The Octopus

By Rumana Husain

It was a beautiful day in Islamabad. The seventh graders of this elitist private school had just finished reading a poem, “Spring Morning”, which went something like this:

Where am I going? I don’t quite know.

Down to the stream where the king-cups grow–  

Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow–

Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know.

Their English teacher, Ms Rafiq, had briefly mentioned to her class that A.A. (Alan Alexander) Milne, who died in 1956, and who had written this poem was none other than the author of the famous stories about Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin, Tigger, Piglet and the rest. She also mentioned one other interesting fact. “He was a soldier in the First World War, but after he left the army, he wrote an anti-war book, Peace with Honour. Think about that,” she had urged.

Some students were mulling over that fact while some others overlooked the divergence. “Whatever,” they shrugged their shoulders and said to no one in particular. It was a favourite pre-teen statement to display indifference.

Besides elaborating on the characters or circumstances and scenarios in her literature class, Ms Rafiq usually provided a few other nuggets of information that would, by and large, compel her students to march off on tangents, seeking their own answers to unanswered questions.

“Delve deeper into the background and context of the literary people whose works you read. Sometimes the facts about them are stranger than fiction. Their personal histories and experiences will make you reflect upon their works more intimately,” Ms Rafiq said while concluding the day’s lesson.

The twins, Azra and Akbar, had different reactions to the piece of information that A. A. Milne, after having fought in the war, had written an anti-war book.

“Isn’t that cool that Milne turned to literature…also to children’s literature, and wrote that Peace with Honour book, too?” Azra said to her brother while on their way home from school. Akbar chose not to answer, and continued to look out at the Margalla Hills from the car’s window. He was thinking about the hiking trails on which he and Azra would go with their father sometimes when Abba was at home on a holiday. “I love these trails that snake up to the ridgetops and down through forested valleys,” thought Akbar, as the words ‘Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow’ rang out in his mind, providing a kind of background music for his thoughts.

He kept thinking about asking their father to go for a hike over the weekend as he was home these days. Their father was a tall and strong man who was very proud of his work and position.

“Where am I going? I don’t quite know.

Down to the stream where the king-cups grow–

Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow–

Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know…

…Are the king-cup flowers similar to buttercups?” Azra had another question for her brother. And this time he nodded. Emboldened, Azra put forth one more question, “Will you go anywhere, anywhere, to a place you don’t know?” Akbar frowned and didn’t say anything. He knew that sometimes his twin had this terrible habit of speaking about weird or frivolous things.

Not getting any response from Akbar, Azra decided to open her book and read aloud a few stanzas of the poem.

If you were a bird, and lived on high,

You’d lean on the wind when the wind came by,

You’d say to the wind when it took you away:

“That’s where I wanted to go today!”

Where am I going? I don’t quite know.

What does it matter where people go?

Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow–

Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know…

Akbar barged into his parents’ room as soon as they arrived home and asked, “Abba, can we go hiking in the Margallas this weekend?”, enthusiasm dripping from his tone.

“Sure. You really want to?” his father asked, while his mother chided him gently, “No salaam, nothing?”

“It’s alright,” his father said. Azra also came into the room after putting her schoolbag and poetry book away.

“Do you want to go hiking too?” Abba asked her with a smile. She nodded happily.

“Alright, then. We will leave on Saturday morning. It is perfect weather for long hikes these days,” Abba said.

“Complete your homework by Friday evening or you two are not going anywhere!” Ammi couldn’t desist from reminding as well as threatening the children.

The following day, Ms Ahmad was in the class in the first period. They were studying the octopus.

“The octopus is a soft-bodied, eight-limbed mollusc of the order Octopoda,” she said, but Azra and Akbar had their minds elsewhere. While one was thinking about the trenches, the blood, sweat and wounds, the other was thinking of guns, and of chivalry. The Margalla Hills and the hike that they were so looking forward to were now far from their thoughts.

“Octopuses are extremely intelligent. They are observed to mimic other species,” continued Ms Ahmad as she started to draw one on the blackboard.

There were whispers and murmurs in the classroom and she turned to enquire with a smile if there was an octopus or some other sea creature climbing on her back that got her students to natter. She was like that…catching them off-guard, making jokes, always beaming a beautiful smile that would make them regret an action, or look sheepishly towards one another.  Ms Ahmad was a remarkable teacher and she demanded complete attention and dedication from her students.

“It isn’t that, Miss Ahmad,” Riaz offered an explanation. “Hajra said that there are giant octopuses that measure 30 feet across …and we…we don’t believe her.” Riaz blushed.

Ms Ahmad put down the chalk on the table and confirmed that Hajra was right. “The largest individual seen was indeed that big.”

She then looked in the direction of the twins.

“And where are you two this morning? What’s the matter with you? I know you aren’t paying any attention,” Ms Ahmad asked. She kept an eye on all her twelve-year-olds, and nothing escaped her.

“Umm, Miss Ahmad, it’s nothing. I am listening,” Akbar stammered. “I know we are learning about octopuses, and I know that they have eight arms,” he added. Ms Ahmad then looked towards Azra.

“Miss Ahmad, our father had to go…he…he left this morning. It’s just that suddenly with the tense situation, I am very worried. Really worried. He said he will probably be at the border.” Azra said it as it was.

“I am not worried,” Akbar cut in, lest he be considered a wimp. “It’s okay. It’s his job. He will be fighting the enemy. We may have a war!” He almost said it gleefully.

“Ah, okay. I can well imagine your concern. We shall talk about it a little later, shall we?” Ms Ahmad said to Azra, ignoring Akbar’s remark.

Suddenly, the classroom became charged and then chaotic. One could hear words like “country”, “bravery”, “life”, “your father”, “my father”, “war”, “defence”, “enemy”….

Without another word, Ms Ahmad turned to the blackboard to complete the octopus that she had been drawing. She drew its eight arms, three hearts and nine brains. The uproar in the classroom was slowly subsiding.

She then proceeded to label the arms of the octopus: Country, Bravery, Life, Your Father, My Father, War, Defence, Enemy.

Bewildered, the children looked at one another. No one said a word. As Ms Ahmad turned around to face the class, they waited for her to speak.

“Two of the three hearts pump blood to the gills, and the third heart circulates blood to the rest of the body,” she said.

Jamil could not hold back the obvious question. “But, Miss Ahmad, why have you labelled the arms like that?” Ms Ahmad simply ignored his question and proceeded to now tell her students about the brains.

“Octopuses use one central brain. They control their nervous systems and a small brain in each arm to control movement. Two-thirds of an octopus’ neurons reside in its arms,” she explained, and proceeded to say with a naughty glint in her eyes: “Bismah, tell me the name of this arm.” She pointed at one that read ‘Country’.

“Miss, Miss…Miss Ahmad…,” Bismah blabbered.

“Come on, Bismah, you can surely read the label, right?” Ms Ahmad then turned to another student. “Okay, Taimur, you tell me. Come on, quickly,” she said rather impatiently. Taimur had no choice but to say, “Country.”

“War,” mouthed Akbar, when he was asked to read that particular arm. And that’s how she got them to name all the eight arms of the octopus. Then, taking a deep breath, she said, “Good. But not good at all.”

“An important point to be noted about the Giant Pacific octopuses is that despite their humongous weight and size, they only live an average of four to five years in the wild, yet they are considered to be one of the longest-living octopus species,” Ms Ahmad said pointedly.

“Oh, no!” said her students simultaneously, almost in a chorus.

“That’s right. A brief life despite all those multiple arms and hearts and brains. Remember I said that two of the three hearts pump blood to the gills, and the third heart circulates blood to the rest of the body. Now let me label these hearts for you.” Ms Ahmad picked up the chalk again and labelled the hearts: Poverty, Hunger, Death.

Turning to the class, she said, “Octopuses are these creepy beings that have inspired writers to conjure up monsters in fiction, but you see, despite their blue blood, they have vile hearts. Octopuses have a copper-rich protein called hemocyanin in their bloodstream, which helps to efficiently transport oxygen in cold ocean environments.”

Ms Ahmad now had a serious expression on her face. She told her class how, when threatened, octopuses use their toxic black ink to cloud their predators, and when sprayed in a predator’s eyes, the ink causes a blinding irritation and muddles its sense of taste and smell.

“The ink is deadly to octopuses themselves too. So if the octopuses do not escape it and are confined to a small space with little current flow, they can die of their own ink.”

Ms Ahmad then looked at her students and said in a sad voice, “The damage of war is incalculable. People suffer on both sides. There is no octopus ink surrounding us here…but it could. Can you not smell the acrid smoke of bombed villages, cities and towns, or the stench of the wounds…of death, of people fleeing from their homes, filling up the dirt roads trying to move ahead from the rest? Does all that still make you feel proud? You are too young to know what wars can bring. There’s disease, there’s hunger, there’s loss…war is like a sinister octopus whose creepy and gnarled tentacles will engulf not just those who are at the borders but each one of us.”

She then leaned forward, holding the back of her chair, and said in a soft, low voice to her students who seemed to be spellbound.

“The world can be a better place tomorrow because of your actions. Always remember to choose peace, not war, choose friendship, not enmity, choose inclusion, not exclusion, choose happiness, not sorrow. Do not ever choose hatred. Choose love! Always….”

With that Ms Ahmad exited the classroom, leaving behind a group of twenty-five children thunder-struck by her words.

About the author:

Rumana Husain is a Pakistani writer, artist, and educator.

She is the author of two acclaimed coffee-table books: Karachiwala – A Subcontinent within a City about Karachi’s diverse communities, and Street Smart – Professionals on the Street.  Moreover, she has authored/illustrated over 60 children’s books for several publishers, and has won awards for four of her books in Pakistan, Nepal and India. She is also a regular contributor to national newspapers and magazines.  






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