Hyderabad: 14 January 2021: EVERY thing about her has this surreal symbolism. Even the fact that the Heavens opened up the day she left us in tears of our own.
In our culture, the departed are only mourned but westwards, there is also a certain celebration of life just etched away. If life is about stories well lived and lessons well learnt, it is a tradition worth its weight in gold.
Arfa Karim Randhawa had a rather longish name for such a sweet little kid. The baby fat on her cheeks and those twinkling, inquisitive eyes never left her even as she was on the threshold of adolescence. For someone so special, she was like the daughter everyone felt was their own.
I never had difficulty remembering the long name though — which had 17 letters but in the end, not even one alphabet made up for each of her 16-year tryst with destiny — from the time she first got everyone to stand up and take notice in 2004.
I was living abroad those days and one of the first things I did on a vacation back home was to go to the PTV headquarters in Islamabad and fetch a copy of the first TV interview she gave after becoming the world’s youngest Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) at the age of nine.
But it was worth every minute, if only for the tremolo in her rendition of an old Bulleh Shah verse. You could be forgiven for forgetting in that profound sweep, that here was a prodigy whose first call to fame was being the world’s youngest MCP!
What — and who — is she, you wondered, even as she cast a spell on you. There was no escape from being awed — as many an obit writer readily admitted following her demise.
Close to a dying December, one saw the shocking website image of Pakistan’s pride in death’s icy hands, barely recognisable from the sparkling form one had always associated with her.
At year-end, rumours first circulated that Arfa had died but one found out through Ali Nawazish Moeen, another world record holder with 23 A’s in A ‘Levels, that it wasn’t the case and subsequently, some miraculous movement was noted, leading to a fervent hope of recovery.
Microsoft co-founder and former CEO Bill Gates, who was wowed by the prodigy when she visited Microsoft headquarters at his invitation in 2004, contacted her parents and hired a panel of doctors, who advised their Pakistani counterparts through video link.
In the end, hope was short-lived — a bit like the 1990 Robert Di Nero starrer Awakenings, based on Oliver Slack’s 1973 memoir, in which a new doctor tries a chemical cure on a comatose patient. When the first patient awakes, he is an adult having gone into a coma in his early teens. The film then delights in the new awareness of the patients. However, all patients including the protagonist essayed by Di Nero, return to their vegetative state.
Arfa’s 22-day ordeal had captured the hearts and minds of a nation riven by strife and uncertainty. For a country struggling with existential angst, and a breeding ground for bad headlines, Arfa was like a beacon of light.
Even as short a life as hers encapsulated brilliantly the richness of endeavour, capacity for achievement and a heart in its right place. But while this may be a universal sentiment, she found her way to every beating Pakistani heart because of how much she cared for the land of her birth.
For someone so young, Arfa swore by an ambition to improve the lot of her village Ramdewali. Significantly, she was running a computer training centre for the less privileged that she had herself established.
It was an amazing sight — the little Arfa driving home the importance of aptitude early and creating a conducive environment for the seed to grow, interview after interview, speech after speech at 10. She would quote from books and authors she read fervently to draw the context. Two years before her death, she had run through the entire Oxford dictionary as well — every word and term practiced for comprehension. Arfa was also engaged with Nasa after winning a competition in 2011.
Removed from the academic, her flight was not imaginary — she earned certification as a pilot from a flying club in Dubai at 10 and remains the youngest recipient of the prestigious President’s Pride of Performance award in the field of science and technology. There were other awards but space constraints do not permit an elaborate appraisal.
Her desire to explore and reach the zenith was evident from a mail she sent to former Higher Education Commission chairman Dr Attaur Rehman, where she sought consultation on venturing into “a field where there is more room to explore and which would benefit Pakistan”.
Everyone who met Arfa came away awe-struck by her confidence, never mind the special gift she had in her chosen field. Yet the only time, she was publicly seen getting emotional was when she said, teary-eyed, during a speech on stage: Pakistan hamari maa hai, is ke beghair hum kuch nahi (Pakistan is our mother, we’re nothing without her).
Words fail me at our loss. RIP, Arfa.
By Kamran Rehmat