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Interview: No ordinary singer

September 02, 2013

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When you drive through the gates of Fatima Jinnah Girls’ Government School you realise that where there is a will, there is a way, a notion that gets compounded with every step you take while you tour the massive premises that is comparable to any of the better custom-made, private schools in Karachi. The school is just one of the many success stories that the relatively young Shehzad Roy has been able to write with his determination, vision, persistence and passion to change the system.

Unwilling, or perhaps unable to pinpoint what exactly caused his transformation from merely a singer of romantic ballads to a humanitarian, philanthropist, social activist Roy admits that he had grown up seeing his parents caring for others, so it was inevitable that he, too, would be drawn toward that path.

Born on Feb 16, 1977 in Karachi to Kabir Roy a businessman, and Nazli Qamar, a homemaker.

He did his early schooling in Karachi from St. Jude’s school followed by middle school from Stone Academy in Chicago and high school from St. Andrew’s again in Karachi. He feels he inherited his love for music from his father and learnt to play the guitar by studying videos presented by his father.

He adds,

“My father always encouraged me to do whatever I had my heart set on because as a child he had been very hung up on cricket, but was never allowed to pursue his passion.”

So, by the time Roy completed high school, guitar had already become part of his existence and by the time he was in the second year of Premier College, Karachi, his singles were already out and his first album, Zindagi was launched (1995).

Roy states, “I did hail from a business class background but we weren’t so well off to be able to spend large sums of money on videos, etc. It was Ghazanfer Ali who introduced me and gave me the first proverbial breakthrough.”

Four years down the road and Roy began to earn accolades for his pop music by bagging one award after another. However, instead of basking on his laurels, he decided to use the proceeds from his concerts to further another passion close to his heart — education of street children.

Zindagi Trust, a charitable organisation was founded by him in 2002, which aimed to educate the underprivileged children of Pakistan by offering them monetary incentives to attend school — 3,000 or so students are still enrolled in this system — as well as established 35 educational units, vocational centres and heath clinics.

His forays into the realm of humanitarian aid earned him the prestigious Tamgha-i-Imtiaz and Sitara-i-Eisaar, not to mention the honour of being selected as a torch-bearer in the 2008 Olympics, but Roy, it seems, had just started. He realised that it was not enough to just get kids into school, for of the 28 million or so kids that are school-going, nearly 19 million attend public school — a system that is pretty much in a shambles.

Hence, even though they may have done their matric, these kids have no concept of thinking independently, having been taught rote learning all through their school lives, and are totally uninspired thanks to an archaic system of teaching and curriculum.

That’s when Roy took up the challenge of turning around Fatima Girls School, a project that was by no means easy to undertake, and difficult enough to convince people that he would be able to make it into a model school. His youth and the fact that he was basically a musician and not an educationist also thwarted his case initially, but by the same token, he feels, it is thanks to his showbiz persona that he later managed to rope in the kind of support that he did.

Shedding light on those early days back in 2007, Roy explains, “When I visited the school for the first time and met all the teachers, I discovered to my amazement that the premises was actually housing eight different schools with eight different principals. I was told that there are 3,500 government schools in Karachi but there are only 900 school buildings. So, basically, the administrative mess needed to be cleaned up before concrete steps could be taken.”

Thanks to Roy’s persistence, not only was he successful in giving the school its identity but administrative policies are now being changed across the board and all government schools in Karachi are being consolidated with 900 declared schools. Says Roy, “I’m not an educationist, but I have a basic idea of how to bring in reforms. I don’t believe in doing projects in isolation; I like to bring structural changes to a faulty system.

“It was a great challenge for me to change the mindset of the bureaucracy and yet work within the government framework. I didn’t want to set up a parallel system of education as I knew I would not be able to make the impact I wanted to, that way. I fought the battles and faced the protests against me by the teachers. My persistence paid off and my music empowered me. The rest is a result of teamwork.”

Not only has Roy succeeded in sprucing up the building and putting to good use every room therein that was previously used as a dump or a retreat for animals, he also ensured that the practice of using schools for hosting weddings would no longer be allowed and changed the school curriculum.

Admits Roy, “I’ve made a lot of enemies along the way because if you put hurdles in the path of people wanting to make easy money you can become very unpopular. But, I gave an enabling environment to the government teachers, got them training and created a day care school for their children within the premises. I fought tooth and nail to ensure that none of the teachers would be transferred.”

With Roy, one thing leads to another. His Chal Parha Pakistan, a reality television show in which he travels all over Pakistan on a motorbike exposing the different negative aspects of government schools in the country including corporal punishment, insistence on teaching in faulty English to students who are clueless about the language, etc, led to a bill being passed against corporal punishment, so that now teachers found guilty of child molestation are liable to be imprisoned for a year and have to pay a fine of Rs14,000. Needless to say, he faced opposition when he embarked on this venture too, which, not surprisingly, only served to make him even more determined in his objectives.

Roy puts down his experience with this show as “a life-changing one” and says that his thinking, perception about people and the way he meets them, all underwent a transformation. He could not believe the beauty and the cultural diversity he came across while travelling through some 80 cities in four months, and has some wonderful memories related to it — some sad, some exciting and some hilarious.

Yet another impact of his show was that a resolution was passed in the Sindh Assembly against domestic child labour. Not content to let it rest at that, Roy is determined to do a sequel of the programme next year to ensure that a unanimous bill is passed against this infringement on a child’s right to education so that culprits are severely dealt with. He also plans to interview all the politicians who had made commitments to him in the last show, to follow up on how far they have honoured their promises.

Maturing not just as a human being but as a musician as well, Roy has transformed from a singer of romantic ditties — which were popular in their own right — to an equally popular singer of politically alive songs. He even did a show at the juvenile jail where he used to visit regularly, and would feel inspired to do something for the young, under-trial prisoners.

On Aug 14, following his show, 30 prisoners were released by the government as a goodwill gesture; perhaps because of the awareness raised by him. He has worked for improvement in traffic and police stations and was recently invited to speak on education at Harvard, from where his wife of three-and-a-half years, Salma, has recently done her masters in international education policy.

But all this doesn’t mean that music has taken a back-seat for Roy. On Sept 15 Roy will be performing in Hollywood along with Guns and Roses — the only Pakistani artiste to receive this honour. One gets the feeling this go-getter will be doing a lot more before the year is out.