Meet an 85-year-old retired British Army major who runs a school in a secluded valley in Pakistan

In Chitral, Pakistan, there is one man who stands as tall, as straight, as strong as the Hindu Kush mountains that define the valley: Geoffrey Douglas Langlands. The 85-year-old headmaster and senior mathematics teacher of the English-medium Sayurj Public School/College. A retired British Army major who has lived in Pakistan for the entire 56 years since independence. A bachelor wholly committed to teaching the children of Chitral the values of honesty, punctuality and simplicity.

"I'm 100 per cent British. Before, I used to go home once in 10 years (he has a sister and a twin brother in England). Since 1990, different people have paid for me to have a holiday in England, so I've gone back three times...," he said.

"I think it is good to be British. I'm very particular about time. If I say I will meet you at four o'clock, then I WILL meet you at four o'clock. Another thing I believe in is absolute, complete honesty. I also believe in simple living. And I'm against all the excesses in the name of religion that cause so much trouble around the world. One of my boys has written a book about Islam and pointed out it is a religion of peace and tolerance. That is what needs to be highlighted."

Invited by old pupils who hoped they'd be able to raise funds for his school (see box), Langlands was in Dubai for a short visit recently. Dressed formally in a dark suit, his snow-white hair brushed smartly, he sat comfortably in the executive lounge of a five-star hotel. He was not impressed by the luxury around him -he barely drank his coffee. He did not even seem to notice it.

Instead, he spoke crisply and firmly of his school(s), his bright eyes crinkling in laughter as he remembered special moments and students - political leaders including former President of Pakistan Farooq Leghari ("my most outstanding student") and present Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali; generals, academics and sportsmen, including ace cricketer Imran Khan. Even members of the Malaysian royal family.

He seemed to think it entirely natural that a man from England should spend his life teaching in Pakistan.

"I will continue to teach here as long as I'm active physically and mentally. Every January I go down and stay with the principal of Aitcheson College. This time I had a thorough medical check-up. I wanted to know would I be able to carry on for another three years. They said you can carry on for another 10 years," he said, smiling.

Looking at him, at his clear eyes and steady hands, I could easily believe the doctors.

A view of the Chitral valley... 'Chitral to my mind is the most peaceful area in the whole of Pakistan,' says Geoffrey Douglas Langlands ©Gulf News
Within minutes, Langlands began talking of how his extraordinary career started, going back nearly 70 years with no trouble. "I started teaching in 1936 in London (at Coombe Hill House prep school in Croydon). The day war (World War II) began, I went straight to the army and joined up. Later, I volunteered for transfer to the Indian Army. I came to India in January 1944. When independence came along, they asked the British officers to volunteer to stay for a year.

"I was posted to the Pakistan Army and spent six years with them. Then they didn't want any more British infantry officers. So I said I'd go. General Ayub Khan (then commander in-chief and later President) asked me what I'd do. I said I'd go back to teaching, something I'd done earlier. He got me a job."

This job was as housemaster and mathematics teacher at Pakistan's Eton, Aitcheson College in Lahore. After 25 years in the most prestigious of Pakistan's schools - and an MBE in 1983 for services to education - he chose to teach somewhere else. At a cadet school in tribal North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

"I would not have left Aitcheson but I got a letter from the secretary of education in NWFP. He'd been a boy in my house. He wrote me saying leave your comfortable job in Aitcheson and come to a difficult job in a tribal area. He knew I couldn't say no to that.

"I found myself setting up a cadet college in Razmak, North Waziristan, in 1979. The Afghan border was very close, this was the wildest part of the tribal area. The college had a high wall around it. Militia guards were posted every 300 metres, there were guards at the gate. No one could go out and no one could come in. I was in charge of setting up the college. My subject was mathematics, but I was teaching English."

Langlands spent 10 years in Razmak. Among the many things he did was get kidnapped. In 1988, at the age of 71, he was kidnapped by a tribal leader angered by election defeat. There was a public outcry and he was quickly released from his mountain-hut prison...
Next stop was Chitral.

"I was supposed to be going to set up another college in Azad Kashmir. But there was some delay. I came back to Islamabad. Then I was offered to start a high standard English medium school in Chitral. I accepted," he said.

He has been there for the last 13 years, teaching and advising the 650 boys and girls who study from nursery up to Class 12 in his school. "They won't let me go. I have always thought it is my duty to stay here. Every time I come down to Lahore I'm offered jobs that would bring me very much more money. But I say no. Because it is my duty to stay here."

And he also loves Chitral. "Chitral to my mind is the most peaceful area in the whole of Pakistan. The Chitralis are an entirely separate community and speak their own language. For four to five months every year the valley is cut off from the rest of Pakistan by snow. When the PIA planes don't come, there are no newspapers, no post."

It sounds a lonely life - a single, elderly man living in a remote snowed-in valley, surrounded by people of a different culture. But it is not, said Langlands with quiet emphasis.

"I'm never lonely. I'm too busy to be lonely. I spend the whole day at school and then do more school work later. I'm surrounded by friends. Everyone is my friend."

He said he never married because of obvious reasons. "I'm a practical person. I did not meet anyone suitable. I'm not in favour of mixed marriages, particularly between different religions. Because a child will normally take on the religion of the father but he learns the first ideas of religion from his mother."

Langlands lives with his old cook Mohammed Ali in a small riverbank cottage filled with a lifetime's collection of papers and books. He wakes at five to listen to the BBC World Service News on his shortwave radio, eats frugally (most of the meals very English, like Quaker's Oats por