LAHORE: Former cyclist Mohammad Ashiq has shaken hands with prime ministers, competed at two Olympic Games and won several medals at home and abroad, including a silver medal at the Asian Games. He now drives a rickshaw and struggles to keep the wheels of his life turning. A message is plastered across the canopy of his vehicle: “Those nations that do not respect their heroes never prosper.”
Ashiq’s international career started in 1958 when he won a bronze medal at the Asian Games in Tokyo. After that he was selected twice for the Olympics and then the Asian games again, where he won a silver medal. “I used to be a boxer and took part in many national tournaments but one day my wife complained to me about the constant bruises I had due to my sports, and asked me to leave that and do something else. I decided to go into cycling,” he says.
How different the 1950s were: Ashiq bought a cycle for twenty rupees.
He started practicing on his own but one day his employers, Pakistan Railways, asked him to represent them in a national championship and he won. From then onwards, he was invited to many cycling events in Pakistan and later around the world. Even though his cycling career was successful, his professional career came to a halt when he was let go by Pakistan Railways.
“My manager wanted me to lose an event because his nephew was competing in it,” he says. He refused and was then fired, and since he was not a permanent employee, he did not get a pension, despite serving for the organisation for more than twenty years.
Even after he lost his job, he went on to participate in many games. In Nawaz Sharif’s first tenure, he was invited by the prime minister to receive an award. He shows a picture of this, one which is also printed on the back of his rickshaw.
However, after Ashiq stopped participating, the invites stopped coming. He thought he could get a job as a trainer but says he did not have the right connections. Nevertheless with the little money he had saved over the years, he bought himself a bus and hired a driver for it. Luckily he had a home back then but that was sold after his bus had an accident. “I had to sell my house to meet my expenses, and get my daughters married, and the only thing I own now is this rickshaw,” Ashiq says. He bought the rickshaw ten years ago through a bank loan which he only paid off recently.
Ashiq, now 82, lives with his wife and his grandson in a rented house in Samanabad, a neighborhood that has a labyrinth of homes stacked too close for comfort. His son died recently of dengue, and the mother left the child with them. “I have to take care of another child at this age; people of my age are either bed-ridden or have died. But I continue to work to earn a living, even though I cannot walk properly.” He shows his legs which he oils everyday and wraps in bandages to give him some respite from pain.
“I hand-delivered letters at the Chief Minister House, and have even posted numerous letters to the prime minister to help me, but no one ever responds,” he says while showing the copies of the letters he has sent, which include simple demands. “All I want from the government is to give me a pension at least from the Railways if nothing else. They keep announcing housing schemes for the poor … can’t I get a house to live in too? I was a national hero for this country,” he says, more in hope than expectation.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 20th, 2012.
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