His suave manner and dignified mien set him apart even amid seekers of higher learning at the Kashmir University. But little do the crowds of boisterous students and scholars that mob the hostel mess every mealtime suspect that the calm young man serving them with such diligence is himself a Ph D. And still less that he has earned those laurels not on the back of parental support and institutional facilities but through sweating in hotel kitchens and washing dishes to help his family of seven survive.
Muhammad Latief Bhat is a name Batpora, his native village in Tangmarg, mentions in hushed tones. Those of his age, who have quit education in the face of grinding poverty, hold him in awe. Though aware that he has been juggling hard physical labour and studies ever since he was barely ten, they find it incredible that anyone from their midst should have actually beaten the odds that defeat so many across Kashmir, and elsewhere.
But is the doctorate the culmination of his dreams? Is Latief satisfied with his achievement? Has he achieved what he had set out to?
Apparently not! For, as he himself says, away from the noise and din of the varsity kitchen, “much more needs to be done.” And the allusion is not to the mismatch between his qualifications and his current occupation as a cook, ironically, for a multitude of young men with similar academic aspirations.
As he goes over the long and hard years since he first gave up school, it becomes clear that education is for him much more than a ticket to a government job and that intimidating figures about unemployment rates among educated youth had neither disheartened him nor made him despise any work as lowly or unbecoming of one with high degrees.
Twenty-three years down the road (he is 33 today), the bottom-line for him has remained unchanged: making both ends meet for his family. So here is this boy who is brought back to school by his elder brother after three years, and does not remember being home even for a single Eid since, because now he had not only to provide for his own education but also keep ensuring two square meals a day for his deeply impoverished family.
“I would study for eight months,” Latief says, “and work in hotels for the remainder of the year, to keep my studies and income balanced.”
Soon after graduating from the Government Degree College in Baramulla, Latief cracked the entrance examination for a Masters degree in Urdu at the Kashmir University, ranking 27th on the merit list. But conditions back home forced him to take the course through the distance education scheme till he had his MA in 2013.
“The same year, I qualified the entrance test for a Ph D programme at the Magadha University in Bihar. I stood third in the examination which had around 1700 candidates,” he says.
He finished his doctorate three years later under Professor Hussain-ul-Haq, the author of the Urdu novel Furaat.
“Twenty days a month,” he says, “I would take up all sorts of jobs to earn some money, and then travel to Bihar for 10 days to work on my research.”
Latief regards his employment at the university hostel as a breakthrough of sorts on the economic front, and says that he owes it to the editor-in-chief of the Greater Kashmir, Fayaz Ahmad Kalloo.
“Those days, I was working as a casual labourer at the Royal Springs Golf Course in Srinagar when, one day, Fayaz Sahib spotted me and immediately sensed that I was badly in need of a job. He took me to Prof Riyaz Punjabi who was the vice chancellor at the KU and requested him to adjust me somewhere,” recalls Latief, “The VC, did not turn Fayaz Sahib down. He said that I would get a job as soon as a vacancy was available. I got a call from the Kashmir University the very next day, asking me join its mess staff.”
Though the employment was of a need-based nature, Latief was happy to take it, as, for him, it was a significant turnaround in fortune.
Providing for his family would now become substantially easier, as would, he hopes, pursuing his first love – education.
This doughty lad from Tangmarg, who had been forced by circumstance to give up school when hardly ten, has no plans to stray from his course even when most others would consider it a race well run, and won.
His village friends and neighbours of younger days had heard of such battles in folklore and sermons. In Latief they have actually seen someone who has fought hard and long against hardship and misfortune, and conquered both.