Last summer, multi-tasking breathlessly between free-lance writing, part-time teaching and being on my daughter’s case, I met a friend who, when I asked her the ritual “what’s up”, told me smugly that she was preparing for her Masters exams from Karachi University as a private candidate. My interest peaked instantly, as I badgered her with her questions: Why, how, what, when, and where. She is the same age as me, same profile, married 15 years plus, teenage kids, happily into the home-maker zone, with a stint or two on the side to ward away boredom, not for financial needs but for the thrill of it.
“Studying at this age?” I confess, was my response too. Books? Notes? Being thick-skinned and wanting to give exams that require coffee to keep you awake at night and have ink-stained fingers during the day? In addition, let’s face it, it’s not like we are twenty-something now. Between playing mommie, wifey, taking care of elderly parents, the socializing, the cooking, the groceries, the rounds to the tailor, maintaining a home … the best I can do is catch a show on TV, read or write for mental stimulus, and use Facebook to catch up with friends. Studying seemed a far cry. But something on her face told me she was enjoying every minute, even though she complained of exhaustion. She had the glow of forbidden excitement all over her face – an excitement that we often write off way too early in our lives. The feverish thrill of challenging yourself, of having a new dream and the anticipation of accomplishing something you as well as others think you can’t do!
On way home, I kept thinking about it. My inner soliloquies were never-ending. Somewhere after my graduation as a position-holding student with Business Studies and Economics as majors, I had figured out that Business Studies had never been my calling. I was “prone” to literature; it made me happy, while writing provided me with Catharsis and purging of emotions. But back then, we did not have career-counselors, a choice to mix up subjects of Sciences and Social Sciences, and movies like “3 Idiots” telling us that the world is your oyster.
But today, at this stage in my life, I had a choice to make a more informed decision. And so Masters in English Literature was my new goal in life. Little did I know that this would be a great learning experience, teaching me more than what the Greats have written. Finally I took it up with my husband, and was ecstatic that he was all for it, because he is a firm believer that the role of a parent, a spouse or a friend is to let each other grow, and support them to fulfill their dreams.
The general reaction I got was “Why?”, and “What are you going to do after that?” But then those friends who believed in following dreams encouraged me in ways that I had never imagined - dropping by cooked food, picking up my daughter, leaving a pack of groceries and offering to lend me their driver so I wouldn’t have to drive to the University. In many of my girlfriends, I saw a feeling of living their dream through me.
Standing in queues for the admission process wasn’t easy. I had forgotten how to rough it out in a government institution. No concessions were made for me by the multitudes of students, even though I was older than most of them by a decade. The ride in the rickshaw the day of my first exam when my car broke down wasn’t a joyride. Neither were the long walks to the centre when I missed the university shuttle. The lecherous innuendos of a particular bored male invigilator were disturbing, specially the fact that whenever any student asked him for a B copy, he would say, “fikar mut karo gurya, mein hoon na!” Yet most of the invigilators were cooperative and respectful.
The Masters syllabus was tougher than I had anticipated, and acquiring the prescribed books was not easy. One particular day, after endless trips to Urdu bazaar and still not finding the books I needed, I landed up at Karachi University’s English Faculty’s Photostat shop. Standing in lines in the sweltering May heat, I sent an sms to my 15-year-old daughter saying I think I want to give up, to which she replied, “Come on mom, you’re not that old. And it’s all worth it in the end.”
From the day I filled out the form, a plethora of happenings has impacted the way I think. I have seen the brightest students coming from the humblest backgrounds. I have sensed how invigorating being competitive is, something that a comfortable and complacent life takes away. I have felt charged by the viable energy that seems to flood an educational institute. I have pushed myself to the limit of physical and mental endurance by studying till late night and waking up at five in the morning and writing till my fingers ached, in a bout of flu. Above all, I am a richer person in terms of knowledge, as a profound study of literature teaches you much about yourself and humanity in general. I fell in love everyday with a new writer. One day it was Keats with his Odes, the other day it was Marlowe dancing his way into my heart with “Dr Faustus”, and yet another day Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” would make me understand life much better.
It is fascinating to learn that a growing trend world-over is people going back to school in their 30s, 40s or even 60s! Mental idleness leads to aimlessness and eventually despondency. To be a contented and creatively-active person, one has to keep doing something that keeps your zest for life alive and inspires you. For me it was a study program. For another, it might be learning a new language, baking or venturing into something entrepreneurial. Who knows whether I clear all the papers this year or not, but I hope to persevere till I do. After that? Well, maybe learning product photography professionally. Whatever makes me feel alive.
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