My Rendezvous with Humaira Bachal

[This was first published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday.]

As I walk out of the elevator and step into the small buffer space that connects it to the hallway of the apartment, I notice knots of people scattered over the opulent drawing room. My eyes search for the woman I have come to meet. I am unable to locate her in the room. Instead, I see my partner huddling with a bunch of her friends. She walks across the room, comes close to me, and whispers, “That is Humaira!”

I turn around to find her in the hallway, chatting softly with an elderly lady. Everything about Humaira is ordinary. You could easily lose her in the crowd. Her small stature, her attractive yet unremarkable features, and her docile body language remind me of one of my many cousins in rural Bengal. What set her apart are her dress and her reputation. In a roomful of women, clad in western clothes, she is the only one wearing ashalwar-kameez.

I watch closely yet furtively as she carries on her conversation. What catch my attention are her deep, dark eyes, which reflect gentleness and compassion. We wait patiently for her to finish.

***

The commute in New York City is often erratic, more so on the weekends. I get off the A train at Fulton Street for making a transfer to a 4 or 5 train, which will take me to the 59th Street, where I am supposed to make another transfer to 6 train and get off at 68-Hunter College Station. There is no sign of a train for over fifteen minutes, which is quite unusual even on a weekend. When the train trundles in grudgingly, I barely manage to squeeze through the crowd. The voice of a woman in the PAS announces, “This train will make local stops all the way to Grand Central.” I curse under my breath. At Astor Place, I get off and take a cab. I don’t wish to be late for the informal event which is supposed to be held on the International Women’s Day at 4 PM.

Ever since my partner sounded me out about this event, I was keen to meet the young woman, as we had previously done an interview with her for a Café Dissensus issue on ‘Social Activism in South Asia’. Her life has been nothing but an extraordinary journey from the squatter-slum-quarters on the outskirts of Karachi to one of success. In her colony, girls hardly studied. Her father and brothers objected to her education. Her unlettered mother stood up for her, took a beating from her father, cut wood, saved money, and sent her daughter to school.

Humaira started teaching fellow-children in the slum, when she was barely thirteen. It has been a challenging and unusual journey, to say the least. When she was sixteen, she started her own school in a makeshift space. Today, at 26, she has opened a full-fledged school, Dream Model Street School, which does not merely teach children in her community but pays attention to integrated development. Humaira and her team members counsel women against child marriage, talk about health-hazards to expecting mothers, develop leadership skills among the youth, and conduct cleanliness drives in the locality.

Most intriguingly, she works to make the government-run ‘ghost schools’ – which usually have a building but no teaching takes place – operational again. This is unique in a country which is witnessing, according to a study conducted by a Pakistan-based organization, education emergency.

***

We approach Humaira hesitantly. Her dark eyes and acquiescent gesture make us comfortable. I am in two-minds if I should speak in English or Urdu. I know she speaks fluent English. She learnt English with effort, as she knew it was the language of social mobility. Yet, she is a not a natural speaker of the language; she lacks flamboyance in her manner of speaking English; she is not what we would call a naturally articulate English speaker.

I confide, “My Urdu is terrible.” She smiles. That creates a bond between us. We know language would not be a barrier. I pepper my Urdu with English, as does she. And the color of our skin and our shared history and geography build bridges between us. Soon we are lost in a discussion about school, about her future plans, about the pedagogical aspects in her school, and her life in general. She doesn’t reveal any sign of fatigue, despite repeating the same stuff in the course of the Women in the World Conference at Washington D.C. and to numerous people, who want to hear her story.

My partner chimes in, “Mosarrap is a huge fan of yours.” She breaks out into a broad smile. She must have heard this so many times. Yet, she remains warm and engaging. I feel as if I have known her for years. I ask her if we could take pictures with her. She points to the well-lit door, “That place might be a better one for a picture.”

***

We are served high-tea in the dining-room, whose walls adorn expensive paintings by well-known painters. These are not paintings which are bought recently by the nouveau riche. The faded oil-paintings with dusty gilded-edges tell a story of an old way of life, which is at odds with the more crash lifestyle of New Yorkers. We are in the apartment of a traditionally wealthy, where everything from the window-blinds to the cutlery oozes class.

The elderly lady, our host, is a genial woman, who takes pain to come down to receive us at the lobby. She appears like one of those traditional philanthropists for whom empathy comes naturally. Moreover, she is Sehr Karim Jaffer’s friend; Sehr has planned this event keeping in mind the International Women’s Day.

We are around twenty of us. I am one of the two men in the room. At the center, there is a big Victorian-style dining-table (although, this might not have been actually a Victorian one. Objects are often fabricated in America to lay claim to a past the Americans never had.) Around fifteen of them sit around Humaira, who seems effortless in the way she conducts herself.

***

During the Women in the World Conference, Madeline Albright asked Humaira: “What do you need for your dream to come true? Speak frankly in this roomful of power women.” She said, “I need 100,000 dollars for a new project.” The women said that it was not a huge sum of money but there was no firm commitment. Humaira narrated this anecdote during the course of a small presentation that she did post-tea.

We listen to her in rapt-attention as she speaks of her journey, along with the screening of Humaira: The Dreamcatcher, a film made on her by the academy-winning docu-maker, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy.

In fact, Chinoy’s film brought Humaira the much-needed recognition. Madonna pledged money for her school. Other organizations came forward to donate land and make the school possible. The Pakistani government, which until then had never taken her seriously, eased some of the bureaucratic hassles. As it often happens in the third-world countries, the value of a project or effort is hardly recognized, unless it comes via the West. (Hopefully, we haven’t forgotten that Satyajit Ray’s fame as a filmmaker was primarily a result of his recognition in the West. Even then he was accused of selling India’s poverty. This is just one example among many.)

***

It is one thing to show our appreciation and it’s quite another to pledge help. Post-presentation, there is a lot of advice about raising funds, which includes suggestions to approach various corporate houses to shoulder the responsibility of parts of the project. Someone even suggests, “You should approach Obama to channel some of the eight billion Pakistani Rupees that the White House spends every year on education in Pakistan.”

For a moment, a lady asks, “How do you respond to what happened to Malala?” Sitting next to me, my partner looks flustered and asks me, “What happened to Malala?” I look at her and think for a moment she is joking. I mutter gingerly, “A bullet went through her head.” Yet, I understand the irony of the situation. For us South Asians, connecting the dots between Malala and Humaira is almost impossible as we do not necessarily think of them as having any connection whatsoever. But for most Westerners, Malala becomes the epitome of resistance against extremism.

Humaira’s everyday resistance through education pales in the shadow of violence, despite her categorical assertion at the Women in the World Conference: “Education is the most powerful weapon against intolerance and extremism”.

***

Humaira’s is a story we have heard so many times. And, yet, it never becomes stale. This is a story not so much about success – as success is a relative value – but one of overcoming challenges, which has a universal resonance.

Humaira’s story is one which is perhaps easy to sell as it stands now: from extreme poverty to success and promise. But this is also a story which had to be scripted before it could even be sold. Humaira believed in her story. If she is now the center of attention and admiration, she has written it painstakingly with the help of her mother. If she wallows in the fact that we are eager to listen to her story and eat out of her hand, let us not grudge. She deserves every bit of the attention and adulation she has been receiving.

PS: If you would like to support Humaira Bachal’s amazing work, please look up the online payment method at the Dream Foundation Trust website. Every bit of help will add up to make her dream come true.

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