Updated: Jul 8, 2020
| This is the 174th story of Our Life Logs |
November 23, 1972. Morning—
What has happened to my father?
Where are you taking him?
Why isn’t he talking to me?
These were the questions of a nine-year-old boy, the eldest child in the home, unaware of the coming hardships he might have to face after his father’s death. This is the story of a young and lively boy who was brought up in a beautiful village called Barotha, deep in the valleys of Himalayas Kashmir in Pakistan. This is the story of a boy who emerged from a place where resources like healthcare, education, electricity, and even roads were missing. This is my story.
It was a chilly night in late November. The whole family was sitting in front of the fireplace gossiping and telling stories. Father stood up and said good night to us. He went to our animal yard. The animals were tied outside in the day time. It was getting cold in the night so father went to bring them inside the covered area. Some time passed and he hadn’t come back. Mother got worried and picked up the lantern to look for him. As she entered the animal yard, she found father lying on the silent ground. There were no signs of a snake bite or any other wounds, so it was most probable that he had a heart attack. It devastated my family. The day after the funeral, my mother sat in front of me with a broken stare. Looking at her made me grow up instantly. I realized the severity of our situation. Dark times were ahead.
We hoped to get a monthly pension for my father’s time in the army that we could live on. My mother gave the proper documents to one of our relatives, who lived in another village, and asked him to help get the application processed. A few months passed and we hadn’t heard back from him. When we finally got to speak with him, he told us that he had lost our documents–the only copy we had. Hearing my mother relay these words felt like hot metal on my heart. My father’s pension was supposed to be our main source of income. Without it, we were a family of five with nothing.
To make money, mother decided to make local sweets for us to sell in the town, which was about eight to nine kilometers away from home. As the eldest son in the family, the job of selling mostly fell on me. My routine was to wake up at 4:30 am, pack the sweets, go to the town, sell the sweets, and then go to school. After school, I would buy the materials for making the next day’s sweets and go home. There wasn’t a road or public transportation I could take at that time, but thank God, we had a beautiful white donkey for that purpose. I used to set up the W-shaped wooden frame on the back of the donkey known as “karwanji” in our local language, load up the sweets, and set out for the market.
The school didn’t allow me to park my donkey on the premises, so I had to tie her to a tree nearby and the school guard would look after her. One early morning I reached school and the guard was not there. I tied my donkey up anyway, hoping she would be okay, and went inside. At break time, I came out of the gate to check on my donkey. Strong waves of pain attacked my stomach when I saw that the tree stood alone. My family’s white donkey was gone!
I ran back inside, grabbed my schoolbag, and rushed out to search for the donkey. But she was nowhere to be found. After five to six hours of failed searching, I gave up. I purchased the materials we needed for making sweets, and without my donkey, I had no other option but to carry them on my back. My bag filled with books and the materials was extremely heavy for my tiny body. Walking home that day was one of the hardest walks of my entire life.
I arrived home late that night and my mother was waiting. I threw down my heavy bag and started weeping. My mother hugged me and asked me sadly, “If there was no donkey, why did you bring such a heavy load by yourself?” It turned out that our donkey somehow untied herself and walked home on her own. I’d never been so happy to see her in all my life!
My family and I got by even though it was difficult. Later, my younger brother started helping me sell the sweets, and we also started growing our own vegetables to sell in the town. The income was meager, but enough to run our home.
As I continued in school, I was determined to pursue higher education and find a good job so I could escape the poverty I had known most of my life. But the literacy level around where I lived was very low, and there weren’t many people to guide me. I was thankful to have an amazing science teacher, Maz Mohsin, who mentored me. He saw my potential and told me about universities with good science programs, and helped me grasp what I needed to do to get into college. From him, I not only learned to love science, but I also learned the power of hope.
In my senior year of high school in 1981, I was the only student in my class who dared choose a focus in science. The exam we had to take at the end of the year was considered very difficult. For months, I studied for the test. I worked so hard that the textbooks had become a natural appendage of mine. Eventually, the day arrived and I passed the exam with flying colors.
On the day when the principal announced my high marks, I was so proud. The promise of a better life seemed real, and near.
I wrote a letter to my cousin who was studying in Islamabad to ask him I could apply to get into his university. When I cracked opened his letter replying to me, my heart sank. There was a hefty fee. How could I afford it? I had no savings as each coin I earned went to my family’s survival. I saw my dream begin to draw its distance from me.
But I couldn’t let it go. Education was my only chance to get out of the mountains and break our cycle of poverty. I conjured all the hope that was left in my body and told my mother that I wanted to go to Islamabad for further studies. I assured her that I would find a way to make more money to pay for college fees and meanwhile, continue to support the family.
I applied to the university where my cousin was and a few others. In the end, I decided to go to Punjab University in Lahore for Chemical Engineering. I studied hard, and dove deep into the classes with a determination as fierce as an inferno.
To afford my tuition and to support myself and my family, I started working as a tutor. It was a juggling act. I’d go to my engineering classes in the day, and spend three to four hours in the evening tutoring, squeezing in hours for my own study whenever I could.
This schedule continued throughout college. I knew I was on my own, and in order to accomplish my dreams, I would have to sacrifice. In doing so, I felt like an outcast. I was a growing teenager who could not afford to go to the movies with friends, or to buy new clothes like my peers. Even while in school, the poverty of my childhood bit my heels. I had to keep going, or be eaten.