I have been living in Canada since 1996 after having lived in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Karachi earlier. The little story that I am about to narrate relates to my last visit to Pakistan that was in 2015. Years have passed by, but I am unable to forget the images that I saw back then; images of a woman protecting her dignity even in extreme poverty.
That evening, we were returning from Sea View when my daughters pointed to the fried fish vendors on University Road close to Hassan Square in Gulshan-i-Iqbal. We stopped there to try it out and enjoyed the stuff. The setup also included a person, who was being addressed by one and all as lala, whose job was to keep the beggars away from destroying the customers’ experience. As we were just getting off after paying, a begging woman broke through the parameter and put her hand on my youngest daughter’s head and asked that we buy food for her children. There was no negotiation. I quietly went to the cashier and ordered some fish for her and left quietly.
When I was seated in the car and we were getting out of the parking area, I saw another woman, who never tried to bug us with her tale of poverty. She was moving towards the table that we had just emptied and which had not been cleaned up yet.
Before I could even say a word, this woman opened her arms and from within the sheet of cloth she had wrapped herself with came out a little girl, perhaps six or seven years old. The woman picked up the leftovers, mostly fish skin, and gave it to the girl and just as quickly put the rest in a plastic bag she was carrying.
Then she moved to our bone plate and made a small roll of smaller fish-bones and put them in her mouth. She was clearly trying to fill her stomach with whatever was available. I heard the cashier harshly yell at lala, directing him to chase the woman and her daughter away. Just then I heard someone honking at the back. Instinctively, I turned back to have a look. I would have missed the scene for at best five seconds, but that woman and her daughter had just disappeared from the scene as if they were never there. We tried to locate them, but could not.
That great woman was hungry, her child was starving, but her self-respect and dignity prevented her from begging. She didn’t allow lala to push her away or yell at her using foul words. I could have jumped out of the car, but thought that if I buy food for everyone, I would never leave, or perhaps some street thug would try to harm my family, assuming I had too much money. Over the years, I have often thought about her, prayed for her and her daughter. I have cried many a time thinking about her. Maybe I cry for myself because I could have made things better for her, but decided to move away from that penny-less starving woman and her young daughter. I chose to be a coward. Despite being poor, starving and eating from other people’s soiled plates, the woman was still in complete control of her situation in that particular moment and had chosen to eat even fish-bones, but not to seek help other than of the Divine variety.
Syed Husain Ali
Alberta, Canada

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