ISLAMABAD: Ali Mohammad Shah has a cheeky smile and crooked handwriting. Crouched over a notebook, he scribbles an alphabet with diligence, as if it were homework to be turned in the following morning. His brother Imdaad leans into him, carefully drawing a bird and then filling its silhouette with pattern.
From a distance, one can barely notice the dirt nestling in the folds of their identical clothing, which are stitched from a thin fabric for sweltering summer days. The month is January, however, and the two brothers have not seen a classroom in years.
“A warm soul walked past us one evening and asked the boys, do you want to study? Then he brought them these books,” explains their father, Inayat Ali Shah. His weather-beaten face suggests a battle with circumstance, and lingering fragments of faith which he clings on to like his two boys, alongside their few odd belongings.
Shah, who says he is close to 65, was a cook at a roadside restaurant in Raja Bazaar, Rawalpindi before he lost the mobility in one of his legs, and with it, the opportunity to earn and feed his family of three. Married thrice, Shah’s nuptials were wrought with misfortune — all three of his wives fell ill and passed away before his eyes.
“I left my sons at a madrassah in Lahore so that they could study and have a clean place to sleep and shower,” he shared, leaning against a small pile of his worldly belongings — a quilt and a few rounded polythene bags with clothes, unwashed for months.
It was at the madrassah that Ali, 6 and Imdaad, 7, learnt how to read, write and drawn, and it was there, soon after they finished second grade, that they learnt of their father’s accident.
Having spent his sparse savings on his recovery, Shah was forced to pull his children out of school and embrace the harsh ways of the world, sleeping on whichever square patch of flooring seemed adequate for the night.
“I spent the last of what I had on this, with the hope that accessibility would make me more employable,” he relates, pointing to a two-wheeled handicap vehicle parked behind him. “Now we sleep in the dew, curled into each other for warmth and eat at the mercy of those passing by.”
Shah and his sons are squatting in the shade of a godown belonging to a grocery store, a few blocks away from Aabpara Market. While the owner has reprimanded Shah on several occasions, his tone relates a softening of heart, and on most occasions, he has looked away in the manner of quiet munificence. The shop next door displays plush mattresses for sale, but this is a luxury Shah has long-forgotten about.
Weary of those offering help, Shah’s trajectory of seeking a better life has been marked with disappointment. While some of his fate is the cultivation of choice, three out of every five Pakistanis are pushed into a perpetuating cycle of poverty, according to a report released by the World Bank in 2013. Shah is one of those three.
While neighbouring India recently launched a massive food subsidy programme — one of the largest in the world — Pakistan remains ripe with promise of good things to come, but in reality, food insecurity and inflation work hand-in-hand to keep the poor in the depths of despair.
Last year, a bill for the right to free and compulsory education was passed and prematurely celebrated. The bill aimed to bring Pakistan’s 25 million out-of-school children back to the classroom through free primary education. While private NGOs lobby for implementation, provincial governments have done little beyond public lip service. Students like Ali and his brother, Imdaad, often fall between the cracks, embracing dire circumstances in the way of education.
“I just want to be able to give us a shelter and find a job,” Shah laments, lighting up the single cigarette he had pulled out from his sagging pocket earlier. Shah’s demeanour suggests a certain amount of complacency and distrust. “Nobody helps you without an agenda.”
Published in The Express Tribune, January 27th, 2014.