Chitral is anything but accessible. It’s located at the foot of the highest peak in the Hindu Kush mountains, which spans about 800 kilometers across central Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Chitral itself has escaped much of the violence due to its isolation, but the surrounding areas have seen some of the toughest fighting between the Taliban and both Pakistani and American troops.
Hardly the type of place you’d expect to find a 94 year old Englishman, but somehow that’s exactly where Geoffrey Langlands ended up.
Orphaned at the age of 12, Langlands was sent to India after taking part in the disastrous raid on Dieppe, when his commando unit captured a German heavy gun. In 1947 he found himself stranded on a train in no man’s land, during the bloody partition of Pakistan and India, trying to prevent the Hindu troops under his command from being butchered. But in the end he preferred the Muslims, and plumped to stay in Pakistan to train the fledgling army. In 1954 he returned to his first love – mathematics – when the army chief, General Ayub Khan, arranged a job at Lahore’s prestigious Aitchison College, where the British had educated the sons of India’s tribal royalty. Ayub went on to become Pakistan’s first military ruler, and Langlands stayed for 25 years, teaching upper-crust young Pakistanis destined to lead in business, politics and the army. And Imran Khan.
– The Guardian
Major Langlands has dedicated the last 20 years of his time in Pakistan to a school and college bearing his name that educates 900 students (ranging from ages 4 to 18!). A third of them are girls. Despite living in the remote reaches of northern Pakistan, Langlands is unquestionably British. Even a throw back to more colonial times. He’s polished and proper.
Every morning the retired major … rises at dawn in his cottage in Chitral… He puts on a blazer, tie and polished shoes. Then he sits down to breakfast served by his loyal servant, Sufi. It is always the same: porridge (“Quaker Oats, of course”), a poached egg (the poacher bought from Selfridges) and two cups of Lipton tea. He leafs through a newspaper, which has arrived via the valley’s irregular plane service and is a few days old. Then it is out of the door.
– The Guardian
The articles written about him list the amazing things he has seen and experienced over almost 70 years on the subcontinent.
- Witnessing the end of British rule, the partition of India, and the birth of Pakistan
- Being kidnapped by tribesman in Waziristan
- Living through several wars
- Taking tea with both princesses and prime ministers (names you’d recognize)
Finally at 94, he’s decided to retire. But even in retirement there’s apparently still more to be done, which according to the NY Times includes “a memoir to write, a 95th birthday to share with his brother and more fund-raising … to to build a proper dormitory in Chitral.”
Since first reading about Major Langlands about a month ago, I’ve thought about his story a number of times trying to wrap my head around the life he has lead, the unconventional choices he has made, and the legacy he’s created.
But there’s also a certain loneliness to it all that I can’t get past… No one’s immune from it, no matter the life you’ve lead or the people you’ve met. He has never married, and the only family he has is a twin brother who he’s seen only a few times since leaving in 1944, but he’s clearly made an impact on the people he’s met over the years. They’ve set him up in an apartment in Lahore after his retirement, helping to take care of him in his old(er) age. People describe him as irreplaceable, and they will likely even struggle to move forward at the school without him. Even Declan Walsh, the journalist who wrote both of the articles linked below, seems taken with him.
I truly hope Major Langlands finds the time to write his memoir. I imagine it would read almost like fiction, and it’s one I’d really like to read. I’d love to see Pakistan and the specifically the northwest frontier province through his eyes.
- VIDEO: Meet the 92 year-old teacher finally calling it a day, BBC
- He has been kidnapped and taken tea with princesses, The Guardian
- Briton There at Pakistan’s Birth Stays at 94, a Living Textbook, NY Times