There is very little joy in Amna Naqvi’s (alias) tender life of eight years so far. All she knows as the daughter of a peasant farmer is an arduous and dreary existence; a daily routine of early mornings, before sunup, drawing water from the backyard well, sweeping dirt floors, washing clothes, and shaping stinking, still wet, sometimes still warm cow dung, swarming with gleeful flies and parasites, into frisbee-sized discs and slapping them to the cowshed wall for drying. And in the afternoon, after a lunch of leftover rice and watery daal, helping her mother in the kitchen, rolling out chapattis and preparing dinner for a hungry family of seven.
Amna’s birth was unwelcomed by her father, Abul Fazl (alias), from the moment the midwife declared the arrival of the baby girl. Abul Fazl, a slight, sinewy, skinny man with a permanent scowl on his face, grunted angrily, cursed his karma, and stormed off from his place on the charpoy outside the hovel from which, moments ago, his wife of thirty years moaned away the painful pangs of childbirth. Amna was a late, errant addition to the family, a surprise to both the parents and her siblings. The parents already had four children, born almost in regular succession, sexes likewise divided. The first two girls are already married off and are now mothers. Abul Fazl had to work hard and long, take on debt, to come up with the dowry demanded of them. He rarely thinks about his daughters now, seeing them once or twice a year when the family gets together for the two greater Eids. In his mind, daughters are burdens who almost broke him financially and made life hell for him when he despaired of a lineage. He blamed his wife for the shortcoming; it must be her weak womb that was the culprit. He thanks Allah that they are no longer his crosses to bear.
The following two boys, likewise uneducated, are healthy and active, useful laborers for the land that the family rents and coaxes to produce wheat and sorghum, and corn in rotation; they share the yield with the landowner as land rent. The elder son had recently married and is already a father of a daughter, another catastrophe in the mind of Abul Fazl. But that is not directly his issue, so he does not fret too much about the burdens of the baby girl. The idea of educating children is alien to him, and never crosses his mind. The nearest schools are almost ten miles away, another planet away in the mind of a rural UP peasant, and where is the money to educate the boys to come from? So, the kids went to a local imambargah and got their education from the mullahs. For Abul Fazl, that was plenty. He needed his boys in the fields, not in some classrooms. As for his girls? Well, daughters from decent Sayyed families do not go to school. They stay within the confines of the mud walls and take care of household tasks and serve the men who worked the fields. And when decent rishteys come knocking at age fourteen or fifteen or sixteen, why, they are married off. Jaldi-jaldi.
The parents, the two sons, the daughter-in-law bahoo, the infant, and Amna live in a semi-permanent mud and straw house in the village of Sayedpurah, UP, on the banks of the river Yamuna. Halwaana is the collective name given to a cluster of five villages. The inhabitants are mostly sadaats from the Rizvi and Naqvi heritage. There are no formal schools for miles around, so the residents are mired in illiteracy, ignorance, and grinding poverty that repeats itself with each successive generation. Some of the financially better-endowed families do send their children to school by bus, but not the gentler sex. They are ‘protected’ and disposed of at the most opportune rishta.
When the young bride bahoo, Amna’s cousin, an aunt, khaala’s daughter, joined the Naqvi’s after marriage, she brought with her a trousseau as dowry. She was born and raised closer to New Delhi, where secular schooling was possible, so she is somewhat literate. But even then, it was restricted to rudimentary education, and she was betrothed on the day of graduation at age fourteen. Included in her trousseau are copies of fading comics and Bollywood filmy magazines that she clandestinely shares with Amna, who is instantly glued to them. She understands little or nothing of course, but the images paint a picture in her imagination. Of a world far removed from hers, of beautiful people and glamourous clothes and an unimaginable lifestyle. She gets to know Shahrukh and Salman and instantly falls in love with them. Her Bhabhi claims she had been to the movies and seen both the heroes, larger than life, on huge screens; Amna’s imagination goes wild; there is no power in her village.
Recently, there was excitement in the village when Comfort Aid International (CAI) and Al-Imaan Charitable Trust (AICT) won over the heart of a donor to construct an elementary school within walking distance of the five villages. But the plans were shelved when the donor backed out for personal reasons, the primary one being that the area was too remote for them to be directly involved. A valid and understandable justification, perhaps? Amna’s imagination, hopes, and emotions somersaulted with the developments.
But these are the very locations that CAI is trying so hard to bring out of darkness into light. We do not seek to make Amna into a doctor or an engineer. Yet. We are working to take the first step. And grasping tightly to the divine promise of certain success when we take the first sincere step. We at CAI have globally proved this fact in thirty-three (now seventy-nine) schools the world over.
The remoteness and logistical challenges notwithstanding, Amna’s village will have a school. Soon insha’Allah. It is a challenge CAI Trustees and I will take on and with donor’s support and determination, this project will see the light. So Amna, here’s a solemn promise – although you don’t know CAI donors, Trustees, and me yet, you soon will. Your imagination and aspirations will be rekindled, yet again. You will get a beautiful, modern school where you will see and learn that it is your Allah-given right to quality education; all you will have to do is reach out and grab it tightly. Then, and only then, will you love Allah the way He wants to be loved and understood. You will touch the sky, little girl; Shahrukh and Salman are no contest; inconsequential.
Nothing is impossible.
I have used my imagination to bring certain facts and realities in these villages to an interesting read on the dismal situation in Halwaana. Everything stated in this Blog is spot-on, except for the noted aliases.
To be continued…
This piece was Blogged in June 2017. I am repeating it again since there have been developments in Amna’s dismal life. She did attend the school that CAI donors eventually constructed for the children of Halwaana, UP. Since traditions die hard and ignorance takes generations to overcome, Amna has now been, sadly for me, betrothed and will be married off as soon as she is of legal age. Meanwhile, the groom’s family has commanded that Amna quit school. Or else. The demand has been unquestioningly granted.