Naheed and the Precious Secret


Naheed drank her breakfast of lassi (a mixture of buttermilk and sugar cane juice), but she did not really want it. She was too excited to either eat or drink, because today she would go to school for the first time in her life.

Naheed would be eleven years old soon, and as long as she could remember, she had wanted to go to school. But in her small village in Pakistan it was unusual for girls to get an education. Naheed loved to slip into the post office to watch Ali Mujuber, the calligrapher, writing letters for the villagers who could not write for themselves. She also listened as he read the replies that came back to the letter senders.

Ali Mujuber would first ask the person who wanted to send a letter, “To whom is it to go?” and “To what village or town?” Then he would take his bamboo pen, check its point carefully, dip it into the big ink bottle while listening carefully to what the person wanted to say in the letter, and start scratching words onto the paper.

Naheed would watch closely while Ali Mujuber formed the beautiful characters. She liked to hear the scratching sound of the pen. And she enjoyed sniffing the ink smell and hearing the drone of the villager’s voice. More than anything in the world, Naheed wanted to know the mystery of the writing and the reading of the squiggly shapes … and today she would begin.

“Very soon I can do what Ali Mujuber does,” she mused.

Her brother, Bashir, heard her. He smiled, for he had gone to school for a short time himself before Father needed him in the fields. “It is not so easy,” he warned. But he cheerfully helped his sister prepare her clay slate and bamboo writing stick.

Soon Naheed was off, carrying the slate and sharpened writing stick.

Kuda Hafiz (may the Almighty save you),” Mother called as Naheed started down the path to the great spreading banyan tree in whose shade the pupils would learn from their teacher. School would only be held on dry days, for if it rained, the students would have to run home for shelter.

Naheed dawdled on the way home, wondering just how many days it would take sitting under the banyan tree for her to know all that Ali Mujuber knew. Her head was in a spin thinking of the many, many days to come. “Maybe I was foolish to think I could ever do such an important and difficult thing as this business of reading and writing,” she murmured half aloud. Perhaps Mother needs me at home, she pondered. Perhaps school is a waste of the hours.

Mother sat beside the fire in the courtyard making chapati, the bread for the family’s evening meal. She greeted Naheed with a smile. “And how was school?” she asked.

Naheed shrugged and passed into the family’s room to put up the slate and bamboo stick.

Mother looked anxious as Naheed came back to the courtyard. “And school?” she asked again.

“Mother, I cannot do that which Ali Mujuber can do. I can never make even one of the figures that mean so much in the letters Ali Mujuber writes.”

Mother stopped her work and looked into her daughter’s eyes for many beats of the heart. At last she spoke quietly. “Naheed, my daughter,” she began, “many of the duties of a woman’s life are learned easily in a moment or in an hour or a day. As a girl like you, I was given only these kinds of tasks. The school was closed to girls. But you … you, my daughter, have the chance of learning words and their sweet secrets. But such precious secrets are not given easily … surely not in one day’s time.”

Naheed’s eyes fell. Mother was right. Naheed had made a big mistake to think she would learn everything on the first day of school. She left her mother and skipped to the center of the village. Her heart was light. “I can do it. I know I can do it,” she hummed to herself.

She watched the village boys line up for a game of pir kaudi (tag or tackle game, having a finish line). From where she stood she saw her mother moving gracefully with the big water jug on her head along with the other women of the village toward the well.

Suddenly she was filled with a feeling of hope and gratitude. She was going to school again tomorrow and for many tomorrows to come, but she was not going to go alone. She would take with her every day the young girl her mother once was. And Naheed would learn so much so well that she could teach her mother everything she (Naheed) learned. Everyone in the family would then have a person nearby to read and to write the precious words of the world.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Doug Roy