Little Anwar was born many years after the birth of his three sisters Naaz, Naghma and Aliya.
Of course, this meant that he was the apple of everyone’s eye. Besides his parents, he was loved by the sisters and was the centre of attention of the entire household. His father had married a simple village girl who had never seen a school or a madarsa. But she was gorgeous, so schoolmaster Qureshi Saheb did not regret marrying her. Her lack of education suited him quite well too, as it conformed to his orthodox way of thinking, and meant that she would spend her whole life behind her veil and never voice her opinions.
Qureshi Saheb was a teacher in the town’s middle school, but almost all the neighbourhood children attended his private tutorials, this helped him make ends meet. At the end of the month, his family of seven managed to survive by borrowing a little.
There had been no particular problem when the girls were small, but as they grew, expenses on their clothes, shoes, bangles, dupattas, etc., were becoming a huge burden on Master Saheb.
He never sent the girls to school. There were two reasons for this – one was poverty, and the other his orthodox view. At school, of course, he spoke vocally about programs related to women’s education and freedom. But in his own life, he followed a different set of rules and regulations. He never practiced what he preached.
Master Saheb wanted a son, and that desire was so strong that in six years, three girls were born one after the other. His fourth child died in his wife’s womb, and when the midwife informed him that it was a boy, Qureshi Sahab felt sick. When his wife was expecting for the fifth time, Qureshi Saheb left no stone unturned in her care. For the first time in her married life, his wife enjoyed the luxury of a variety of dry fruits, sweets, fresh fruits and milk. He took great care of her to ensure that both the mother and the child remained healthy.
He went to the nearby ‘dargah’ every Friday for nine months to offer chadar. He offered prayers five times a day and tied sacred threads at many holy shrines.
Well, Allah listened to his prayers, and his home welcomed the arrival of little Anwar. Qureshi Saheb was thrilled, and because of his son, his wife’s standing increased, so she was happy, too. The atmosphere of the house was pleasant, there were sweets to eat, so the girls were delighted as well.
Since Ammi was busy with the household, the sisters took on the responsibility of raising Anwar. they almost forgot about their own childhood while raising him. Anwar’s toys were the girls’ toys; Anwar’s laughter was their joy. They had sacrificed their childhood for their brother’s upbringing. This sacrifice was what they accepted. This was, after all, what girls had been expected to do for generations. Theirs were eyes that were happy to sleep on half full stomachs, but eyes that were not permitted to hope and dream.
But one thing was definitely in the girls’ favour, they didn’t go to school but they learnt to read The Holy Quran. Maulana Saheb would come home every evening and teach the girls the holy verses. The older girls read it as a formality, but Aliya read every word carefully, understanding its meaning. That is why she was very dear to Maulana Saheb. Reading served as a stepping stone in her effort to learn to write.
Seeing her thirst for knowledge, Qureshi’s Sahab’s wife asked him to send their daughters to the girls ‘ school near their home. “Aliya, in particular, has a strong desire to read and write. Maulana Saheb was also saying that she is a brilliant child.”
“What nonsense is this? ” Qureshi Saheb exploded. “Girls should remain behind the veil. Reading and writing aren’t in their best interests.”
His wife made another feeble attempt.
“In the big cities, even the poorest of the poor teach their daughters, regardless of their faith. The world has changed a lot …
“Yes, the world has changed … that’s why … ” Quraishi Saheb mumbled.
“Look at the numerous incidents that occur in broad daylight? Do you know the number of crimes which are committed in the guise of women’s freedom? Newspapers are filled with such horrible news every day. You would know if you were to read them.”
“How can I read them? If only I was educated, I would have easily understood the ways of the world.” His wife said sighing.
“Okay. There’s no use arguing about this. You’re the mother of three girls, and you should be thankful that the girls remain inside the house. Otherwise, there would be no peace at all.”
Seeing Abba ‘s spirited arguments and Ammi’s battered spirits, the trembling girls retreated. Their dreams and aspirations too recoiled in fear.
Qureshi’s wife was heartbroken. For the first time in her life, she regretted being illiterate.
The three sisters were growing up under the able guidance of their mother. They might not have been given an education, but they knew the value of money. Their mother had taught them embroidery, crochet work, sewing etc. apart from the usual household chores. Amongst the three sisters, Aliya was work-shy, and she could often be found reading a book inside the room. Sometimes she would try to make sense of the letters and copy them from the pages of the newspaper. She had become her own teacher. She did this secretly so that her father wouldn’t find out about it. Her mother and sisters also conveniently overlooked it.
All the girls of Aliya’s age had already started going to school. The only girls who stayed home were the ones who did not feel like studying. Aliya was the only exception, who had to sit at home even though she wanted to study.
Anwar was about seven years old now, and preparations to send him to school were on in full swing. Although the age of joining the school was four, according to Abba, Anwar was young and innocent too. It was therefore decided to start his education at the age of seven.
So, he was enrolled in a private school in the neighbourhood. He was given a new bag, a compass box, a lunch box, clothes and books. Anwar insisted he didn’t want to go to school.
Aliya, on the other hand, was passionate about going to school. She was nine years old now, and it was clear that she was never going to be sent to school. She should have been in the second or third grade by now. Her older sisters may have accepted their father’s prejudices, but Aliya was unwilling.
Listening to her brother cry, she told her dad excitedly, “Abba, if Anwar doesn’t want to go to school, please don’t force him … send me instead. I will grow up to be a teacher, and I will teach Anwar, I will teach Ammi, Naaz and Naghma Baji too.”
She clung to her father’s kurta. Her father admonished her, pushing her aside, “Don’t talk nonsense, go and convince your brother and bring him … Anyway, he likes you the most, so he’ll listen to you. Bribe him with toffees and ice cream; that will make him stop crying.” Her father said with the smile of a politician.
A sorrowful Aliya went to persuade her brother. “I don’t want to go to school,” said Anwar, who was enraged after seeing Aliya. “If you like it so much, why don’t you go to school instead?”
“It’s because you’re Abba ‘s pet, little guy, all the perks are for you alone.” Aliya joked while helping her brother to wear a uniform.
Little Anwar could detect a hint of sadness in his sister’s laughter.
Who knows how many innocent girls break their hearts every single day and their voices are buried inside the houses, behind the curtains? The world has changed significantly, and the country is making considerable progress, but there are still some people, like Qureshi Saheb who refuse to change and cling to outdated beliefs and traditional stereotypes.
Anwar now began to go to school every day. Abba would drop him to school on his scooter and return with a sad face. As if he had just left a soldier at the border, to face the enemy’s fire. This was his love for his only beloved son, and nobody took offence.
It was the sisters’ job to pick him up from school, and Aliya gladly accepted this responsibility. She would go to school an hour early and sit outside Anwar’s class every day. She would listen to the teacher attentively, and she would also raise her hand when questions were asked and then blush shyly. She was really clever, or perhaps her intense desire to study had made her intelligent.
On reaching home, she would open her brother’s bag and copy whatever the teacher had taught the class through the day in her notebook. If she didn’t understand something, she would ask Anwar. He enjoyed explaining the lessons to his sister. “Do you sing ‘Jana Gana Mana’ at school every day? “Aliya asked curiously. “Yes, every day. It is our National anthem! It was written by Rabindranath Tagore,” Anwar replied, helping his sister increase her knowledge. Aliya would flip through the pages of his books, and she’d read what pleased her. “She fought bravely like a man; she was the great queen of Jhansi … ” It is a beautiful poem, isn’t it?” Aliya asked her brother. “Yes, it’s very good, and do you know, Abba a girl named ‘Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’ wrote this poem!” Anwar told his father innocently. “She is also going to write when she grows up!” Anwar pulled Aliya’s pigtails and ran away laughing. Abba left the room angrily.
Sometimes Aliya would do his homework for him when Anwar didn’t want to. This way, quietly, Aliya too studied along with Anwar.
She went to school every day and soon the teachers began to recognize her.
Aliya didn’t only learn to read and write, she also got educated over the next two or three years. She would read almost every page of the newspaper, which helped her to improve her general knowledge. She would write essays, poems and short stories for Anwar, for which he had received numerous awards. His father was extremely proud of him, and all those prizes were neatly displayed in the drawing-room.
Aliya did not mind that her brother was getting all the credit for her hard work. She was delighted because she had the opportunity to read and write. “Aliya, if you were in my class, you would always come first! ” Anwar too had begun to appreciate his sister’s talent. “Yes! If Abba had sent me to school, I would have been two grades ahead of you.” Aliya replied in a sad voice.
Anwar was in fifth grade now, and Aliya knew as much as him, if not more. Meanwhile, the girls and their mother would show Aliya’s note book to Qureshi Saheb on several occasions. They requested that she be admitted to a school, he did not budge. Even Anwar had begun to recommend his sister. “Abba-Abba, all the teachers in my school say that we should send Aliya to school as well, she’ll make you proud.” The ten year old child repeated the lines that his teachers taught him, but to no avail.
“Tell your teacher, ‘I’m enough to make my father proud … girls live in their father’s home for a short while anyway, tomorrow their name and family will be different.’ ”
Abba’s words made no sense to Anwar, but he understood that it was not written in his sister’s destiny to go to school. In order to meet the rising expenses, Ammi and the sisters began to stitch clothes for the women of the neighbourhood. They would also embroider handkerchiefs, apply crochet lace borders to scarves, beautifully and elegantly. Some money came into the house in this way. Some of it went towards household expenses, and the rest Ammi would hide in a wooden chest. The girls used to make fun of her saying, “Where do you secretly hide the money Ammi? If you ever need it, you may not find it easily.” But, like any other woman, she probably felt secure, hiding some money away for a rainy day.
One day, Anwar had an annual day function at school. He took part in the play. After preparing him, Abba dropped him off at school. Aliya too was sent to take care of his belongings and dress. Abba had some work to do that day, so he left. Aliya began helping everyone in the preparations behind the stage. Her face was familiar to the teachers, so no one objected. After each performance, the curtain would fall, and the preparation for the next one would begin.
A child who had to sing a song fell ill. The audience stirred impatiently. Seeing the deserted stage, Anwar ‘s teacher said to Aliya, “Go and recite a poem on the stage.” Aliya was already full of confidence. She quickly picked up the mike and read a poem in her sweet voice.
“Small are our dreams, great our expectations
saving some money, for moon exploration
Small are our dreams, great our expectations.”
The hall of the small school echoed with thunderous applause. The audience urged her to recite a few more poems. She won everyone’s heart by reciting more poetry. Little Anwar was very happy for his sister. He was young, but he certainly understood that Aliya was eager to study and admired the skill she possessed. But there wasn’t anything that he could do. By the time she had returned from the stage, preparations had been made for the next show. The teacher was also very happy with her. She embraced her and said, “You must study further Aliya …you should move ahead …”
The teacher, unaware of Qureshi Saheb’s views, persistently said “Aliya, please come to school, talent like yours will be wasted lying in the house. When you come to school, your personality will shine, and your future will be bright.” Anwar held his sister’s hand and said in a hoarse voice “I’m going to beg Abba to send you to school. I wish I was older than you. I’d earn money to pay for your education.” Aliya laughed, “What if you are young? When you grow up and earn, you can get me educated. There are no age limits for education.”
Anwar noticed the sadness in the eyes of his sister’s smiling face. He felt sad too, and their poverty made him miserable. He was saddened by the fact that he was powerless, and he was disgusted by his father’s prejudices. Suddenly Anwar had grown up, much older than his age, older than his elder sister.
When Qureshi Sahab came to pick Anwar from school that day, his teacher spoke about Aliya. “Qureshi Saheb, your daughter is very sincere and also extremely hard-working. We rarely find such passion for reading and learning in children these days. Please get her enrolled in our school so that she can study as a regular student. ”
“One day, you ‘re going to be proud of your daughter. But for that, you need to come forward. ” The teacher insisted. Anwar and Aliya looked at their father with hopeful eyes, waiting for his response. At least they knew he could not give the teacher any ridiculous excuses.
He just said, “Thank you very much.” And the he became silent. The two children were left staring at their father’s face. The teacher then picked up a form from the table and handed it to him. “Please take this. It is an admission form, and we will enroll Aliya directly in grade 5. Please fill it in, add your signature, and send it with Aliya. We will complete the remaining formalities.’
Abba took the form quietly. Greeted the teacher and came out. Nobody talked on the way home.
As soon as they reached home, Abba issued a decree, he would take charge of dropping Anwar to school and picking him up from tomorrow. In a roaring voice, he said – “And if I cannot go for some reason, then one of the older sisters will. And let Aliya learn how to do household chores because she’s not supposed to do foolish things at her age.”
Anwar said, “Abba, what foolish things? Everyone praises Aliya for her wisdom. Please sign the form. ”
“Do not act smart Anwar Miya” Abba said in a stern tone, and little Anwar was speechless.
Anwar couldn’t sleep all night, he listened to Aliya’s suppressed sobs.
It was two days before Eid. A cheerful atmosphere filled the house. This was the only occasion in the whole year, that the girls were given the gifts they wanted, their ‘Eidi.’ Everyone was happy and forgot the bitterness of before. They were busy thinking about what to ask for as their Eidi. Both the older sisters bought salwar kameez material and dozens of bangles. A few dupattas were bought for Ammi. Aliya gave a small list of books that Abba could not reject. After all, it was her “Eidi”, her right. When Anwar was asked about what he needed, he was evasive. “I am still thinking, Abba. Can I ask for something big?” He asked innocently.
Abba was delighted and said…” Yes, of course! After all, you are the light of our family. You bring glory to our name and our house.”
“Okay, then I will tell you on the morning of Eid.” He said.
“What gift will you ask for? ” Ammi and his sisters were curious.
“It’s a very big thing.” Anwar increased the suspense!
“Will you ask for a computer? Or a mobile?” The girls teased him. Then they burst into laughter because such things were way beyond their status.
On the morning of Eid, everyone wore new clothes. Abba and Anwar went to the Idgah to offer prayers. Ammi and the girls prayed at home. After offering prayers at the Idgah, Abba embraced Anwar.
Anwar extended his hand and said, “Abba my Eidi?”
“Yes, why not?”, he put his hand in his pocket, he’d been saving money for this day for many days. Anwar grabbed his hand.
“Abba, do you want us to bring glory to your name?” he asked.
“Yes, son, this is what every father wants.”, his father replied
“Then please write your name here once for me, that will be my Eidi. You’ll see, one day, you’ll be proud of your name, and your children.” Saying this, he took Aliya’s admission form out of his pocket and placed his little fingers near the space for the signature.
Abba stared at his face, admiring his innocence and his perception. For the first time in his life, he was ashamed of himself, because a child had been able to something he should have done. His young son could see more clearly than he could. He regretted his convoluted thinking; he was proud of his son, and also his daughters, who had opened the doors of their hearts for him.
His eyes were moist with tears. He took a pen and signed the form quietly. Anwar hugged him with immense joy.
“Eid Mubarak Abba. Eid Mubarak.”
Translated from Hindi to English by Rizwan Shaik Rizwan is an English Language trainer and runs a coaching centre in Hyderabad. He loves plants and animals, reading, music and TV.