In everyone’s living memory, one comes across characters that leave a lasting impression or exert life changing influences on people around them. I have, in recent times, heard a notion expressed by members of my generation that such individuals are becoming scarce. I am of the opinion that while there is no dearth of unforgettable humans, it is us who are so immersed in our competitive modern life style that we do not have time to earnestly observe people around us.

I spent fourteen years of my formative life in a school, where the faculty was composed of British, Anglo-Indian and a fractional number of local teachers. The Anglo-Indians (who continued to be called by this name even after the birth of Pakistan) were a dynamic community. Born out of interracial wedlock, they were the backbone of the railway, telegraph and the police in the pre-independence era and many chose to stay back in the newly created dominion of Pakistan. It was this particular community that efficiently ran the North Western Railway, later renamed as Pakistan Western Railway and then to Pakistan Railways after our Eastern Wing was treacherously ripped away by an arch enemy.

I remember standing outside the family home on Queen’s Road just to watch the legendary Anglo-Indian sergeants on their majestic motorcycles as they emerged from the Civil Lines Police Station and ‘read the riot act’ to traffic violators, one of who happened to be the sitting governor of what was then West Pakistan. This amazing community also adopted the teaching profession in selected English medium schools of Lahore and became almost immortal because of their dedication, compassion and skills.

Miss McMillan taught the ‘transition grade’ (now called ‘prep’) in my school. She was perhaps half Scottish or Irish, and could be spotted from afar as she stood in the class verandah clad immaculately dressed in a beautiful saree, with a half visible handkerchief tucked in her sleeve. She had a magnetic personality, multiplied by the fact that she was very good looking. She built up our individual character block by block, setting herself up as a role model. It was during one of our reunions a few years ago that I asked the late Mr. Zafar Altaf (who was related to her by marriage) whether she was still around. Zafar silently pointed to a figure seated on a chair with her back to me. I walked around the table and there she was, as unforgettable as ever. There was nothing to be done, but sit on the ground in front of her and look into a face, which appeared to have escaped the vagaries of time. I introduced myself, jogging her memory by referring to an incident that happened more than five decades ago. Her smile widened into a grin as she floored me by using a nick name that only she or my class mates would have known. When she was asked to come on stage and speak to the assembly, all eighty five years of her went up the stairs unaided and she stole every heart (once again) by saying, “I am so used to interacting with children that I always find it difficult speaking to adults”.

Mr. Albert was married to my fourth standard teacher. I did not know this, till the year that my grandfather and I spent the summer season at the YMCA hostel in Sunny Bank near Murree, since our house next door was undergoing renovation. We were joined at the breakfast table, by a tall, wiry, distinguished looking, middle aged man with a wonderful soft accent. My grandfather introduced him as Mr. Albert, the warden and custodian of the YMCA facility. As they chatted, I became aware of his connection with my school. This amazing man often accompanied us on afternoon walks and ran the hostel with military precision. It turned out that he was a master problem solver and the word ‘impossible’ was not in his dictionary. A few days later, I discovered another facet of his character from the hostel cook. The year before, Jumma Khan’s had a nasty fall and badly injured herself. It was ‘Albert Sahib’, who sat by her bedside, tended to the needs of his employee’s little ones and paid for the woman’s entire treatment. I also heard a story that the ‘Sahib’ was supporting many underprivileged homes around the YMCA premises, in a discreet anonymous manner.

As I came of age, I realized the impact generated by these two persons on the way I looked at life. I have done my best to emulate them, but perhaps I haven’t done enough. If anyone from the MacMillan or Albert clans is reading this piece, consider it as a grateful tribute to two unforgettable characters from a bygone Golden Era.