Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Genuine people come around

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To freely acknowledge and salute those who have helped one attain one’s goals is a true measure of a human being. It is the mark of largesse of the spirit. And Darvesh Ali is one such young man. But he is much more than that.

When he was yet shy of his nineteenth birthday and working his way through the tenth grade at the boys’ school in Karimabad, Hunza, his father passed away. The second child of his parents and the only brother of four sisters, Darvesh Ali had feared just such an eventuality through his father’s long battle against blood cancer. This would mean pressure on him to take his father’s place as the family’s sole bread-winner.

Though the family had a reasonable land holding, but in Hunza in 1995 that meant just subsistence farming. Potato farming had not become the well paying business that it is these days, and the family only growing a little wheat and some vegetables desperately needed cash inflow. What little saving the family had was sunk in the desperate seeking of a cure for the father’s disease.

And so it was that eighteen year-old Darvesh Ali gave up school and took up his late father’s job as watchman in Baltit Fort. Had he been older and with a degree in his hand, Darvesh might have landed a better assignment, but under the circumstances he was thankful for what he got. At least it was bringing in a little bit of money. As he settled into his work, the young man’s dream of being a doctor born of seeing the suffering of his father, slowly receded into the misty distance.

In 1995 Baltit was the hub of frantic activity as its restoration neared the end. There was a numerous crew of workers, engineers, architects, what have you, plus a steady stream of visitors not just from the valley but from far corners of the country. As watchmen Darvesh and his two colleagues were required to be on their toes. They worked round the clock for forty-eight hours and then took a day off. While on duty, every free minute he had, Darvesh would spend on the textbooks he would have been reading had he remained in school.

With his sights set on completing his matriculation, Darvesh saved up his off days. And when the 1996 matriculation exams rolled around, he took leave from his watchman’s job and sat for the certificate. But the tough work at Baltit had not permitted sufficient preparation and he flunked in four subjects. A lesser person may have then given up. But not Darvesh Ali. With renewed effort he delved back into his books and the next turn around, he sailed through.

That was just as well. No sooner had he received word of his success in the matriculation, he lost his job. Restoration complete, the Aga Khan Foundation that had hired Darvesh, handed over the fort of the newly-established Baltit Heritage Trust. The Trust had no opening for the three watchmen and therefore gave them their marching orders. No amount of pleading changed the rules.

The desperate trio travelled to Gilgit to speak with Izhar Ali Hunzai at Aga Khan Cultural Services Pakistan (AKCSP). There was, they were told, a vacancy for just one watchman. The three were interviewed and Darvesh clinched the job at the Gilgit office because the other two had only a few years of schooling between them.

Once again he was required to be on the job twenty-four hours a day. Only, now after manning the front gate during the day, Darvesh was free to lock up the premises after hours, lay out his bedding on the kitchen floor and sleep. A year and a half went by in which time Darvesh several times approached the CEO’s secretary for permission to attend school because there was really no need for a man at the gate.

Wearying of the secretary’s repeated refusal, Darvesh one day accosted the CEO. ‘Izhar [Ali Hunzai] sahib is a very good man and he straightaway gave me permission to attend whatever school I wished to join,’ Darvesh says. There was just one admonition: ‘Do well in your studies.’

For a monthly fee of Rs 800, Darvesh Ali joined evening classes at a computer training institute in Gilgit town. In the morning he prepared for his intermediate exams. Here began a very trying period of his life. Besides paying more than half of his watchman’s salary of Rs 1500 for his education, he spent nearly three hundred rupees per month on commuting into town and back which left him with so little money that he could only afford a single meal every other day. Early in 1999, two years since he had started working as the watchman at the Gilgit office, Darvesh passed his intermediate exam.

Meanwhile, his teacher at the computer training institute was greatly impressed by Darvesh’s prowess and his incredibly swift uptake. Unknown to the man, what he learned in class, Darvesh surreptitiously practiced on the computer in the office. After the staff left for the day and Darvesh had locked himself in, he would practice what he learned at the institute on the computer of the CEO’s secretary. Knowing fully well that this was out of order and unacceptable and if discovered he could face severe penalty, Darvesh yet kept up his secret use of the office computer.

‘I was obsessed with just one thing and that was to become as proficient on the computer as I possible could in the shortest possible time.’ And so most times our man would work the night away, barely able to switch off the machine as the first staff members strolled in for the day’s work.

The ‘theft’ at the office was not discovered, but his teacher at the institute was taken by our man’s remarkable facility with the computer. He offered not only to waive his tuition fee, but also proposed a salary of Rs 1500 per month if Darvesh would work evenings as laboratory assistant. Darvesh accepted and though life continued to be extremely hectic juggling the two jobs, but with the double salary it was after a very long time that he was eating three square meals a day.

In 1999 Salman Beg (lieutenant colonel retired) took over as CEO AKCSP. This change too was entirely to Darvesh’s benefit for here was a man who recognised talent and possessed the generosity to encourage such talent. Darvesh Ali was soon offered a proper day job: office assistant and computer resource person with a starting salary of Rs 5500.

By now there were five computers in the office and Darvesh’s typical workday entailed a good deal of hurrying from desk to desk to help upcoming computer users with minor problems and queries. ‘As a child I had wanted to be a doctor to help others. Now I was doing the same without being one and I had that same sense of fulfilment that I may have had as a doctor. I was a doctor of sorts.’ Darvesh says with his shy smile.

Although Darvesh’s computer skills were by now pretty sharp, he yet had no paper to show for it. Colonel Beg encouraged him to enrol in an IT diploma course. He was permitted to leave office at three in the afternoon, two hours ahead of closing time, in order to catch his classes. Before the year 2005 was over this remarkable young man had the coveted diploma. But a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in computer science was not what he desired anymore. ‘There is nothing that a person with a master’s degree knows about computers and I don’t,’ says he with visible pride.

Shortly afterwards Darvesh got to work with the well-known Lahore-based architect Yasmin Cheema. He acknowledges her as a great teacher under whom he learned the secrets of documentation of cultural heritage. That, besides several other skills, is now his speciality.

Having been to Norway for an IT course, Darvesh Ali is today IT Officer at AKCSP, Gilgit. It has been a long journey that stated in 1995 for Darvesh the watchman at Baltit and has come to Darvesh the IT Officer. It has not ended, says the man emphatically. ‘There is no limit to knowledge and I will continue to learn and excel,’ he adds. He has already earned a BA with economics, sociology and Persian and is now looking forward to begin working for a master’s degree in sociology.

As IT member on the executive committee of Karimabad Welfare Association, Darvesh was recently invited to speak at a school managed by the Association. He admits he is hardly an orator, but he told the children how he had started out as an ordinary watchman and worked his way up to be recognised as a computer expert. As he left the lectern, Darvesh Ali was met with a spirited standing ovation.

That he is not ashamed to acknowledge his humble beginnings also is a measure of this remarkable man. That and his ability to tell the children at the Karimabad school that though he had worked very hard and very long, he may not have got where he is without the kindness of men like Salman Beg and Izhar Ali Hunzai.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

7 Comments:

At April 3, 2014 at 11:58 AM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

God help those who help them self, provided people show desire like Mr Derwesh

 
At April 3, 2014 at 9:53 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Love this story that many must emulate.

 
At April 3, 2014 at 9:56 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

And many may relate to it.

 
At April 3, 2014 at 11:10 PM, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Self made

 
At April 4, 2014 at 11:54 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

:) Thank you all.

 
At April 4, 2014 at 12:50 PM, Blogger Sajini Chandrasekera said...

Good men still exist ......

 
At April 4, 2014 at 7:36 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Indeed!

 

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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