared to opt for my studies. Imagine what would have happened if he had not written back to me, taken the trouble to meet me at Bonn airport or not been so warm and genuine.
I did come across foreign students in Berlin and lived in a hostel with many of them. They were mostly from India and Iran. There was only one other Pakistani, Akhtar Ali, who studied electronics and we soon became good friends. He has now retired and lives in California with his family. We still keep in touch regularly.