A teenager pushing a vegetable cart… no money in his pocket but a book in his hand and a dream in his heart -- of becoming a doctor, getting rid of the tag that he belonged to a family that "lives on alms".
Naseer Ahmad Wani, now 27, doesn't like recalling those years. The hard times began in October 1995 when his sister put him in the local English medium private school. An anganwadi worker, she was the only one in the family one who could afford to pay his monthly school fees of Rs 25.
Then one day, Wani, then 10 years old, returned from school to find his father dead. It took time to sink in. And when it did, education took a back seat. Survival was struggle enough.
With elder brother Showkat, he started a makeshift grocery stall and later bought a vegetable cart. But while Showkat had to give up his studies, Wani persisted. He studied at his stall, in village orchards or alongside his cart while waiting for customers. "Those were tough days. I was scared that my dream would be snatched away," Wani recalls.
The bad times got worse during festivals. "I used to hate Eid, when the rich came home to give us alms."
Wani passed his Class 12 board exams with a first division. But then he got a jolt. "My family would not allow me to take the pre-medical exams as medical studies were expensive. I didn't eat for three days."
Life took a turn when the head of Kashmir University's sociology department, Anisa Shafi, stepped into the picture. Wani also met Rouf Malik and joined his NGO, which works for children's welfare. "Working with orphans gave me perspective. Helping them healed me."
Now pursuing a doctorate in sociology, Wani intends to take the civil services exam. Meanwhile, he has found a vocation in teaching and has qualified the national eligibility test, which opens the door to a career in university-level teaching. "Education brought dignity back into my life. The very people who pointed fingers at us, saying we lived on alms, now treat us with respect."
Is he happy with the education system? Education has to be pro-poor, Wani said, "The government has to ensure that there are good teachers in government schools. Underprivileged children need to be encouraged."