Excerpts from Random Musings by Alaf Khan


Excerpts from Random
Musings by Alaf Khan
A slice of life in Scotland-II

From rags to riches --- literally
Yaqub Ali was a small, quiet and very gentle young man from southern Punjab in Pakistan. Having dropped out of primary school, he made his way to Walayat (Britain) to join his elder brother in Glasgow who was earning a meagre sustenance as a peddler. Acquiring a second hand bicycle, Yaqub also embarked on his career as a peddler. Packing socks, sweaters, bras, underwear, perfumes, hankies, ribbons, knitting wool, hairpins and cosmetics into a small trunk on the pillion seat of his bike, he cycled from village to village in the Clyde valley. Later he rented a small shop in the Gorbals where he sold mainly readymade and secondhand garments. By then there were a few dozen Pakistanis and several Indian Muslims in Glasgow. Shortly before 1960, they formed the first ever Muslim Association of Glasgow with Yaqub Ali as its Secretary. I faced financial problems once again six months before my Final exam and needed 110 Pounds to see me through. Yaqub Ali lent me the sum from his Association’s funds. I returned it with gratitude at ten Pounds a month during my House Jobs.

Dr. Alaf Khan

Yaqub Ali’s fortunes took a dramatic turn in the decade from 1970 to 1980. His business expanded and diversified astronomically. He established Europe’s largest Castle Cash-&-Carry Store in Hamilton outside Greater Glasgow. The Queen’s younger sister, the late Princess Margaret, performed the opening ceremony in the summer of 1980 and the Queen conferred the title of OBE on him. A media reporter asked him for the reason for his astonishing success. Lack of education, he replied. If I had been educated, I would have been looking for a white collar job and would not have labored hard as a peddler. He has donated over a million Pounds to charities in the UK and Pakistan. He died of cancer while on a charity visit to Pakistan in 2005.

University Students Union

Students Unions of the so-called Ancient British Universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, St Andrews and Edinburgh) are highly influential bodies. Each major political party in the country has a student wing, called a Club, in every campus. We had our Tory (Conservative) Club, Labor Club and Liberal Club. Liberal Democratic and Scottish Nationalist Parties were yet to be born. Our Union building was a massive, 550 years old, stone edifice. Wide hallways with high ceilings, massive gray stone pillars and broad staircases were typical of the centuries-old imperial extravaganza. The bar, the canteen, the gym and the indoor sports arena were dwarfed by the vast ballroom with its polished teak floor. Ballroom dancing was a regular weekend entertainment made more festive by a bar well stocked with beer, wines, whiskey, brandy and vodka. The last Friday of the academic session in June every year was aptly dubbed Daft Friday. It was a night of incessant music, dancing, drinking and some other pleasurable activities from dusk to dawn. It was a night for all to let go. Many legs were, by the morning, unable to carry their owners to their hostels or homes. Charlie, one of our hostel mates, was being carried like a zombie by two of his partially sober friends down Gibson Street. They stopped face-to-face with a police constable. Are you alright, sir?, asked the cop. Charlie feebly nodded his head, firmly pressed his index finger on the constable’s chest and mumbled his badly slurred words, Are --- are --- are you real, or a figment of my imagination? Don’t worry, Sir; you will be alright by tomorrow, sir. Cheerio, sir, said the constable.

The Union’s fortnightly debates discussed real issues of national, international, social and political significance in exactly the way issues were debated in the House of Commons in London. The layout of the debating hall too was a replica of the House of Commons. The Majority Party occupied the Treasury Benches while the Opposition sat on the rows of seats across the central aisle. The speaker, wearing the traditional wig, sat in his lofty chair on the rostrum. The House voted on the issue as a Resolution at the end of a debate. The majority verdict of the House was sent to the media and to the Parliament in London. These resolutions reflected the opinion of the country’s student community to which the Parliament and the government of the day attached great importance in formulating their political strategies. A national crisis erupted in the autumn of 1956 when Britain, Israel and France invaded Suez Canal and mainland Egypt. Most of the Students Unions passed Resolutions demanding Hands off Egypt. These Resolutions, and the firm stand taken by the Leader of Labour Party, Mr Gaitskell, brought down Sir Anthony Eden’s Tory government and led to a speedy ceasefire in the Suez zone.

7 July 1962

The huge cavernous Bute Hall of Glasgow University was packed to capacity with the new graduates of all the faculties and parents of many of them. The thousands of us stood up en masse when our Chancellor, Members of the Senate, Members of the Academic Council, Cabinet Members of the Students Representative Council (SRC) and President of the University Students Union streamed down the central aisle to take their seats on the podium. We walked up to the dais in batches to receive our Degrees from the Chancellor, the Nobel Laureate Lord Boyd Orr. Yesterday’s Mr. Khan became Dr. Khan today. It felt and sounded unreal for nearly a month.

Postgraduate Training

A six-month House Job in medicine and a similar one in surgery were compulsory for full Registration with the General Medical Council of the UK. All my classmates settled in specialties of their choice after one year as House Officers. I kept visualizing myself stuck in some remote village in Pakistan where some woman in obstructed labor or an acutely ill baby needed urgent care. Would I be able to cope? No, not without a House Job in obstetrics and another one in pediatrics. These two extra House Jobs I did voluntarily. That extra one year, as we shall see later, paid handsome dividends after my return to Pakistan in 1970.

There were several pediatric units in the teaching hospitals of Glasgow. The Royal Hospital for Sick Children at Yorkhill was a purely pediatric establishment headed by the world-renowned Prof. J. H. Hutchinson. I, as a Final Year student, had spent my obligatory one full time semester in his unit. He was an insatiable research scientist, a workaholic and a slave driver who drove himself harder than he did others. His House Officers were on duty seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Each one had a Saturday or Sunday off once every two weeks. Hutchison was also a compulsive teacher and a walking encyclopedia of pediatrics as well as of general medicine. At the bedside of each child, he would give an account of the original work and all the subsequent research and publications on the disease which that child suffered from. Then he would suddenly become louder and more emphatic: Its counterpart in adult medicine is different in such and such respects. He was the Zakir Naik of pediatrics and general medicine. His original researches and strings of publications on congenital thyroid disorders had been landmark studies. His was the first ever recognition, and publication in journals, of congenital hypogammaglobulinemia. He had established a well-equipped side room laboratory in his unit. House Officers had to perform most of the chemical and hematological tests in the side room lab instead of sending them to the hospital’s main laboratory. ESR, PCV, MCHC, urine examination, stained blood films, white cell and platelet counts and, if indicated, stained bone marrow smears of all overnight admissions had to be ready for Hutchinson to examine before starting his morning ward round. I had sorely wished to do a House Job with him but his unit was booked for the ensuing three years. During my obstetric residency at Lennox Castle Maternity Hospital near Glasgow, I received a phone call from his secretary. Is that Dr Khan? Yes, speaking Prof. Hutchison would like to speak to you; hold on Dr. Khan? Came the familiar voice, I have a House Job vacancy coming up as from First February 1964. One applicant has gone to Australia and has withdrawn his name. I thought of offering it to you before advertising it. I shall love it, sir. Thank you for remembering me. I shall hand in my application to your secretary tomorrow. Thank you once again, sir. During my House Job with him he finalized the manuscript of his famous Practical Pediatric Problems. Perhaps it was a token of appreciation for my proofreading his manuscript that he gave me a personalized autographed copy of the book when it was first published. The three months as resident student and the six months as House Officer armed me with enough pediatrics and general medicine to pass my DCH (Diploma in Child Health) in 1964 and MRCP in 1965, each at first attempt. 

Glasgow Corporation ran scabies and lice clinics in several parts of the city. Attending twenty sessions at these clinics was obligatory before sitting the DCH examination. The world’s largest empire still had families who hosted lice in their hair and clothes and scabies in their skins. One can be hugely rich and still pretty lousy.

(To be Continued)