What Will You Give for This Life? 

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| This is the 501st story of Our Life Logs |


The hall reverberated with the sound of applause as my name was called and I strolled to the podium. The space was teeming with students and professors from the prestigious University of Wisconsin who were there to celebrate me. As I began to speak, I was taken back to where all of this began 46 years ago, at a place thousands of miles away.  

My journey began in a faraway village in a remote city in Pakistanon a hot day in June 1973. My coming was well praised as I was the first male child in the family. When I turned five, I was admitted to the grade school in our village just steps away from our home. I was never great at my studies, but I did love reading. I devoted much of my energy to learning about the fantasy worlds in my storybooks.  

Each morning, I woke up before the sun and brought grains for our cows and goats, my lone friends at that point. The cool breeze on my face, dew drops touching my feet, and the sound of singing birds made me feel at peace. Then, I’d pick up my pack and head to school. As I strolled home after school, I would discover my companions sitting tight for me to feed them once more. I would chop fodder for the cows and mix grains for the goats. Then, I would quickly sneak out of the house into nearby fruit orchards to try catching lavishly shaded butterflies, climbing trees and sometimes running after the birds that I was never ever able to cage. Life, though not abundant, was lovely and delightful.  

My dad was an uneducated laborer who often worked as a mason building mosques and temples. Since my childhood, I had seen him drudging hard yet constantly struggling to provide for our family of 11 (counting my grandparents, parents, me, and six other kin). Being the eldest, I had to share this financial duty. And so, after passing matric (junior school) at 15, I bid goodbye to education and began hunting for a job.  

To me, life resembles a storybook with the exception that we can’t skip pages. We cannot skip the difficult parts of our lives. And up until I joined the workforce, I had been perusing life from the splendidly hued leaves. Now, I needed to explore through the dull and dim shades of adulthood. 

I walked far away to other towns searching for work as a daily wage laborer. This was an occupation that paid very little and most days, there was no work at all and I would return home with hardly a penny. In these conditions, books gave me the relief and comfort I desired. It started out as a hobby but over time, it became my companion, my passion. Any free time I had, I would sit somewhere with an open book in my hands. This was a peculiar thing for others to see, especially since the greater part of people in the village couldn’t read and those who could, didn’t waste their time on books.  

People saw me as eccentric. Fellow masons and workers were the most uneducated class of society, and their hands were made for trowel and mallets, not books and papers. And so, everybody snickered as they saw a laborer kid read. Sometimes, they flung rude remarks at me, “This guy wants to be Aristotle,” or “What are you doing with a book? Accomplish something profitable.” 

Years passed like this; me working and reading in my spare time. Then, one day in August 1995, my dad handed me a flyer for joining the military. He wanted me to apply, but I abhorred guns and bullets more than anything.  My parents, however, saw it as an opportunity to alleviate our poverty and insisted that I give it a chance.  

I guess what is written, sooner or later, comes forth when a parent wants it. I boarded a bus to the city and reached the selection center to apply in person. After going through a mind-boggling day of numerous physical tests, I was chosen for training. The training academy was more like a prison than a school. It had high, fenced walls that gave me an impression of the gallows. I was used to being free, and here I was under strict discipline. This was a life that every youngster longed for despite its hardship, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it just wasn’t for me.   

Isn’t it ironic that you can join the military by your own free will, yet you need authorization to leave it? I knew I needed a plan to get out. I couldn’t keep my discomfort inside any longer. I smashed my head with the walls of this cage until I figured a way out. I pretended I was taking a leave to visit home, but what I was really doing was going straight to the visa office. There I got my identification ready, filled my bag with books, and boarded a flight to Dubai. The minute the plane left the ground, I inhaled as a liberated person again, after half a year of mental detainment. 

 

I spent the next three years wandering through Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, exploring all the places I had read about in books. After returning home to Pakistan in 1999, I started working again as a mason. At this point, everybody was convinced that books had corrupted my mind as no normal individual would leave a position as an army officer. Not to mention nobody who had his cerebrum at the correct spot would return flat broke from the Middle East! The villagers nicknamed me “Paagal” which literally means frantic and imbecile. They told my folks that I was an absolutely futile creature who was unreliable and would bring only disgrace.  

Despite all the terrible words, I knew in my heart that I was not a failure. I had once read a story of a glorious ruler who was advised by an insightful old man that “This too shall pass.” So, as people threw their harsh words at me, I reminded myself that this too shall pass. 

Although I hadn’t gone to university, I was still educated more than the most. Because of this, I was presented with many job opportunities. Yet, it was easier to find a job than inner peace. It always felt like something was missing with any career I chose, and I had to change jobs quite often. This unpredictable conduct made even my folks lose trust in me. They began to think what people said about me was valid. Maybe I was really a futile child.  

This broke my heart. I knew I needed to work and make money, but I didn’t want to just become a money-making machine. I wondered if perhaps it would have been better if I didn’t exist at all. I started to feel unworthy of being around anyone.  

One day in December 2005, as I was working on a minaret about 200 feet from ground, furious at my parents, society and even myself, some words struck my brain and I started meshing them into a poem. A couple of minutes later as I descended, I had a complete sonnet in mind. I quickly wrote it down on a concrete paper, as there was no clean paper accessible. If anyone had a doubt about me being an absolutely purposeless human being, they’d believe it now because in our society, poets and writers were considered sick and anomalous.  

When I told anyone that I was a poet, some would laugh at me while others took pity and advised me that I should quit this fruitless passion. They tried each way possible to bring me down, but I knew the value of my words. I couldn’t abandon them. I felt like I had finally found what was missing, that I had found my purpose. 

continued to work here and therewriting in my free time. A few years later, I finally found the courage to mail a portion of my sonnets to an acclaimed literary journal of Pakistan. But honestly, given what people around me in the village had made me believe, I had little hope that my voice would be heard.  

A few days later, however, I received a letter from the editor saying that they absolutely loved my poems and wanted to publish a complete section dedicated to my works. I couldn’t believe it! Could my devotion to my passion have finally paid off? I jumped to my feet in pure joy! This was the confidence boost I needed to know that this was meant for me.  

When the magazine arrived a couple of months later and I saw my poems printed among the pages with my name, I was overjoyed. It was truly a dream come true.

From that point on, I haven’t looked back.  

My writing career took off from there. Leading national papers started to interview me, and suddenly, my voice reached wherever Urdu was understood. I published my first volume of verse in 2010, which immediately brought me on the stage of distinction. In the consequent year, an assortment of my short stories was published and won the most esteemed literary honor of Pakistan. Then, in 2014, I published my first novel. I’ve visited many countries as a cultural ambassador and writer. Despite having never attended college, my stories and sonnets are a part of the syllabi in some prestigious colleges and universities including New York University. I can tell you now that truly, I lived my dreams.  

Ali Natiq (3) - at Karachi Literary Festival 2016
Me (right) at Karachi Literary Festival 2016, in conversation with renowned writer Mohammad Hanif.

An Arabic maxim says, “Poets are disciples of God,” and I’m glad that God picked me to learn the magic of words. I spent 30 springs of my life among farmers and laborers as an outcast. Sometimes it felt like the whole village was laughing at me. Some of the words that felt like a punch in stomach still circle my head. Had I listened to people who tried to break my spirit and make me abandon my passion, I wouldn’t have been where I am today. I’m here because I’ve roamed through the dark ways of life with patience and finally discovered light when I was at the end of my rope.  

 

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This is the story of Ali Akbar

Ali is a poet and best-selling author living in Pakistan who has truly pushed the boundaries of Urdu literature. He had a very humble beginning and was born in a faraway village devoid of facilities like electricity and transport. As he tried to pursue his love for poetry and books, people made fun of him as they thought of it as a hopeless passion. Fortunately, he didn’t let those voices stop him and followed his dream anyway. As of now, he has published 10 books on poetry, fiction and criticism. His debut novel “Naulakhi Kothi” has earned him the title of “most powerful emerging voice from South Asia” by Granta. Currently he is working on his second novel that is being eagerly awaited by his readers and projected to be out in the last quarter of 2020. 

Ali Natiq (4) - book
A translation of Ali’s short stories published by Penguin. Available on Amazon.

  

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This story first touched our hearts on March 12, 2020. 

| Writer: Afifa Sarwar | Editor: Kristen Petronio |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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