The Best of times, The worst of times

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
The struggles of a young Karachiite, as he grows up in the most binary city in the world

Submitted: July 18, 2012

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Submitted: July 18, 2012

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“It was the best of times; it was the worst of time”,

Razzak read the immortal words out loud. As always they seized his soul, wrapping their clutches around his imagination, and as always, he could see the scene before him. 18th century Paris, the poor wading their way through their wretched existence, while the rich frolicked in horse-drawn carriages, holding up their elaborate dresses, their every action practically screaming proclamations of their supremacy. With each word he read, he felt the sense of escapism increasing tenfold, the world of frenetic highways, and landfills fading, replaced by an ambience of horse shoes going clip-clop against the unpaved roads, and the cries of babies, desperately clinging to their mothers for feed.

In truth, it wasn't too hard a scenario to imagine. However much the world had changed, however much people had advanced, “A tale of two cities” was something he could easily relate to. He knew the feeling of envy, and desperation, as he watched fat, arrogant men in business suits strut around in their Hondas, making calls on their Iphones, while people like him worked day and night, just to have a stomach lined with bread at night.

Razzak had grown up in the unsung, blackened underbelly of Karachi. Like so many others, he was born into an impoverished household, if household was even the word, of six other siblings, and an elderly mother. Like so many fathers, his own had tried to murder Razzak at birth, the thought of having another mouth to feed, too terrifying to bear. The only thing that ensured his survival was his mother stepping in to defend his life, suffering another night of beating for him, while her husband looted her purse for money to spend on a fix of cocaine.

Like all his siblings, Razzak had grown up scavenging the streets for plastic litter, holding out his palms to passerby’s, wiping windshields when there was nothing else to do. Unlike his siblings, Razzak had no interest in getting involved in fights, or joining the local unit wala’s protection racket. Razzak had found his passion early in life.
One day, a little before his fifth birthday, he had found a book in the litter dumps, portraying a mob of people dressed almost akin to him, holding pikes and lit torches, marching towards a massive castle. The image enthralled him immediately, though he had no idea what the title read, education being a bygone dream for him. The book would have been worth a lot. Enough to feed his family for a few days, but against all discretion, he decided to keep it. If nothing else, he could look at the cover and imagine himself as one of the crowd, taking his rage out on the upper classmen.

At his 8th birthday, he began visiting the Maulvi at the local mosque. The man was educated, and, seeing a spark of inquisitiveness in Razzak’s eyes, agreed to help the boy learn English, despite Razzak’s parents completely forbidding him from doing so. From that moment onwards, Razzak visited the man in secret, spending all of his free time learning the language he had heard the educated speak. One day, he hoped, even to be able to decipher the book that lay forever under his bed, away from the prying eyes of his family.

To say that Razzak was naturally intelligent would have been a gross understatement. He quickly absorbed the alphabets of the language and within weeks could write and speak out loud simple sentences, much to his mentor’s delight. Within a year of the start of his education, Razzak could read out some of the easier sentences of his book. The title for, instance, was “A tale of two cities”. This confused him to no end because most of the book was set in one city, and the areas around it. A place called Paris, in a nation called France. But even a superficial glance at the book told him that “France” mirrored his own nation in every way.

On his tenth birthday, the old man formally ended Razzak’s education, claiming there nothing else he could teach him and, as a parting gift, handed him a dictionary, something he could use to look up words he couldn’t understand. Razzak was delighted, both at the prospect of finally being able to read “A tale of two cities” more fully, and at the thought that he now had two books in his collection. Soon his collection would encompass all the books in the world. He already had two, how many more could there be?

His two books opened up a world Razzak had never known. While his brothers and sisters spent time, either roughhousing, or getting addicted to heroin, or mugging people, he would wander the streets, his book in hand, reading out the words, feeling as if he was walking through one of the miserable streets described in the book. To be honest, it wasn’t much of a quantum leap

By his fifteenth birthday, Razzak had noticed a number of things about the city he lived in. He had always known that there was a schism between people like him, and the Cliftonites who strutted around in BMV’s, the modern day equivalent of the Marquis of St Evremonde’s intricate carriage. That much was hard not to notice. But the more he saw of these modern-day noblemen, the more he realized how little they deserved their money. The nobles in his book had inherited massive amounts of money and land, their name alone being worth a fortune. Yet the people here were no different. They too had affluent upbringings, but never had he seen them do anything to deserve it. Every day he saw well off teenagers exit their expensive private schools, enter their “carriages’, slink a cigarette between their teeth, and drive off recklessly, carrying their abysmal report cards, their vehicles no doubt insured and backed up by their parent’s wealth.

It disgusted him to no end that money always seemed to flow to those who did not deserve it, that people like him starved in the streets while these ingrates feasted in five-star restaurants.  He knew the title “A tale of two cities”, referred to both Paris and London, but it always made him think of his own city. Karachi was a double-sided coin. It was two cities; one inhabited by the unsung class of people like him and the slums they dwelled in, the other by the lofty giants and their mansion.

His entire life, Razzak would never be able to pinpoint exactly when it was that the feverish drive to fix things first struck him. Perhaps it had been lying dormant, his entire life. Perhaps it was from the moment he first saw the cover of his favorite novel. Whatever the case, by his fifteenth birthday Razzak had developed a burning passion to educate the children around him. As much as he would have loved to blame the demented, impermeable class structure of his city, he knew that the suffering of people like him, stemmed as much from their ignorance, as from everything else. Razzak was not crass enough to believe that only he had been born with an inquisitive mind. Perhaps the only reason he could read, and the other miserable wretches could not, was that he had been exceptionally lucky his entire life. He had found a man kind enough to teach him to read, and he had found his inspiration, literally lying in his path.

At age 18, Razzak defied all expectations by landing a job as a lowly paid desk clerk, in a government office. Despite having spent all his life, being taught the redundancy of education, his grasp of the English language had finally reaped fruit. Despite his lowly status, Razzak found himself in command of astronomically more money than he had been used to. After enough had been handed out to his parents and siblings, and a sum saved away, there was always enough left for him to buy a new book, every month.

On his salary day, each month, Razzak would visit the local book vendor, with a pocket full of money, and a heart full of enthusiasm. He would take hours to pick out a single book, reading the first chapter of each potential candidate. Then, after hours of the shopkeeper’s exasperation, he would pick out a single novel, carry it lovingly, to his home, and swallow it within the night, carefully rereading it in the coming month, absorbing the soul of the tale completely.

By age 25, despite all indications otherwise, Razzak had climbed the ladder of success, and was the head clerk at the office he worked in. It was perplexing, since the people beneath him had better formal educations, that is to say, formal educations at all. But in the field of pure knowledge and efficiency, Razzak knew he had an easy advantage. Seven years of reading books had done a lot for his mind, albeit it left him feeling out of place in the discussions of his peers.

Throughout all of this, Razzak kept in touch with his ex-mentor, the muezzin who was the indirect cause of Razzak’s success. The old man had retired, and was living of a meager government pension. Razzak kept sending him money, making sure that his mentor wasn’t able to return it, since charity was something he would never accept. The old man constantly marveled at his pupil’s progress, and his rise in stature, something made all the more astounding given the impregnable nature of the class system in Pakistan.

Around this time, Razzak found himself in possession of more books then he could possibly need. One day he found a child in tattered clothes, carrying a familiar jute garbage bag. He was staring longingly at a book Razzak had been reading. Razzak called the boy forward, asking him if he wanted to read the book. The boy was scared of course, such was the nature that the life of such despondent children drilled into them. But his eyes had that genuine spark of curiosity, one that Razzak recognized immediately. The boy was hesitant at first, humble to the point of absurdity. He told Razzak that he couldn’t read; something that should have been obvious by all regards. He reminded Razzak of how he himself would have looked, appearing before his old muezzin. That thought was enough to make Razzak almost subconsciously extend an offer. He offered to teach the boy to read, noting immediately the delight, followed by disappointment on his face. No doubt his parent would disapprove of education. Razzak began teaching the boy in secret, amazed by the child’s rate of progress. One day, one of Razzak’s neighbors, an elderly woman, found him reading a book out to the boy. She came over and pleaded with Razzak to teach her son how to read, as well. And just like that, one by one, Razzak’s collection of pupils began to grow. He bought a chalkboard, and began holding proper classes on weekends in his dingy apartment.

By age 50, Razzak’s little education scheme, had morphed completely. Instead of holding classes in his apartment, he had rented a building, filling it with chairs, chalkboards, even hiring a handful of teachers. The entire system was funded by donations, as Razzak did not even consider the option of charging from his pupils. He gave free education to anyone who wanted to learn. Anyone who skipped his classes was discharged immediately. On more than one occasion, a parent would drag a screaming, bawling child into his adobe, and beg of him to teach the youngster. But more often than not, they would lack that inquisitive twinkle in their eyes, the yearning to learn more, and Razzak would kindly discharge the parents.

By age 80, Razzak’s little enterprise had grown astronomically. He had opened schools across the city, all funded by an independent donation service. He had become a celebrated philanthropist, a shining ray of hope for any child who wished to escape the clutches of illiteracy and poverty.

He was quietly watching a classroom of children being taught, when the heart attack first struck. He was wheeled to the hospital, but almost immediately, it was obvious his situation was critical. He received guests from across the nation, people he didn’t recognize, people who just wanted to be able to say that they were by Razzak’s deathbed when he died. One man however, never left his side. The first boy Razzak had ever taught, the first child whose life Razzak had changed completely. The man had a book in his hands; the same battered copy of “A tale of two cities” Razzak had treasured his entire life. And as the last remnants of life began to drain from Razzak began to drain from his body, the boy read out loud, tears falling from his eyes, staining the book’s fragile pages.
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”


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