L first met Shahdad Marri in March 2010. It was his third or fourth day in kindergarten school. He had still not received his uniform, but that was understandable. Stranger yet was that Shahdad of Kohlu town was then 11 years old.
The eldest of seven siblings whose father worked as a daily wage earning labourer, Shahdad had never been to school. In Kohlu, virtually a one-horse town then cut off from the rest of the country because of very poor, unpaved road connections, there were few opportunities for his father to employ himself gainfully. He daily went to the town square and waited to be hired to help either at a building site or on a farm. What he made at the end of a 12-hour day — if he was hired — was a pittance.
Inevitably, at a very young age, Shahdad fell in line to help the family’s income. For 2,000 rupees a month, he offered his services to a busy teashop opposite the entrance of Lieutenant Jehangir Marri Shaheed School run by the local wing of Maiwand Rifles. Starting just after sunrise, the little boy toiled away serving customers, carrying tea trays to nearby establishments and endlessly washing up until after dark. When students arrived for school, Shahdad would steal a few moments to gaze at those bright-faced children in their clean uniforms.
Like millions of other kids in Pakistan, Shahdad Marri was deprived of education because of abject poverty. Remarkably, he couldn’t even imagine a different life
One day, as on so many days before, he brought in the tea tray for the school bursar and as he put it down on the table, Shahdad asked him something that Zafar Iqbal had not expected. Now, the bursar had several times noticed the boy walking in with his tray stop at the open doors of the classrooms to look inside where children younger than him pored over their lessons. Yet Iqbal was not ready for it when young Shahdad said he wanted to be in school and could he please join.
Iqbal had served in a number of schools during his career but this was the first time a child struggling through soul-destroying poverty had asked him such a thing. He told the child to come back the following day for an answer, for he knew Shahdad’s family would not be able to afford school. He spoke to the principal, Khaula Amir, the wife of the militia wing commander: if there was some way of paying the child’s monthly fees, Iqbal offered to pay the admission fees himself.
Two good souls had got together and Khaula said she would bear the monthly fees for as long as she would be in Kohlu. There was also the matter of getting his parents’ consent since they were to face the sudden cut of the small amount Shahdad brought home every month. That done, the boy came to school in March 2010 for the first time in his life.
The first thing that struck me when I met Shahdad that day was his clear, unaccented Urdu. He said he had picked it up watching PTV soap operas on the tea shop television. I knew at once here was an exceptionally clever little boy. As we chatted in the principal’s office that long ago day, I asked Shahdad what he wanted to be when he grew up. He looked at me somewhat baffled: he had failed to understand the question.
I rephrased my words and asked him what he would do after he completed his education. “I’ll do whatever work I get,” replied the boy. He was unable to see that education equipped folks with the capacity to work in specialised fields. That was then beyond the scope of his young mind.
I tried again. What does he dream for his future, I asked. Shahdad Marri’s response speared my soul like it had never before been hurt: abhi tak koi khwaab nahi hai! [I don’t have any dreams as yet.]
Eleven years old, in a 63-year-old country, this little boy from Kohlu had lived in such abject want that even dreams had not been able to sprout in his young mind — a mind that should naturally be a veritable garden of dreams. That this had not happened was Pakistan’s collective shame compounded only by the fact that this little boy was not alone in this situation.
I came away from Kohlu dreaming for Shahdad, the dreams we, as a nation, had stolen. I imagined him one day to be in college and eventually become a professional who would help his younger siblings through school and pull his family out of their poverty.
Three or four years later, I wrote a letter to the militia adjutant asking about the boy. By return mail I was told (in very poor English) that Shahdad was no longer in school. He had left of his own accord, the letter said.
If there are places of difficult access within Pakistan, Kohlu surely tops the list. The years went by and I could not get to Kohlu. Then a trip came up on the invitation of my friend Aziz Jamali. I said I would come if he would arrange for me to be in Kohlu to trace my young friend of years earlier. Working on just a name, within minutes Aziz had every detail about the boy.
He never completed his education, was married with a baby girl and worked as a driver for a local man. I called the given number and was surprised that Shahdad remembered me from our brief meeting. He said he had also seen my newspaper article with his picture. From his seven siblings of 2010, his father had given them three more, I was told!
We met the second time on a beautiful September morning in the Maiwand Rifles Mess in Kohlu. Shahdad had attended school till the fourth grade because Khaula Amir had ensured that even after she left, the boy’s tuition fees remain waived. For these four years, Shahdad’s family paid for his schoolbooks and uniform with great difficulty as his two younger brothers worked at the teashop in his stead.
Misfortune struck when his father Shahdin suffered a broken hip when he fell from the roof of an under-construction house where he was working. But even his invalided condition did not keep the good man from adding two more souls to his brood. And that made it impossible to afford Shahdad’s school expense.
After quitting school, Shahdad became a helper on a pick-up truck. Over time Shahdad learned to drive and was soon captaining the vehicle himself. He hauls loads between Loralai to as far away as Multan and Taunsa in Punjab. For his labours, he gets just 5,000 rupees per month.
He now dreams of sending his 11-month-old daughter to school when she reaches the age. In fact, he dreams of some miracle that could enable his youngest brothers, one five and the other seven, to attend school. The boy who had had no dreams in 2010 is now dreaming on behalf of his dear ones. I feel his helplessness when he says, “I don’t have the capacity to send these little ones to school.” Wistfully he adds, “I wish I could.”
My host in Kohlu, a young government officer, was moved by Shahdad’s story. Kohlu is so cut off from the rest of the world that it offers few opportunities to those who live here, he said. He was of the view that good roads connecting Kohlu with Loralai in the west and Dera Ghazi Khan in Punjab would transform the town. It was impossible to quarrel with this statement. But over the last few years, the only good that happened was the improved road to Sibi, cutting travel time from about nine hours to half as much.
Remote, one-horse Kohlu and its poor inhabitants seem to be a place in limbo: neither here and now, nor in the hereafter. How can anyone care for it when we are proud to build missiles that defy detection to wreak havoc on our ideological enemies? We will continue to build motorways and fancy new airports at the cost of deprived Kohlu and its Shahdad Marri and his siblings who might never see the inside of a school.
How long can we afford to have children in Kohlu — and other places too — incapable of dreaming of a future?
The writer is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
He tweets @odysseuslahori
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 21st, 2018