Contrails crisscross the sky, and the air is filled with the roar of jet engines as planes touch down on the tarmac or ascend into the sky. These are the sounds and sights that greet you on a
regular day in Rawalpindi’s Chaklala cantonment. But even as I gaze at the sky, a pair of little voices bring me down to earth.
“Bibi Koora dey do.”
The voices belong to eight-year-old Shireen and ten-year-old Palwasha, two Pathan girls who go from door to door to collect garbage for a living. If lucky, they occasionally pocket alms as well; their innocent faces and earnest looks arousing pity from people in this well-to-do neighbourhood.
“Why don’t you go to school?” I ask them. Blushing, Palwasha replies in Pashto: “Our father cannot afford to send us to school.”
Regret playing across her young features, Shireen adds, “I would love to read but I can’t because I’m poor.”
Heart wrenching as her simple explanation is, I try to conceal my sadness at her words and listen on while she tells me of her desire to attend school just like all the other children in the neighbourhood — carrying a satchel over her back and marching off to learn new things every morning.
“Anyway,” she says, “I am still happy collecting garbage with my family.”
Their father, 35-year-old Gul, however, has a different story to tell. According to him, nobody at NADRA was willing to give his children a ‘B’ form which is an essential document for admission into all government schools.
His failure to fulfill their long list of requirements has left a void in the future of his children. His monthly income of Rs10,000-15,000, may be enough to pay for the education of his six children, but the prevailing bureaucratic system — thriving on attestation — prevents him from securing the chance for a better life for his children.
Originally from Swat, Gul and his family now reside in a rented house in Rawalpindi. Along with his parents, he had to abandon the beautifully serene Swat Valley at the tender age of 10 because of a daunting reality — lack of ownership of land in the village made survival next to impossible. Since working for others on their fields was frowned upon, the family had to eventually leave behind their village and their lives to start afresh in a new, more accepting, place.
Reminiscing over his early days, Gull says: “When I was growing up, it was hard for my parents… my earliest memories are of hard times with my father, working for so many hours in the fields for one of the local chiefs… I remember one year it snowed twenty-four inches and my father had to trudge through it under freezing conditions, with temperatures falling below -15 degrees, just to bring back a little food for our family.”
He adds that he never went to school as a child because his father was not able to afford it; he always saw children dress up in tidy uniforms, their hair pinned back and smiles pasted on their faces, racing each other to school every morning while he strode off to work on the fields in his usual mud-stained attire. It was hard for his father to support his family of six; huddled in a tiny room, made from mud walls, they would rely on each other’s warmth to ward off the winter’s chill.
Upon their arrival in Rawalpindi, a move from a tiny mud hut to a small house with bare essentials, they started to get attuned to life in the city. His father started working and his daily wages helped sustain the family. Recalling those days, Gul says: “We never begged on the streets as we believed that no one could snatch the rights that had been granted to us by Allah.”
Even after his father’s death, Gul, along with his brother and a friend, went about collecting garbage from the streets of Rawalpindi, never forgetting to uphold their dignity at all times. “Thus life continued,” he says.
Today, Gul sweeps the streets of the city with as much vigour as when he collected garbage as a young boy. His children, following in his footsteps, return home every night with the joy of knowing that they do not have to beg for a living and that the little money they manage to collect helps keep their stove lit. Their little hands may have become callused but they continue to sweep clean the streets of Rawalpindi.
But Gul remains haunted by the memory of his home in Swat, and the hope of one day returning to that remembered paradise burns within him. “Life in the cities is very expensive,” he says ruefully. “There is a sense of peace and tranquility in Swat, and nothing around here compares to it. Acquiring a piece of land there would make my life complete… My family and I can be happier there.”
People like Gul may be engulfed in poverty, and faced with problems the rest of us cannot even imagine, but it is their steely will and a belief in better days which keeps them going.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 7th, 2011.
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