Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Life Beyond Dreams

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‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I asked young Shahdad Marri. But the child did not understand my question so I rephrased it to ask him what he wanted to do after his education. ‘I’ll do whatever work I can get,’ he replied.
Surely, there was something he would like to do. Like being a doctor or an engineer, I pressed. Shahdad silently shook his head staring straight at me with his pellucid brown eyes.

‘Surely, you have a dream of being someone when you grow up?’ I tried again.

‘I have no dream,’ Shahdad said with heart-wrenching simplicity. ‘I have no dream so far.’ His exact words: Abhi tuk koi khwab nahi hai. I could have burst into tears sitting there in the office of Khaula Amir, the principal of Jehangir Marri Shaheed School in Kohlu.

The boy’s pronunciation of Urdu was so sharp; I could not help but ask him where he had learned his language.

‘From television soap operas on the set in the teashop,’ Shahdad said with a shy smile. Only a child of exceptional intelligence could have done this in a couple of years.

In its sixty-third year, Pakistan has failed to give dreams to a child as bright as Shahdad Khan Marri. If truth be told, we have given him only poverty. Poverty so abject that it has taken away his capacity to dream the dreams that any eleven-year-old should. But then, another child his age in another place in Pakistan would be in the fifth or sixth grade of school. Young Shahdad has only just started kindergarten.

Kohlu, in the heart of Marri country, is so remote that few Pakistanis outside Balochistan have heard of it. Fewer still have ever been there. If it is famous for anything, it might be the lack of amenities and facilities that people in rural centres take for granted. In the total absence of industry, the government is the only employer of those few among the city’s residents who are educated. The illiterate among Kohlu’s men work as daily wage earning labourers. But employment opportunities being what they are, they spend more days idle than working. The remainder run small businesses.

One such business is a teashop opposite the school once known as FC (Frontier Corps) School. Since the heroic death of a son of Kohlu, Lieutenant Jehangir Marri in the anti-terrorist operations of Bajaur, the school now commemorates the gallantry of this Baloch brave by carrying his name. And there in the teashop across the road from the school, was young Shahdad who carted trays of tea to the neighbouring shopkeepers and also to the bursar of the school.

Son of a daily wage-earning labourer, Shahdad had never been to school because the family had always been strapped for money. As the eldest of seven siblings, it devolved upon him to help augment the father’s meagre and erratic income. For two thousand rupees a month, Shahdad’s day began about an hour after sunrise and ended well after nightfall.

As he washed the tea things, Shahdad watched the droves of children coming to attend school across the road. And when he took the tray for the bursar, he passed by the open doors of the classrooms where boys and girls his age, younger than him, poured over their lessons. Pencils in hand, they filled up their copybooks with symbols that poor Shahdad could not even understand. One day a strange thought entered his mind, an idea that is alien to children who struggle through soul-destroying destitution: why could he not go to school like these children?

One wonders how long the child had harboured this idea but then one day acting on impulse that only a child can possess, Shahdad faced the bursar as he delivered his tea. He wanted to attend school like all these other children, so could he join up, he asked. Zafar Iqbal, the bursar, was taken aback. He had served in several different schools, but such a thing had never occurred. The child was obviously from a very indigent background and without the capacity to pay school fees. Yet there was something in the way the child had made his plea. It was so fervent and genuine that it touched the good man’s heart.

Telling the child to return the next day for an answer, Zafar Iqbal went to see his principal Khaula Amir. If there was some way of paying the child’s monthly fees, he offered to bear the admission fees himself. Now, the school maintains a small kitty from teachers’ contributions for just such cases. But it has nine students exempt from fees for various reasons who draw upon this kitty and some other funds. For this one case, the principal offered to pay the monthly fees herself.

There was also the question of the consent of the boy's father. He had to guarantee that after a few months of the hardship brought on by the curtailment of Shahdad’s teashop salary, he would not ask for the child to be withdrawn. With the undertaking in place, on the eighteenth day of March 2010, Shahdad Khan Marri came to school for the first time in his life of eleven years.

It is early to predict the boy’s future, but one thing is clear: when a person has known poverty and has yearned for education as Shahdad has done, such a one will excel. For Shahdad, if he does not do well, it is back to a life of toting tea trays around the Kohlu bazaar. But if he excels in school, there is a world beyond the dreams he does not yet dare to dream. These are dreams that he can attain through his own effort. That much he knows.

However, as I was leaving Jehangir Marri Shaheed School, a niggling thought refused to go out of my mind. The present principal is the wife of the Commandant Maiwand Rifles, headquartered in Kohlu. One day the colonel will be posted out and with him his family will leave, for such is the way of the soldier’s life. With her gone, will it be that Shahdad will be condemned once again to the tea boy’s life?

No, says Khaula Amir emphatically. Before she leaves her office in Kohlu, she will institutionalise the case of Shahdad’s education. ‘Not only will his schooling to grade twelve be paid for, but I hope to put some mechanism in place that will help him through further professional education,’ she says.

It is a long way for young Shahdad. But he has taken the first step on this journey. If his subdued yearning, the very one that grabbed Zafar Iqbal and Khaula Amir and which somehow grew on me in the half hour I spent with him, is something to go by, there is promise. This promise lures me. One day when he has begun to see his dreams, I will return to Kohlu to remind Shahdad Khan Marri of the beginning.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 3 October 2013 at 10:58, Anonymous Saman said...

I see his beautiful eyes full of dreams, hopes.

At 3 October 2013 at 13:01, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sure many readers of this excellent blog, including myself, will be willing to contribute. Perhaps a fund can be established for this school?

At 3 October 2013 at 16:44, Anonymous Anonymous said...

حیرت اور افسوس

At 3 October 2013 at 20:30, Anonymous Ramla said...

I see hope, courage and a future in the eyes.

At 4 October 2013 at 20:19, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

A fund for children like Shahdad should really be in place. But if you are willing to help, I'll have to reconnect with the school to find out how fares this bright young boy.

At 5 October 2013 at 12:09, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing such a compassionate story. Hopefully such noble work will not be limited to goodwill of people but State should realize its duty & remove impediments

At 5 October 2013 at 12:48, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, unfortunately the state suffers from total ennui. Ordinary people like Shahdad Marri do not exist for the masters.

At 6 October 2013 at 13:44, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Not to talk only of Shahdad, there are countless beings whose dreams have been pulled out from their eyes due to many reasons


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days