The Proud Shepherd

A boy who was being encouraged to follow his father and graze herds in the Pir Panchal jungles decided to study sciences and was supported by his father in challenging situations. Now busy in post-doc at the Baylor College of Medicine, in the USA, Abdullah Choudhary is a proud researcher. Mohammad Fazil Buchh details the roller-coaster ride of the Poonch Gujjar boy

Abdullah Choudhary with his late father

For Abdullah Choudhary, 30, it has been a proverbial roller-coaster ride. From the mud-house Kotha of his shepherd father in remote Dingla (Poonch) to Stanford University, the success of this Gujjar student from a very humble background is phenomenal. By all means, he is a model.

“My father’s friend used to suggest to me that being the elder son in the family, I should be prepared to take the responsibility of rearing the cattle as my father was getting old,” Abdullah said. “I tried to go out with my father but found this work extremely exhausting.”

Cattle rearing is not an easy job. It involves non-stop walking and frequent trekking over difficult terrains. Abdullah remembers his days when hunger would put him almost down and in absence of food; he would eat the roots of medicinal plants growing abundantly in the forests.

The credit, however, goes to his unlettered father who ensured that his son is enrolled in a school. Abdullah did his primary schooling at Government Primary School Dingla. The struggles associated with achieving primary education were immense. There was only one teacher managing all the five classes and he had to come from a large distance, and trek for around three hours to reach the school, located on the top of a hill.

“Our teacher had to teach 70 students in five classes,” Abdullah remembers. “We used to have hardly two classes in a week in which we were taught only one subject.” One thing their teachers would ensure was to properly teach them basic Urdu and Mathematics. After finishing his primary, Abdullah moved to the Government Middle School Dingla, where the staff there was adequate and separate teachers would teach different subjects.

“It was in my sixth standard when I got the opportunity to learn basic English alphabets and some grammar,” recalls Abdullah with a tone of gratitude. “The teachers were mostly non-Muslims and worked extremely hard.”

It was in his eighth standard examination when Abdullah decided to pursue his studies seriously. The motivation came from his uncle, who used to attend mohalla level meetings and share with people the stories of success of the Gujjar youth coming from humble backgrounds.

“I said to myself let me give studies a shot and hopefully something good will happen,” Abdullah said, remembering the days when he was shuttling between his school examination and the fields. Along with his cousin, Abdullah would de-weed the maize fields for two months till the harvest in November. They would carry rice and flour sacks every week from the main market to their kotha located on the hilltop, a four-hour uphill trek, with a lot of load. “If the bus stops somewhere, I can easily switch to my father’s profession anytime.”

Abdullah gives credit to his cousin for doing part of his share of fieldwork while he was busy with the eighth class examination.

Abdullah Choudhary’s home in Dingla village

With the Middle over, Abdullah moved to Government Higher Secondary School, Chandak where he passed his matriculation and later the twelfth class examination. He got the first division. He had initially taken arts subjects. However, when he accompanied his uncle to an official for mandatory attestation of his form, the officer tore the form into pieces. His uncle suggested him study science subjects and not humanities. Abdullah’s family agreed and thus he became a science student.

“My admission to the Higher Secondary School was full of new challenges as the students there were far ahead of me in terms of confidence. They had come from private schools and some were from CBSE backgrounds,” remembers Abdullah. “Most of my classmates used to go for private tuitions as well. I wasn’t able to answer teachers’ questions in class initially and was frightened to see my fellow classmates with huge reference books of science.”

Abdullah’s modest background could not make him afford tuition. In order to compensate for the deficit, he started working harder so that he is able to compete with others. “I had to study under the kerosene lantern as our house didn’t have an electricity connection,” Abdullah admitted.

In fact, Abdullahs’ struggle would start early in the morning. He had to trek for around three hours to be able to reach school and spent the same time reaching home after 4 pm. It always was an exhausting exercise. Later around autumn when the days would be shorter, Abdullah would leave school early to reach home in time because he was frightened by darkness. All these shortcomings, he would address by burning the midnight oil and studying during late nights to stay ahead of all others. It paid him well. Abdullah topped his class, both in eleventh and twelfth standards.

This paved the way for Abdullah to come down from the hills and start understanding the complexities of the plains. Abdullah graduated in sciences from Government Degree College, Poonch in 2012. In 2014, he completed his master’s in Chemistry from the University of Jammu (Rajouri Campus).

There was, however, a demoralising incident when one of his college teachers told Abdullah that he should opt for arts because he is weak in drawing. “Students coming from government school backgrounds have poor drawing skills and the college teacher was unimpressed by my diagrams in our practical notebook,” remembers Abdullah. “He suggested that I get into the arts stream so that I can find a cop’s or a soldier’s job.”

Abdullah remembers taking the suggestion seriously. He said he actually went to the college’s admission block to change his subjects but the officials told him that he couldn’t change the stream at this moment as the admission process had culminated. They suggested he wait for the next year to get enrolled in the arts stream. Finding it troublesome, Abdullah decided to continue with his BSc. With better practice, however, he improved his drawing skills to manage his naysayer teacher. Much later, it was interesting that Abdullah taught Chemistry in the same college with his teachers for three months under an academic arrangement.

Abdullah’s Kotha hutment in Dinga is deep into Pir Panchal forests

With masters in hand and nothing much to do, it was a time of frustration for Abdullah. He was hugely distressed as the financial burden was only getting heavier. His younger brother had an injury in one of his eyes and he had to take him to Amritsar for treatment. It required Rs 50,000, which Abdullah borrowed from different people. Abdullah was in debt of Rs 1.5 lakh. He had also borrowed some loans from his sister when he was pursuing his Master’s.

“With no openings around, I decided to work as a labourer as my financial situation was terrible,” Abdullah said. People from Poonch normally go to Srinagar for work. He also decided to join them so that he can earn something to feed the family that educated him up to the master’s level. Watching his brother unable to do anything, even his younger brother would sometimes tell him, “What did you achieve after spending so much time studying?”

Abdullah did not lose hope. Instead of working as a construction worker in Srinagar, Abdullah started preparing for NET-JRF. In the very first attempt, he qualified in Chemical Sciences in 2015. In a quick follow-up, he got admission in PhD at the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research (AcSIR), Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM), Jammu. Abdullah started working on the discovery of anti-Alzheimer agents targeting NLRP3 Inflammasome complex and cholinesterase. His research was published in highly reputed peer-reviewed journals. Abdullah got his doctorate in March 2021.

While he was pursuing his research, a lot of changes were taking place simultaneously. He was getting fellowship money. Part of this would feed him and part of it would go to clear the debts. Abdullah remembers the happiness that he had in late 2017 when he was finally debt-free. Now, his mud kotha had an electricity connection. At the same time, he assessed his weaknesses and found his poor English a problem. So he started working on this.

With a PhD in hand and marching orders from the hostel, Abdullah was unemployed again and thinking of earning something. Well before he could start exploring options, he was selected for a Post-doc position at Washington State University. However, the crisis came in the shape of Covid19 as he could not move around. He could not join the programme.

Abdullah was shattered but losing such a great career option. He continued trying for post-doctorate with other universities. He got offers of Post-doc positions from Simon Fraser University Canada, the University of Louisiana at Monroe (USA) and Baylor College of Medicine (USA).

Now, he was in a position to pick the best option. So, he joined the Department of Chemical Biology, Baylor College of Medicine in the United States in February 2022. Currently, he is working on the discovery of 3CL protease inhibitors for the treatment of SAR- COVID-19.

Abdullah Choudhary working in his laboratory

Abdullah said his struggle, persistence and strong self-belief have been mercifully responded to by God. He recalls an incident when in the ninth standard; one of his teachers humiliated him in front of nearly 400 students in the morning assembly. “This boy hasn’t washed his face”, Abdullah remembers the teacher saying, without considering the fact that the boy would walk for three hours to reach the school which would make him appear tired and unwashed. “This incident hurt me a lot as my classmates made fun of me for a long time. One of the senior students from my village commented that I was a disgrace to the village. It was an incident that literally convinced me to drop out of school. It was God who intervened.” Destiny changed the situation and he moved from one cross to another. “Very recently, the same person rang me up saying – Abdullah, you are the pride of Dingla”.

Abdullah gives the credit for his success to his parents especially his father who supported him in whatever way he could till his death. He used to herd sheep even in his sixties, spending nights outside in the forest meadows and sleeping upon stones under the bare sky. Soon, his shepherd father developed extreme weakness and at the same time, was detected with a brain tumour.

“It was really heart wrenching to see my father bed-ridden after having spent almost whole life herding sheep,” Abdullah said. “At that time,  I was doing my doctorate in Jammu and used to frequently visit home to see him.”.

His father lost the battle against cancer on March 17, 2020, leaving the family grief-struck.

The responsibility of rearing cattle was taken by Abdullah’s mother the moment his father got sick. Despite her health complications, she left no stone unturned in shouldering the additional burden of managing cattle and at the same time contributing on the domestic front. She ensured that Abdullah focuses on his career. She suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs.

“I do not have words to thank the Almighty for blessing me with such a beautiful family. Like my father, my mother fully devoted her life to our family and supported me during my critical moments. She still manages work at home despite her lungs being only 40 per cent active” Abdullah revealed.

Despite all these challenges, the situation has improved comparatively as his younger brother’s wife assists Abdullah’s mother in household chores. His younger brother studied only up to the twelfth standard after which he started to work as a labourer, and got married.

Abdullah Choudhary in the Baylor College of Medicine.

Abdullah encouraged his brother to learn to operate an earth-remover, the JCB. Now, he is successfully trained in operating the machine and is looking for a contractor who could provide him with some work. He is hopeful to get some work soon. For now, Abdullah takes care of the financial expenses of his brother’s family and of his widow mother who requires constant medical attention.

Abdullah gets around Rs 3.5 lakh monthly for his position from which he manages the financial expenses of his family as well. Things are getting better slowly and steadily but yet there is a long way to go.

The family still lacks a proper toilet at their mud house but he is optimistic that things will improve. Abdullah plans to continue his pursuit of scientific research and may join academics after his post-doc.

“I was recently sitting with a Stanford University Professor and I zoned out momentarily while my thoughts took me to the places where I would go along with my father’s friend to herd sheep,” Abdullah said. “I thank the Almighty for picking me up from those places and bringing me to the place here.”

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