The burly hands of Akhtar clutched the metal bar of the gate with amazing strength. The darkened edges of skin around his eyes told tales of the many nights he had spent staying awake, patrolling this very gate. Pride radiates his sun-burnt face as he says, “Finally there was a letter from Lums which said that my daughter had been selected for the National Outreach Programme (NOP).”
After retiring from his services at the Fauji Foundation, Akhtar was positioned to guard one of the two main gates at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums). A jovial temper afforded him strong friendships with several students. He spoke admiringly of the young students he met every day. He admired their poise, their enlightened minds, their seasoned interactions, their endless privileges, and most of all – their successes.
“I knew that this was where my daughter, Zarmeen, truly belonged.” For Akhtar, the NOP was a rare beacon of hope. The programme allowed students from less privileged backgrounds to enrol at the university on full scholarship.
Zarmeen spent her childhood in the crisp mountain air of Soon Sakesar Valley in Khushab district. Her gifted mind thrived on simple food and much exercise. The only school of note in the valley was the one associated with the Fauji Foundation. While Akhtar worked at the foundation, Zarmeen took her lessons at the school. Referring to the years she spent there, Zarmeen says, “I couldn’t imagine not going to school so there was no alternative but to enrol here. The other private schools of the area are mediocre, and there aren’t any public schools here.”
Consistently topping every class, Zarmeen is aware of the worth of good education, “There are very few opportunities for us here. I left the valley after finishing my Matric and am now enrolled at the Punjab College in Sargodha to complete my FSc. I live in the hostel here.”
She explains that for a long time, her father was the only breadwinner for the family and sometimes his income would fall short of her education expenses. At times like these the family would suffer, but there was no interruption in Zarmeen’s schooling.
With her fluent Urdu tinged with a Punjabi accent, Zarmeen throws in several words from English as she says, “I had seen some educated people from the city. The way they spoke, the way they carried themselves – it made me want to be like them.” She adds proudly: “Besides, I want to be of some use to my country.”
Zarmeen explains that Akhtar convinced her to apply to Lums. He had taken some time off duty, and procured all the necessary forms. “It was partly because of my father’s insistence that I applied. I can’t wait to clear the NOP training session and join the BSc honors programme at the Suleman Dawood School of Business.”
However, Zarmeen exhibits a keen foresightedness by having a back-up plan ready in case she is not able to study at Lums. “I’m quite sure that I’ll live through the training session since the syllabus isn’t difficult. But if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll continue with medicine, become a doctor and serve in the army. I have a great love for our army.”
It was a sweltering summer night in Lahore. A bead of sweat trickles down Akhtar’s brow, and drips off his chin. His gaze is fixated afar as he says, “I have dreamt many dreams for my daughter, and I will work hard to fulfil them.” His clutch on the metal bars of the gate seems to tighten.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2012.