By: Sidrah Roghay
Karachi: It started with a single-room school just after the Partition. Today the Nasra School is spread over five large campuses with 20,000 students. Yet its founder, 92-year-old Nasra Wazir Ali, lives in a single-bedroom apartment inside the educational institution she cultivated with such joy and perseverance.
Dressed in a printed shalwar-kameez, she sits in an L-shaped room which serves as a dining room for her meals and a drawing room to greet visitors. The walls are decorated with frames: there is one in which she is seen accepting an award from former president Asif Ali Zardari, while another shows the Sitara-e-Imtiaz she received for her services.
One corner of the room is full of pictures of her family: husband, son and daughter, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The only window of the room opens to the vast grounds of the school building. When she is bored she likes to look down and watch the children playing, running, squealing and laughing.
“My husband was a civil servant. In 1947, when Pakistan happened, we moved into a government accommodation on Karachi’s Bandar Road (now MA Jinnah Road),” said Nasra, as she began narrating her story leading to the school eventually becoming the mission of her life.
“I felt the need for a school which would educate middle-class parents, many of whom were government servants who lived in the locality. I emptied out a room in my house, added chairs, tables and a blackboard, and began teaching whoever would attend class.”
Her first student was her own daughter, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, who grew up to become a prominent bureaucrat.
The school became such a huge success that one by one the family had to empty out all the rooms of their house and convert them into classrooms. Nasra, her husband and Shahnaz had to move out into the garage.
But as the number of students increased, the government began to have a problem. “They said that this was government property meant for residence and could not be used for a school.”
So the search began for a place to relocate the school began. They initially found a few rooms near the Empress Market, where the school was relocated. “I never waited for anything big to come by. I tried to give my best with whatever resources I had.”
Things changed when her husband bought a huge piece of land in Garden East which was to serve as their private residence. But Nasra converted it into the first purpose-built building the school owned, leaving out a small apartment for her private residence, where she lives to this day.
Her husband backed her decision. “He was always very supportive of my work; caring, responsible and sensitive.” They had never met before they got married. “I saw him for the first time on the day of my marriage. We eventually fell in love.”
As the strength of the students multiplied, her lawyer brother registered the school under an act. Then a board of governors was formed. “The school is owned by a trust. It is not an individual property any more.”
With the tuition fee of the students, enough was saved to expand the institution to four more campuses across the city: in Malir, North Karachi and Korangi and on Super Highway.
The school’s fee has always been nominal. To this day it ranges between Rs800 and Rs1,700, depending on which campus a child gets admission in. The campuses have everything a modern school needs: vast grounds, sports activities, computer labs, libraries and qualified teachers.
Students regularly bag top positions in the examinations conducted under the Board of Secondary Education Karachi and the Aga Khan University-Examination Board.
Perhaps the school’s expansion while maintaining an affordable fee structure is a slap in the face of the newly established elite private schools which are run like commercial enterprises, where each student is a client who brings enormous profits, digging deep into the pockets of salaried professionals who have accepted that quality education comes at a hefty price.
Nasra cannot hear any more. She suffered a stroke last year, and her memory sometimes fails her, but she is still in high spirits. She spends her time teaching English to her two maids. When she is not doing that, she reads poetry. She read out an excerpt from Khalil Gibran’s most popular work, ‘The Prophet’, part of her collection of poems and quotations stacked in a plastic folder at her table:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
When teachers come to visit her she tells them she is getting old and tired. “But they tell me they love me, they need me, the school needs me. That and only that is what keeps me going. Every day.”