Baber was playing cricket with his friends in the street. His family had recently moved into this neighbourhood. Every evening, the Children would come out to play cricket, ride bicycles or just get together for a chat. Babar was a very well-mannered boy and a good cricketer. He soon made many friends.
As they played, a small boy ran up to them carrying the ball which Babar had hit for a six. The boy was small and dressed in old, stained clothes. His plastic slippers were too big for him and his hands were dusty. Baber smiled at him and stretched his hand forward to accept the ball.
“Hey you! How dare you touch my ball?” Umar said in a furious tone.
“Here, give it to me. You have made it dirty,” Umer snatched the ball from the young boy’s hand and pushed him away aggressively. The boy ran away with a frightened look in his eyes.
Babar was stunned for a minute. He could not understand Umer’s anger.
“Why were you so rude to him Umer?” Babar asked. “He was only returning the ball.”
“You are new here, Babar. You don’t know these dirty children,” Umer said with contempt. “Our parents have told us not to go near them. They might have lice and they are always dirty and smelly. Don’t encourage them or they will want to play with us. And we won’t allow that.”
Just then Babar’s mother called him inside and their conversation ended. But Baber could not get the image of the young boy holding out the ball out of his mind.
The next day, he asked his own maid about the kids.
“Those are poor maid Kalsoom’s kids,” replied Sakina. “Her husband died of kidney failure a few months ago. She has four children and no one else to take care of them. She is working in many homes to make ends meet.”
“Do the children go to school? Baber asked sympathetically.
“I think the older one used to but since their father died, he works as a gardener’s help in a house. Others are too young to work so they stay at home.” Sakina said clearing away the breakfast table.
The next week, it was August 14. All the children were excited. They had been planning for Independence Day celebrations with great fervour. Umer had bought yards and yards of paper flags to decorate their house. Kamran was putting up a huge green and white flag. Some children were planning to decorate their home with candles. Some had been collecting money to buy firecrackers, balloons and badges.
“What are you going to do on 14th August, Baber?” Umer asked. “We are planning to have dinner in a five star hotel. It would be so much fun.”
“Dad says I can buy as many firecrackers as I want,” boasted Noman.
“Last year he did not get any money and he threw such a tantrum that my father has promised to give him lots of money this year,” his brother Junaid chimed in.
“You are very quiet, Baber? Aren’t you going to celebrate Independence Day?” Junaid asked.
“I am planning to light three candles this year,” said Baber mysteriously.
“Just three candles! How can you be so stingy? If you wish, I can share my flags with you,” added Kamran generously.
“No thank you. I have enough for my needs.”
The next day, the children saw something very strange. First Baber came out with a long plastic table. Then he dragged some chairs around it. He arranged a stack of books and some stationery. From the other end of the street, the children saw maid Kalsoom’s children make their way hesitantly. Baber smiled at them and told them to sit down.
Baber gave a colouring book and some colour pencils to the youngest boy. He then turned his attention towards the other two. “You will come here every day at this time to get your lessons. I will teach you to read and write.”
Tears glistened in Hassan’s eyes as he opened his copy. With great difficulty he wrote the words “Pakistan”. By this time, Baber’s friends had gathered there to see what was going on. They looked confused.
“Baber, have you gone mad? You are going to teach them?” Umer asked.
“Why not? Our country cannot be truly free while it suffers from poverty, illiteracy and inequality. We must remember what the Quaid said to the youth, ‘I look forward to you as the real makers of Pakistan. Create amongst yourselves complete unity and solidarity. Set an example of what the youth can do. Your main occupation should be to devote your attention to your studies. With faith, discipline and selfless devotion to duty, there is nothing worthwhile that you cannot achieve.’
“I am going to light my share of candles today. This is what our country needs more than firecrackers and parties.” The children stood silently, then Junaid said, “I will help you too. There is no better cause and no better way to celebrate the Independence Day.”
First Published in Dawn, Young World August 12th, 2017