Do you qualify? The imperialistic exclusivity of the Karachi Grammar School

Published: April 13, 2016

People nod impressively if you tell them you went to KGS, and in a city obsessed with class and nepotism, the doors of KGS mean opportunity and exclusivity. PHOTO:

Like many Karachiites who get very good results in their ‘O’ levels, I decided that my grades were my ticket to the prestigious Karachi Grammar School (KGS). KGS, you see, practises a vague semblance of meritocracy (and maintains its college admission rate records) by allowing a handful of high-achievers into their hallowed gates at the A-level stage. People nod impressively if you tell them you went to KGS, and in a city obsessed with class and nepotism, the doors of KGS mean opportunity and exclusivity. In short, the school represented to me an elusive and exclusive glamour that I wanted to experience, first hand.

I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in a middle-class school in Karachi; my friends were children of businessmen and dentists, but also drivers and office clerks. My best friend worked in a shop on weekends and the vast majority of us had not been outside Pakistan. It wasn’t a great school – some of the teachers were lax and the discipline severe – but I had a firm group of friends with whom I grew up, sharing the usual secrets and fantasies, angst and concerns.

I read constantly, and liked to write stories. I had a special bond with my English teacher and a safe, supportive home environment. Maybe that all contributed to why everyone was proud but nobody particularly surprised that I did well at school.

Somewhat surprisingly, my parents didn’t love the idea of my going to KGS. Or at least my mother didn’t. She thought I would become spoiled and start speaking in that distinctive American-twanged Grammarian accent and that my academic talents would perish. She felt, very strongly, that I should follow my older siblings into a good A-level institution that didn’t reek of elitism and ostentation.

But I fought back tooth and nail until she gave in. She flipped, as many good parents do when they realise that their children’s minds are made up, from fervent opposition to unconditional support and accompanied me when I went to hand in the application form.

Any ‘New G’ (someone who starts at KGS at A-level stage) knows that the OG (old Grammarian)/New G divide is a vast abyss. ‘You’re not the same,’ the OG’s inform you pretty much from day one, in those overt words and also in deed. The New G’s, mired in shame at this rejection, try desperately to fit in. The girls’ uniforms get tighter and shorter until they look like their OG peers’. Accents change subtly and anyone going on a trip abroad is desperately propositioned to bring schoolbags, sweaters and shoes from London or New York.

I was not immune, not even a little bit. I quickly abandoned my old friends, the middle-class, unfashionable girls that I had grown up with. I cautioned my parents to speak in English whenever my new ‘friends’ were around. I scrutinised my whole life differently – why did my mother not wear glamorous clothes and jewellery like my class-mates’ mums? Why did we not have expensive paintings in our house? And why didn’t we ‘holiday’ in Spain or Italy like other people did? I grew shameful of things I had no need to be shameful of, and prided in other things that were pure form over substance. I suppose you could say I lost myself, a little bit.

I remember a school fellow saying to us jokingly on day one,

‘You must be so excited to be here. People bow down, you know, when you tell them you go to KGS.’

It seemed to me a toxic way to conceive of yourself as a child and also, an unwarm welcome that asserts hierarchy. On some level, I had it easier than others – my light skin and slim body conformed to the standards of beauty at my new school, which followed an imperialist, white supremacist aesthetic so strongly that I’m sure, if a time-traveller were to land inside the high-walled campus one day, it wouldn’t take much to convince them that they were still in colonial times.

Value was based, without a doubt, on proximity to westernisation. If you were fair skinned (ideally, with a white or non-desi parent), you were automatically more desirable. An accent that signified frequent visits abroad added further value. The lighter the hair, the less dark the eyes, the more attractive you were considered. Speaking Urdu well was undesirable – this was a language reserved for speaking to servants in. The teachers spoke in clipped anglicised accents and made clear that the epitome of progress would be if one went on to Harvard or Yale, Oxford or Cambridge.

Urdu was taught only as a second language and the admissions process, with the exception of the A-level loophole, involved requests for proof that parents or siblings went there in the past. There were headboys and headgirls, and school houses called things like Napier and Papworth, named after the colonial masters who founded the school – KGS, established in the mid 1800s, was the first school in the city for ‘non-natives’.

It could be argued that the Karachi Grammar School has much to be proud of – its alumni include renowned political figures, Oscar-winning film-makers and some very good journalists. The fact that these people had access to resources (including each other) that made their position possible in the first place probably has more to do with their success than the school’s actual influence, but, like most elite institutions, this access to networks and resources is a large part of where the school’s appeal lies.

KGS went through massive changes in its pre-colonial days including name changes from ‘The Anglo-Indian School’ in 1847 to ‘The Kurrachee European and Indo-European School’ in 1854 to the Karachi Grammar School in 1879. It has remained more or less in this state since, moving from serving the children of European colonisers to their neo-colonial inheritors, retaining the strict class barriers and ridiculously anachronistic and elitist traditions, producing achievements celebrated by Western establishment figures and local elite alike.

However, room for difference or radicalism, innovation and activism, is left closed. Any generosity stems from ego, patronisation and pity, not real empathy or compassion. The output of this school may have polish and confidence, but it is also somewhat cookie-cutter, establishment, conservative, and out-of-touch. The bubble of KGS can stretch only so wide – many of its alumni end up marrying each other, sending their children to KGS, and finding solace in an ethos that is fervently anti-‘fundo’ and pro-capitalist, one that involves lavish parties and frequent travel – this is the KGS ethos to dealing with the chaos that is Karachi. And perhaps there is also great profundity or happiness inside this bubble. The truth is, I wouldn’t know for sure.

But I feel that a massive decolonisation is needed within those gated campuses, one that questions the cliquish imperialist assumptions on which its foundation stands. And more importantly still, a decolonisation must take place within us that allows us to see those imperialistic standards for what they are and that allows us to question the worth of this over-esteemed institution.

Do I wish I had never gone to that school? Saved myself two years of snobbery and condescension, and feelings of low self-worth that can be very harmful when you’re in your teens? That I’d seen my mother as a source of wisdom, not antagonism and old-fashionedness and listened to her more carefully? Not really.

That struggle probably helped me develop the critical skills that allow me to see the world in the way I do now. Still, I believe that snobbery and elitism and the enforcement of strict class difference create wounds that run so deep that we can barely look at them. And that’s why we must.

There was no question of solidarity amongst the New G’s. On the contrary, we tried our hardest to distance ourselves from each other, as this increased the chances of being absorbed into the OG networks. But this also left people on the side-lines, isolated and confused. To acknowledge that the problem was to do with class or background was almost more embarrassing than just believing that there was something in your character that didn’t quite fit. To be confronted with hostility or exclusion, whatever the reason, is always painful. But it is also usually unwarranted. And it is strengthening.

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Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi

Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi

The author is a reviewer and a writer of short stories, essays, and plays.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Aale Mowjee

    I couldn’t agree more Ayesha- your article captures quite accurately what being a ‘Grammarian’ means. I spent a few of my earlier years there and absolutely hated it. I was bullied and didn’t fit in with the ‘cool’ kids. So glad I left….Recommend

  • Bilal Zaidi

    Completely agree with some of what you said. However, that said, the school does have a very large influence. The want to be better at academics just to compete with your peers and to be able to effectively utlize the resources that you speak of is also a very important factor that I never realized before KGS.

    The world isn’t all rainbows and butterflies and that school prepared me for what we are all going to face in all stages of life: discrimination, class disparity etc. I can safely speak for the rest of us too when I say that I couldn’t have grown up to be who I am if I hadn’t spent 4 years there.

    As for elitism, I think the school represents all classes of people. KGS actually charges less than most of the prestigious A Level institutions in Karachi so I don’t think that’s very true.The elite just tend to stand out more for all the wrong reasons in a country like ours where despite representing a small percentage of people, they tend to leave a larger footprint.Recommend

  • EyeGuy

    As an ex-Grammarian, I must disagree with this article. While KGS had it’s group of elitists, it was not defined by it. The fact that you only saw ‘snobbery and condescension” may be more of a reflection of you and your insecurity from being from a self perceived ‘middle class’. Articles like this simply pander to those looking to reinforce a negative stereotype.Recommend

  • X

    I am a Grammarian, an OG, you may say, and I agree very strongly with what you have to say. I look like a foreigner, but I have local parents and I don’t travel abroad very often. I am not part of the larger social circle, and neither do I wish to be. It all feels pretty stupid to me. Pointless, even. I can relate to the low self esteem issues and living as a being totally and eternally apart from the rest, generally. But I find friends elsewhere, in the sidelines, one may say, and it is with such people that I find solace. I’ve been here since I was old enough to be here, and I have never been a big fan of the school.

  • Muhammad-Baber Mirza

    I felt the same when i went to lyceum. Your words and experience resonate a lot with mine. I felt lost and unsupported. Thank you for sharing and don’t stop writing.

  • Read Below

    Pakistani schools/universities have zero-worth outside, so I am not sure what all the fuss is about in the first place.Recommend

  • Parvez

    What you have touched on is something that exists in most all institutions of some standing, be they schools, colleges, universities, professions, private clubs, societal groups etc…….singling out the KGS is a bit harsh.Recommend

  • Hamza Khan

    If this was written by an A-levels student, she is going far!Recommend

  • Nida

    Everything written in this article about KGS just proves how wrong you are.Recommend

  • AK

    I was a new G. I would not have been the person that I am today if I hadn’t gone through those high school experiences (mostly good, some bad).

    I am tired of people telling me that I don’t look or talk like a Grammarian. I am tired of the stereotyping by outsiders. This stereotyping though, by an insider, was worse! High school is that period of life when we realise that life-long friendships are increasingly difficult to form as we age. OGs sometimes are people who have known each other from day 1 of school. As with any existing group, things are difficult for newcomers but it is up to the individual when it comes to responding to such a situation…

    I saw a house captain being kicked out of school because he was found doping inside the premises. I saw names of two students taken off from the list of possible prefects because they were doing something ‘inappropriate’ in the school. Others may have seen brats and snobs whose hormones were going crazy. If one has to write about social issues, write about them as they relate to the society as a whole. Do not malign one single institution please.Recommend

  • Muneeb rasheed Siddiqui

    Do you have any stats to back this claim or are you just making up facts to suit your opinion?Recommend

  • NAR
  • Don’t be fooled

    So, is that why Pakistani graduates work side by side with all other nationalities world wide including many top western companies ?Recommend

  • Hassaan

    Wow an insecure non-Pakistani (we all know from where) decides to comment again on a Pakistani website unable to bear the idea of life in Pakistan bearing normalcy just like any other country in the world..Recommend

  • Malveros

    Be concerned with Indian schools / universities that are churning out run-of-the-mill students aka Brainless Zombies. Let us worry about Pakistani Schools / Universities.Recommend

  • Col. Nicholson

    I also come from a middle class background. I did my O Levels from City School Darakhsan in 2001. For A Levels, it was my parents’ wish that I be enrolled in one of Khi’s ‘top’ institutions at the time. So I ran with my father to KGS, St. Pats, Lyceum etc. for admission. I met the minimum requirement for all schools (5 A’s) but ultimately was unable to get in any of them. Disappointed, my parents had no option but to enroll me back in my old school.

    I managed to get straight A’s (by the grace of Allah) then went on to get my Bachelor’s from the (in my opinion) country’s best Engineering University then and now – NUST. I’ve been working in one of the top Engineering firms of the country for almost ten years. My experiences at University and subsequently my job have been both eye-opening and life-changing.

    What I have learnt so far as I near my mid-30s and what I believe is the takeaway from this long story for today’s teens is this – school name doesn’t matter, grades don’t matter (much), even class/financial background doesn’t matter. What matters is your will to succeed and do good; and of course, faith in Allah’s plan (which is greater than any human’s). You don’t need to be in the top school/university/company to succeed.

    Coming to the theme of the blog, divisions/groupings due to class/background/capabilities etc. exist everywhere. It is up to us individually to rise above them and not judge the book by it’s cover, so to speak.Recommend

  • Farahv

    very true, it’s a great school that gives you access to to some great opportunities, but that elitism and class consciousness is something it needs to discardRecommend

  • Hanbal Khan

    This comment is more valuable than the article itself!Recommend

  • Saeed Motiwala

    Good article, raising very valid points. Unfortunately, this ‘gora sahib’ mentality has only entrenched in KGS since when I was a student there (over 4 decades ago). Other similiar ‘elite’ schools are probably no different. In fairness, KGS did have some fantastic teachers who guided us to learn in a rigorous academic curriculum, as well as some duds. Perhaps it is high time that parents re-evaluate what they value in ‘education’.Recommend

  • Saeed Motiwala

    “The road to Truth necessitates travelling light. Shed the excess baggage of prejudices, culture, upbringing and desires. Carry only what is necessary if you want to reach this important destination.” Anonymous.Recommend

  • Sarfaraz Ahmed Rehman

    I am a very old Grammarian, when the school was smaller and probably as elitist. So old, that what Ayesha says jogs only certain memories…yes there was a lot of what she said, but then we left school and learned much. Now I put KGS in context, realise its good and its bad and its subliminal influence on me. Add that to other influences, which are many more and deeper and Alhamdulillah one comes to a fairly balanced view of life in KGS and otherwise.Recommend

  • LandofIndus

    As an OG circa 1970’s, I fully understand the message conveyed in this excellent writing, although it wasn’t so bad in my days. Obsessing with being “British” is not just by some students; some teachers also do it. This obsession has now become an academic liability for the school because they insist on using obsolete teaching materials and techniques which they claim as “British syllabus”. I’m sure the British have themselves moved ahead. My message to the author: Keep writing; you are smarter than some of us OG’s.Recommend

  • some one who has a point

    You can’t be serious. One of the best educational standards? No way. going to tuitions and picking up the cream of Krachi doesn’t mean it has high standards. If i had a choice to go to KGS, i wouldn’t simply becuase of the negative vibes it gives off. And I in no case want to spend my entire time in tuitions and come out of them in a state that i can’t survive without them.Recommend

  • SaifUllah Nasar

    It seems that elite schools are producing students with bad reading ability. All the critics (and those who affirm Ayesha’s view) are entirely ignoring colonial legacy in educational institutions and decolonization option in their critical remarks.Recommend

  • LandofIndus

    Please explain that to the KGS graduates who are admitted to the top universities worldwide and are also teaching in those top universities. If you don’t like “Burgers” stick to “Bun Kebabs”.Recommend

  • LandofIndus

    Those Indian universities produce less than 20% graduates who are employable by businesses in India. If you meet their top university graduates, you will be shocked by their low standards.Recommend

  • Zarnab Rashid

    Lol dude. What a pathetic comment.Recommend

  • Zarnab Rashid

    Some people call this a rant. Some call this misleading. Others pointless. I am compelled to put a couple of my words in because we, the privileged, will never understand the hardships of the people of Pakistan. Our self righteousness and ego will always keep us blind from the facts. The problem is not KGS. This is the mentality of our country itself.Recommend

  • of perceptions and self esteem

    utter rubbish and nothing but a projection of her own fears and inhibitions. Recommend

  • Double A

    Yes of course faith in Allahs plan, just sit at home and fart all day and have faith in His plan as whatever happens is His will so why even try…Recommend

  • Desi

    So the students of mediocre schools are also admitted to top universities and teaching in those and even making remarkable innovations and breakthrough in science, medicine and etc. Then what’s the difference between a ‘Burger’ school and Mediocre ones. Why KGS is promoting the culture is which is not Pakistani from any aspect? Why does KGS have more emphasis on the English than Urdu? Please tell me I am awaiting to more enlightened by your oh-so ‘Great Knowledge’ ‘Burger’ !!!!Recommend

  • Nael

    Congratulations you know how to use a lot of big words without understanding what they really mean. Recommend

  • fbhombal

    Govt. College Lahore has produced more leaders in pakistan than KGS, which is the most overrated school in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Danny

    You sir, are a legend.Recommend

  • LandofIndus

    First you claimed that schools in Pakistan have zero value abroad. Now you are claiming that even students of mediocre schools are also admitted to top universities. I’m happy for them too.Recommend

  • intothevoid

    KGS does NOT have ‘one of the best academic standards’ in Pakistan. It simply has some of the best students, which it gets to cherry pick because of its elitist standing. There is a reason that 90% of KGS students go to after school tuitions. It’s absolutely LUDICROUS to suggest that KGS has good academic standards.Recommend

  • gp65

    Yeah these people of shocking standards seem to be doing very well globally. Indians are 1% of US population but constitute 12.5% of the professors in US colleges, the surgeon general of US was educated in India as are the CEOs of Pepsi, Google, Microsoft and MasterCard.Recommend

  • Teacher by choice.

    I couldn’t agree more. OGs are also of two types. One are those whose generations have studied here and the others are those who got admission from pre primary. The rest remain NG whether they join from class 3, 7, 10 or A levels. OGs have superiority complex. I wonder what makes a school best when its 99% students start going to tuition from junior classes. Most of the teachers are either OGs themselves or related to them. It is impossible for anyone to survive as teacher without reference. The middle class families who want their children to learn better should keep their children away from such schools. No one should be tempted for the repute or name of the institute. The school where 80% students don’t require private tuition is worth joining. However finding such school where tuition mafia is active is impossible.Recommend

  • Daud Khan

    The writer of the article clearly had a tough time in KGS. I am sorry that this happened. In contrast ,I had a great time and carry fond memories and deep friendships formed at School. I don’t consider myself unfriendly or arrogant. If I do behave badly at times I think these are defects in my person and I don’t think its due to my going to KGS.Recommend

  • LandofIndus

    These individual success stories outside India don’t qualify the remaining 1.1 billion Indians.Recommend

  • no

    Govt. College Lahore has produced more leaders in Pakistan. KGS is the home of the Pakistanis who work and lead all around the World. Not Only Pakistan :) in 2012 only one student got into Oxford University From the whole Sub-continent. and he studied from KGS. and he got in for Medicine.
    Just because you have a hate for the school doesnt mean you have the right to call it Overrated. 3/4 of the people dont take tuitions in KGS until they reach O’Levels. and some people dont even take tutions then as well. you shouldnt believe everything you hear about the school.Recommend

  • AYLT

    I think the guy referred to a “will to succeed and do good” as the primary factor…. and faith in God’s plan as something to complement it…Recommend

  • AYLT

    Nope, was written by a girl who graduated in 2006. I remember her. Mentioned the article to my mum today. She’s one of those kindly, sweet mums whose not too judgemental. Even she found it lame that the girl hadn’t gotten over it and was ranting about it ten years later.Recommend

  • Hamza Khan

    You sound like an elitist, bro.. Chill out. She presented an experience different from yours. Now you should know what’s behind her inferiority complex. Try to empathize with her. Also, tell your mom to be kinder too.Recommend

  • Nincompoop

    If thats how to spell becuase they wouldn’t take you anyways.Recommend

  • Albi

    The chaiwala could end up as a revolutionary. The Chinese, Korean, Russian revolutions were staged by those who were born and lived in poverty and were sick of being pushed around by the elites…Notice how they changed their history. Revolutionaries were out of the box thinkers and hardship does force you to get creative.Recommend