THERE should be a ‘Tomb of the Unknown Worker’ to honour the countless silent contributors to society. They are so removed from the established social order that they exist off the grid unmindful of the happenings in the national mainstream. They give more than they take and yet they are nowhere. The narrative below may well sound allegorical at times, and if it seems inclined in a certain direction, so be it.

Every day, 11-year-old Ameena runs on to the street to clean cars in front of a five star hotel in Karachi. Most drivers disdainfully brush her away, but she is determined. By the afternoon, she is able to hand a few rupees to her mother holding her two younger siblings so they may finally have their first meal of the day.

Abdul, a railway porter, handles baggage at a railway station in Karachi. As he left his house in the morning, his wife pleaded with him to be extra vigilant as on the previous day he had stacked too many bags on his aging back and was almost knocked over onto the train tracks. Abdul works on the basis of daily wages and was advised three years earlier to get some tests done for cancer, but has no disposable income to afford that luxury.

Near the Super Highway, a man helps haul away part of the 12,000 tonnes of Karachi’s daily solid waste on the back of his donkey whom he has named ‘Saathi’, and together they work 365 days a year. With toxic waste on his back, Saathi has badly infected eyes and skin and is lame. Every day he gazes in despair at the nearby Edhi Animal Hostel, but cannot get there.

The gentle people at countless social welfare entities work tirelessly to reverse the imbalances in society. Many of them evacuate survivors from domestic battle zones, stand up to armed gangs, retrieve bodies of the dead, and deal with dangerous contaminations. That their heroism approaches ‘Birkenhead’ proportions as they feverishly mount daily campaigns to salvage a sinking enterprise is not lost on the observer. History, of course, recalls the Birkenhead as the vessel that was shipwrecked near Africa in the 1850s. After the shipwreck, the three remaining lifeboats could only carry the women and children with the rest facing certain death. And yet, after assessing the situation, the commander’s order of the day was, ‘women and children first’.

A purpose-driven life extends civic responsibility to all of us. We must support organisations that sustain healthcare, food services and education so people may fend for themselves. We must support every effort made in this regard. Offshore businesses and professionals should connect with their domestic counterparts. Our collective efforts may fail, but history will record our endeavours and, perhaps, like the inspiring story of the Birkenhead, the annals will energise future generations to rise and defeat failure.

Let’s pick up the Ameena-Abdul-Saathi thread again after a few years. The collective efforts of the people have ushered in a new dawn. Ameena has enrolled in a welfare school in Kharadar on a financial scholarship. Abdul is now an employee of Pakistan Railways and is eagerly looking forward to his turn at the welfare cancer hospital in Karachi. And, finally after a lifetime of back-breaking labour, Saathi has found a place in a charitable animal hostel.

A decade later, little Ameena is now a school teacher herself and is leading a school trip to the Mazar-i-Quaid in Karachi. Her entourage discovers a newly built edifice near the mausoleum which is covered with leaves.

As Ameena steps forward and begins to remove the leaves, the first line appears to dedicate the structure as the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Worker’. A few verses from Allama Iqbal follow, and the children and teachers step back in reverence. But Ameena keeps removing the leaves and as she gets to the bottom, she is overcome by emotions as the last line reads, “I shall rise again!” Jinnah smiles from his grave.

M. Majid Ali
New Jersey, USA

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2022

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