Was it better then or is it better now, is the question I ask myself very often. Growing up in the small town of Padidan in central Sindh, I vividly remember my hometown, one of the hottest towns in Pakistan where the mercury would often hit 50 degrees Celsius. The wooden board that we would take to the primary school and put Multani Mitti, called Mait (clay) in Sindhi on it and then would let it dry. My first grade teacher, Ustad Paryal would add few letters of 52 alphabet of Sindhi on it. We would dip the reed-pen nib in the inkpot and write underneath the same letter.
This is how we would not only recognize the letters but also would later develop the writing skills resembling calligraphy. Later, we would learn to join letters into words and then make sentences.
In order to learn mathematics, we would use the abacus. One by one. Letter by letter. Word by word. Sentence by sentence. I still remember how we would sit on backless benches with our backs and heads resting against the walls. Mothers would put mustard seed oil in our hair, saying that would make our hair strong. But we would leave a line of oily head-high stains on the walls of the class rooms we´d be seated in.
I have fond memories of pulling at the chord of the ceiling fan made out fabric hung in the middle of the ceiling. We would pull it one by one in the hot summers to help us survive, though I am not sure if the effort that made us sweat even more was worth the cooling effect of the little stirred hot air!
I still remember when still in the primary school, my town got electricity. But only two shops in town first got the connection. Nobody else. No. Not the school for sure.
It was big news that morning when we got to know about it. I still remember I had brought a quarter that morning to buy cooked chickpeas, the vendor would bring in every day during the recess. But as soon as I heard what happened in my town, my hunger was gone. As the bell for recess rang, I ran out of school, straight into the shop of Mr. Brohi who had got the electricity connection.
Uncle please turn on the light bulb and the fan. I want to see it. Kid, it costs money to turn it on, he responded. I pulled out my quarter and put it on his palm. Here is the money, I said. He looked at me with a big smile that spread on his face with a beard with salt and pepper. He stood up, flipped the switch and the bulb emitting orange light was on. He turned it off right away. Then he turned another button and I saw a three blade thing moving. That was the electric fan. He turned it off again. My quarter was gone but I was happy as one would be happy landing on Mars.
Walking two kilometers to the secondary school near the railway station of my town would be an excitement despite scorching heat. On our way back we would put our school bags on our heads to save us from sunstroke and by breaking journey under the shades of the trees till we reached home. Yes, due to prickly heat, my skin would change every summer.
We were hungry for knowledge, not degrees then. Every new word and concept learnt would bring joy to us. After school, I remember, borrowing fiction books from the retired headmaster in my neighbourhood. He would charge me an Aana (one 16th of a rupee) per book. I still remember my mom cursing me at night as I would read under the kerosene lamp. “ You will get blind. Stop it. Read it in the morning,” she would scream.
Even in high school, besides whatever we learnt in primary school was not enough, we wanted more. I still remember during summer and winter vacations, we would go with our lunches (a flat bread — roti — with some curry rolled in it) to the park and read fiction, history and articles related to philosophy and history. We called it study circle. Everybody would read one paragraph and stop. We would discuss amongst us what was said in the paragraph and then move on. This is how we read books then.
Like any youth, we had our own hobbies and craze. But a lot of time it would be about what we knew, what we had read and what we had listened to on the radio.
As I look back with silver in my hair, I feel lucky to have survived through all those harsh years made no easier by scorching heat and long distance travel on foot to reach the school. I feel envious of the facilities our young people have compared to what we had, particularly in the cities. But when I compare the young people of my country who belong to the wrong side of the socially-stratified, call it apartheid, if you will, society with the children of the elite, it makes me sad. In my town then, the children of the landlords and businessmen rubbed shoulders with us the paupers. Intelligent and bright kids from poor background like me would be catapulted as class monitors while the rich kids would often be backbenchers. That is gone.
So the kids of the wretched of the earth, no matter what adverse conditions you face today, you live in the Internet age, where unlike the small study circle we had, the whole world is your study circle. If you are committed to learn, nothing will stop you. You can be what you want to be. Sky is not the limit but just a beginning.
Murtaza Solangi is a senior TV anchor and an established newspaper columnist
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