Book Review | Dreams Never Die

Authored by Shahid Siddiqui and translated by Lubna Umar, this is a story of what dedication and hard work can achieve in the context of social justice.

Book Review | Dreams Never Die

After a long spell of wakefulness, let me sleep again

The night has fallen, and the dawn is faraway

Unrealized are my dreams, unfulfilled they remain

Let them be planted in my sleep once again.

                                                                                         ─ Gulzar 

Imtisal, a young, dynamic and freshly graduated girl, bid goodbye to her village located in the mountainous ranges of Potohar (North Punjab), where the nature manifests itself in terms of gushing springs, vast wilderness, azure sky and wild fragrances. Availing local transport, she landed in the center of the metropolitan characterized by bustling crowd, noisy traffic, smoky atmosphere and scary sky crappers. She stayed in the hostel of the Teachers Professional College (TPC) ─ a co-education institute for professional education. The TPC was regarded as one of the best colleges for training young educationists, tasked to  train the future generations of the country. It was at TPC that Imtisal heard from her classmates about Professor Saharan Roy whom the young lot admired tremendously. 

Professor Roy was “an individual who did not follow conventional practices. Instead of wearing a mask of insipid seriousness, crafting a false sense of authority ─ unlike most of his colleagues ─ his face was alive with a captivating smile. His long dark hair touching his shoulders was not the only attractive feature of his physical persona but was certainly a source of great envy for most others. His body spoke a language that not everyone could understand, for it had the composure of a man who had endured much and was unmoved by slight turbulence. His high energy in the class was a treat to watch…Constantly on his toes, he sprang from one side to another with a split second with sheer feline grace…Losing its organics linearity, time changed its flow. The starting and ending points mixed up. Physical time becomes inconsequential when you are in a trance, and this is what Saharan Roy did ─ took you to another dimension”. 

As the above indicates, Professor Roy had developed and implemented a unique style of interactive learning, which impressed many a student over the decades. This made him a legendary figure not only among his students but also colleagues, and the wider section of the society for he desired to affect social change in the society through social but collective action.

With respect to his teaching methodology, he often employed simple metaphors to explain complex narratives and social structures. Hence, for him, teaching was like making pots. “The first law is essentially the law of Head, where a potter conceives the image of the prospective earthenware well before the physical act. The next is the law of Hand, where thought is actualized into concrete reality, for the hands give shape to what the head specifies. This gives rise to the perfect dead skeleton. The final one is the law of Love that infuse life into an otherwise lifeless formation”. Thus, a good teacher is the one who is knowledgeable, an effective communicator and, importantly, respectful to the self-esteem of his/her students. Professor Roy mindfully inculcated the said values in his students who were supposed to be teachers and trainers in the future. 

Since Imtisal joined the Teachers Professional College when Professor Roy had left the former, she contacted his former students to help her connect with the professor who individually was quite concerned, and perturbed, about the state of things in his country in the wake of the lawyers movement during 2007-2009. Being democratic, humanist and, above all, pro-people, he supported the movement intectually and socially ─ he used to participate in the protests organized by the lawyers. Though he encouraged his students to meaningfully patriciate in such activities for the larger good of the society, he never forced them to leave classrooms and indulge in protest politics. 

With many efforts, Imtisal was finally able to see Professor Saharan Roy when he visited her city to attend an academic conference. As per his unique way of interactive communication, Prof. Roy infused in her value of interactive learning, exchange of ideas and books, mixed teaching techniques, pluralist approach in life and, above all,  helping the downtrodden by educating them in temporal and spatial context. He often posited that the urban people comparatively have access to modern facilities such as good schools, big universities and state-of-the-art hospitals. It is the other half of the population who lack all this in the rural areas despite talent and dreams!

As described in the beginning, Imtisal hailed from a small village located in the hilly train of North Punjab, she literally started dreaming about teaching at a primary school in her area. She described it in one of her dreams as follows. 

“I had a strange dream. I saw myself at my old village school, sitting with other students in a circle. Right at the center is the teacher’s chair where Professor Roy sat…he then asks me to stand up and read a passage from the book. I read with difficulty, stammering at every word but he keeps encouraging…he informed me that it was time for him to go, but before going he wanted to give me a prize for my reading. He asks me to close my eyes and then places something in my palm… ‘These are my dreams that I entrust to you and from now on they are yours’…and with these words he quickly walks away vanishing into the dark.”

Imtisal, having internalized the life values infused by Professor Roy, started educating children of the marginalized in her village than opting for an NGO job in Islamabad. Initially, she was upset and infuriated at the poor conditions of the school where the children, with tattered clothes were forced to study in an abysmal setting. Not losing heart, she gradually made a difference with the help of her students in terms of cleanliness, punctuality, dedication and dignity of work. Even her colleagues were impressed by her approach and work ethic that they ultimately supported her in what she did for the education and socio-moral development of the children of the area. 

The novel is written in a very captivating style where the themes of inequities, social injustice, illiteracy, unplanned urbanization and political instability overshadow the protagonist, Imtisal, as well as the lead character of Professor Roy. Indeed, at places the distinction between the protagonist and the key character morphed into the centrality of the core themes. The following depicts it so movingly.

“It was a modest looking, two-room building stuffed with more books than furniture, the street was so narrow that I had to park my car at the corner where it opened into a relatively broader road. My students had pointed out, on multiple occasions, that the place did not resonate with my style, but I’d always laughed the comment off. The same logic applies to those who live in affluence. Considering their negligible contribution to life, we must inquire if they really deserve to be where they are.”

While contributing to the larger good of the society and state in terms of protest politics, Professor Roy was held up by the police while protesting for the restoration of the deposed judiciary. The news about his arrest and maltreatment was communicated to Imtisal by Professor Roy’s students. With much effort, she sought permission to see her mentor in the prison. “Professor Roy’s hair had been brutally cut off; eyes ostensibly sleep deficient were deeply sunken; lips torn with police torture; and his now almost unrecognizable face covered with an uneven stubble.” 

The professor was terribly tortured so that he disclosed the name of his students who were falsely thought to be working against the state. “I’m not part of any political party; I was only a free citizen demanding freedom of law and justice. Since when has the innocuous demand for freedom of courts and reinstatement of the chief justice been categorized as perilous rebellion?” he asked vociferously. Nonetheless, sans any evidence against him, Professor Roy was ultimately released from prison. His physical and mental condition deteriorated beyond recovery. “The only plank on the wooden bridge holding me is now giving way, but Imtisal has relieved me of the enormous baggage I’d held onto for long. What I saw in her safe hands were all the unrealized dreams of my life.” Having realized the transition of epistemic values and academic dreams onto his bright and committed students ─ and, having invoked the centrality of social justice, equity, pluralism, pro-poor development and rule of law ─ Professor Saharan Roy breathed his last, peacefully. Imtisal went on with her life-long aim to educate the children of the uneducated and resourceless, who never been to school due to extreme poverty, chronic diseases and, above all, state negligence. 

Originally written in Urdu, the novel has received literally and social recognition post-publication. Importantly, it has been translated into regional languages such as Punjabi and Sindhi. It is a thought-provoking and motivating story of a passionate, enlightened and committed teacher who employs education as an effective tool to bring about change at individual and societal level. Set in the context of the lawyers’ movement (2007-2009) in Pakistan, the novel candidly deals with the themes of social justice, development, hegemony and resistance. Owing to the foregoing, it is recommend particularly to students of literature, sociology and political science. 

Book: Dreams Don’t Die

Authored by: Shahid Siddiqui | Translated by: Lubna Umar

Publisher: National Book Foundation, 2023

Pages: 150

The writer has a PhD in civil-military relations from Heidelberg University. He is DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and teaches at the Lahore School of Economics. He can be reached on Twitter @ejazbhatty