Awards and certificate distribution ceremonies are usually very close to my heart and I try hard to attend them even if I’m not specially invited. These ceremonies show you the face of Pakistan that is joyfully smiling with sense of achievement and is eager to learn. On August 1, 2009 however, I could not get to one of these ceremonies, which was organized by the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISE) Lahore held in the honour of position-holders in Matriculation examination, at Alhamra Lahore. I did not know what I was going to miss. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was the chief guest. No, it was not the CM one would miss seeing.
It was my hero! He was there as many other students were there. But he was not just “one of them”. What made him different was his confidence in himself, not in his appearance. What made him on a higher pedestal was his unbeatable passion for learning and education. What made him distinguished was the level of struggle he had to undertake to get where he was today. What he carried with him was a promise – a promise so rarely manifested in the product we get from a widely divisive education system. He carried with him an unusual hope for people who’ve become so used to only the bad news, and who’ve lost any hope for the future of Pakistan. He was my hero – the real hero!
People at the ceremony saw him with the usual contempt we seem to have for the ones who do not display minimum standards of being “presentable”. Clad in worn out faded shalwar qameez and old muddy slippers, he looked like one of the peons or office boys, not worthy of receiving any “protocol” in such ceremonies. He, it seemed, was a total distraction for the guests none of whom wanted him to seat beside them. He looked around for any place to sit, but could only get unwelcoming gaze from the already seated guests. Ignoring this cold gaze, he comfortably sat on the stairs after getting displaced frequently from corner to other as if he was quite used to such treatment by the educated and the worthy.
The ceremony started after the arrival of Chief Minister. Couple of short speeches by high placed officials of the Board of Intermediate & Secondary Education, the Education Department Punjab, and the announcements of position holders started. Position-holders were sitting with their hearts pounding and their proud parents sitting beside them with wide smiles. Asif Naveed. The announcer shouted twice and guests in the hall moved their necks back . .. what???? This rural boy in rags? Second position in Matriculation Board exams!
This was Asif Naveed who gracefully descended from the stairs where he was calmly seated, walked confidently towards the stage, received his result card and a cheque worth Rs. 15,000 from BISE. His eyes sparkling with joy his face shimmering with sense of accomplishment . . . he looked at the result card and visualized his mother who would be waiting for him at home. He joyously shaked hands with the Chief Minister he used to see on front page of the newspaper. He could never imagine he could ever get to see the CM in person, and today he was standing right in front of him shaking hands! He’s never going to forget this day, he thought.
His heart was about to jump out of his rib cage when he was returning back to the stairs where he was sitting a while ago, imagining the face of his mother who has been so sure of this day all along the years of his schooling. And right then, he heard his name being announced once again. It was the announcer telling him that the Chief Minister wanted him to sit in CM’s seat rather than those stairs! Surprised and bewildered, he went to the CM who very lovingly got him seated next to him and started talking about what Asif wanted to do in future.
A while ago, no one wanted to even see him in this hall! What a magic this piece of paper has, he looked at the result card and continued speaking to the CM.
This rural boy in rags comes from a village near Okara, a semi-urban district south west of Lahore in Punjab . This district is relatively new agricultural center of Punjab and is home to around 50,000 small farmers based in rural dwellings around Okara city. Asif’s school is around 25 kilometers from the city of Okara, while his home is 7 kilometers from his school in Neherwala. The way from the village to the school is not paved and remains muddy and swampy to date. Only those who have seen such places in poverty stricken south Punjab, would be able to understand how difficult it would have been for a child to cover that 7 kilometers distance every day, to reach the school. Even to ride a bicycle would be impossible especially in bad weather. But this boy kept on the journey despite all odds. He never left working with his father in fields along with taking care of other house hold chores at home. There were all kinds of other hurdles like power outages for long hours, which has been most severe in rural Punjab in last four years. While his parents were not very hostile to his education, the overall environment of a rural society was not very enabling either. He did not tire. He never studied in an academy or any tuition center owing to their economic condition which did not allow any of such “luxuries”. Secondly, his teachers at school were so hardworking that any tuition would have been superfluous. The school had total of 18 students who appeared in Matriculation exams in 2009, all of whom passed with flying colours. All of who came from rural small farmer families. Naveed got this top notch in his school and an overall second position in Punjab.
Recalling the day when a BISE representative came to his village in order to inform him of this ceremony, he shared that his family got scared receiving someone at their door that late in the night. Their fear was due to the incidence of theft in their house a night earlier. A night before, they had lost their buffalo in a mmid-night robbery. The buffalo was their only asset and they had no clue what they are going to do without her. In agriculture based rural areas of Pakistan, livestock remains to be an inalienable part of people’s earning and making two ends meet.
The word “regret” was unknown to him, but he was quite upset on not being able to study science. He so wanted to become a scientist and invent something that would make the life of small farmers like his father, easier and healthier! He could not opt for science subjects because someone else did not do his/her duty right. Yes, it is as simple as that. His school, to date, does not have a science teacher. He and all his class mates were so sure that they would have scored equally high had they been able to study science. I wonder if Parha Likha Punjab has something to do with science as well???
To my very pleasant surprise, Asif wants to do something as big as Jinnah did. He is influenced by the personality of Mohammad Ali Jinnah whose perseverance and hard work had always inspired him. He had no career objective in mind, because he could not think of any career other than agriculture in his village, but he surely wants to contribute to the society. All he plans for his future is to concentrate on his studies and make his mother happy and proud who, he told, would be cooking paraathas (wheat flour pancakes shallow fried in ghee – a delicacy in rural Punjab, which is cooked in poor families only for very special guests) for him at home.
Asif Naveed, you are my hero – a real hero. Keep going. Keep your journey continued. The country, the nation is proud of you. And this mother of yours wants every son and daughter that this country produces, to be like you! Jeetay raho.