Illustration by Amber Li for Varsity

I grew up listening to my dad speak of his childhood. He spent it in an obscure Pakistani village-turned-tiny-city called Malakwal. Every morning after Fajr, the early dawn prayers, he would carry his wooden slate and ink pot in a coarse sack made of jute fibres and make his way to the open air school. The school consisted of around eleven little boys who would gather sometimes under a mango tree, at other times under the more generous shade of a peepal tree to protect themselves from the scorching sun. They were taught by the single teacher running this establishment; funding not sufficient for walls or a ceiling. They would sit on their emptied out jute sacks, slates on laps, and that was how he learned to write, by scratching ink onto wood, washing it away, scratching ink onto wood over and over again. The teacher, who could have comfortably obtained a well-paid job in a big neighbouring city, instead chose to teach them their alif, beh, pehs and their ABCs.

Dad ran away from home aged sixteen to find a job because if he could write, if he could physically articulate thoughts that seemed vaster than him or the life he was headed towards, surely he was destined for more than a career of labour and mistreatment. Nearly all of those boys, including my dad, ended up moving away to seek better futures for themselves. It’s for this reason that I received an education which would have been completely out of reach had he stayed. I learned to write pencil on paper, marking graphite onto fresh notebook pages over and over again.

Looking back, my knowledge of his circumstances must have played a great part in my almost devotional desire to write. I always sat down with a deep seated belief that I could write my way out of every distressing situation. Growing up I often found myself in situations where expressing things openly would cause too much disruption or even ostracisation. Everything I could not say for the inevitable social repercussions, every joy and sorrow that could not be contained, could be written down as if it had been said, like an affirmation of my existence and a validation of my thought. Being able to write indeed became consequent to being alive; it reflected my humanity back to myself.

The year I was born, over half of Pakistan’s population over the age of 10 was functionally illiterate. That figure has shifted to just under forty percent. Although statistics show a gradual increase in literacy in the last two decades, looking at the raw numbers for Pakistan brings it into perspective. According to UNESCO, more than 54 million people over the age of 15 are illiterate, with almost twice as many women than men making up that number.

Pakistan also has the second largest out-of-school population in the world comprised of 5.1 million children. Of course the sight of bare-footed kids in threadbare clothing who will never get an education is overly familiar; they populate the villages and blend into the background of the bigger city streets. I can think of individual doe-eyed kids who coyly call you baji to charm you into giving them some change which isn’t going to be theirs to keep anyway, others that stick their tongue out at you in frustration or mischief. But when I try to picture 5 million of those kids it is impossible.

Freedom which disguises itself as disruption can only ever lead to happier, more fulfilling human life

To move to a global scale, 750 million is the most recently estimated figure of the world’s illiterate adult population, scattered across the world. According to the National Literacy Trust, around 7.1 million adults in England are functionally illiterate. I try to imagine 750, 000, 000 people who will never write a dissertation or a poem or a little thank you note to a loved one. But that number is too large to truly perceive when reduced to a faceless mass. It is unfathomable when you are sitting in your cosy accommodation, or in the college library that showcases more books than you could ever read, with a looming deadline that has turned writing into a chore. The disconnect between the academic world and the world that cannot write or read becomes so vast and so unbridgeable in those moments.

When I think about these facts I find myself in a spiral of guilt and passion, but always come out the other end remembering what a privilege it is to be able to sit here and fill the hours of my day writing. It is a bit of a miracle to me. Harold Bloom once beautifully said that Samuel Johnson “viewed writing as a defence against melancholy”. I must have carried this sentiment throughout adolescence only to find it articulated now. As students, we often write because we have to do it and it can become an inducer of melancholy rather than a defence against it. It is perhaps useful to remember every now and then how fortunate we are to have received the gift that is literacy, and how incredible that we have in us the capacity to give it to those who do not have it.


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To teach somebody to write is to place mental freedom into their hands. Whether they find themselves secretly writing dissenting opinions in Orwellian circumstances, or whether they find the courage to move closer to better opportunities, that freedom which disguises itself as disruption can only ever lead to happier, more fulfilling human life, even if it breeds this painful self-awareness. So I write to acknowledge that, and I write in the hope that someday I will be able to give what I have received to somebody else, even if realistically it will never be to millions of somebodies. Every time I write it is an affirmation of where I came from and how far it has brought me, and how far those who devote their lives to teaching and learning to write can take other people. Even when, taking away that grand birds-eye-view of the world, those efforts appear to affect only eleven or so little village boys.