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Boy who didn’t know English is now a language icon

Munawar Zama is now the CEO of an English-language training and personality development institute.


| 2013-09-07

Munawar Zama

In early 1985, a nine-year-old Muslim boy from a middle class family in Nalgonda, 100 km from Hyderabad, sat glued to his transistor radio as Indian cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin prepared to score his third consecutive century against a formidable English team.

English-language cricket commentary emanated from the radio for 15 minutes, followed by commentary in Hindi. Whenever the commentary went into English, the boy — who couldn't understand a word — became restless. He impatiently waited for the Hindi commentary to hear how his hero Azharuddin was playing. In those brief moments of excitement and restlessness, the Anglophobic boy made a decision: he must learn English.

At a posh New Delhi hotel last month, the boy, Munawar Zama, now the CEO of an English-language training and personality development institute, was honoured with the "Indian Youth Icon Award 2013" for his contributions to changing the lives of thousands of students across the country.

He has successfully trained not only students, but even blind teachers and habitual stammerers.

"I had this stammering problem since childhood," recalls Ishwar Chand Singh, a 28-year-old MBA holder from Siwan, Bihar, who attended Zama's 40-day personality-development workshop in Delhi. "So many companies denied me job interviews because of my stammering," he recounts. "I visited many doctors, but after attending (Zama's) voice and accent training, I find a great improvement in myself," an excited Singh told this correspondent.

After obtaining a degree in pharmacology, Zama was offered a government job as a pharmacist in a remote village, which he declined. His teacher, Hammad Ahmad Alwi, who ran an institute called HOBZ, convinced the young man's family that Zama would have a bright future if he pursued a career in English.

Zama began his English teaching career at a free weekly workshop organised by Siyasat newspaper, where hundreds of students would turn up each Sunday. Every week, the number of students rose. He was soon introduced to Sirajuddin Quraishi, president of Delhi's famous India Islamic Cultural Centre (IICC). "Life completely changed after that," Zama told this correspondent.

In 2008, Zama launched an annual 40-day "personality development workshop" organised by the IICC. "Since 2008, at least 5,000 people have been trained in our workshop, of whom at least 60% are now working with multinational companies," boasts Wadood Sajid, a veteran journalist and adviser to the IICC president.

Zama has also volunteered a 60-episode voice and accent training course for leading television channel Zee Salaam, for which he was awarded the Young Achievers Award in 2010. In 2011, he bagged the Rajiv Gandhi Global Excellence Award. The following year, he was awarded the World Human Rights Protection Association Award.


The life of Syed Kazim, a blind teacher from a Hyderabad slum, changed drastically after meeting Zama. Kazim, who is a Hafiz, or memorizer of the Quran, sat on the floor of the Babul Uloom religious school as Zama taught young students the ABCs of English. He listened attentively to every word, eventually mustering the courage to tell Zama that even he could learn English. "The only English I knew was the alphabet," said Kazim. "But deep down in my heart, I always wanted to learn the language." "Although it was for students, the training was a golden opportunity for me."

Two months later, Zama accompanied Kazim to a number of schools and workshops, where teachers were spellbound listening to the blind teacher.

On one such occasion, Kazim was granted a monthly pension of Rs 1,000 rupees by a charitable trust. On another occasion, an anonymous donor made him a gift of Rs 20,000.

Zama recalls the time one of his students, a 25-year-old woman, was told she might soon lose her vision. "I am praying to Allah so I can read the Quran... Just give me sight to recite the Quran," the girl said at one of Zama's training sessions. A couple weeks later, Zama invited Kazim, the blind teacher, to deliver a speech at a training session that the girl was attending. Listening to the blind teacher brought tears to her eyes. "I once asked Allah for sight to recite the Quran. Now I have no objection if Allah makes me blind if He wishes. I can recite Quran, I can memorize Quran," she tells this reporter enthusiastically. "If a blind teacher from a slum can (learn English) within a span of two months, why can't I?" she adds.

Zama believes that the positive energy that he helps instil in his students makes them believe that they can do anything. "These things motivated me; I can do wonders through personality development workshops," he says.


Zama has also trained children at Mukam, India's largest orphanage, where orphans from across the country receive free education. "Zama devised new means to teach and reach out to poor orphans, as none of them understood a word of English," said Haji Mon, a trustee of the orphanage. "We have seen a major improvement in the children's communication skills."

Many believe Zama is helping the poor and underprivileged in a unique way, rather than by simply giving them handouts. "It is a unique way of doing charity," said Dr Rafique, an adviser to the Shadaan Group, which runs five medical colleges.

"Zama has a God-given talent, which he is effectively utilising in furthering the cause of lingual empowerment," he adds. "In fact, Zama's work is an act of economic empowerment as well."

Singh, the stammerer, is a case in point. It was at Zama's training course in 2011 that he received a job offer from Hind Agro Industries Limited, the country's largest meat processing company.

"Zama and the IICC believed in me at a time when I was being rejected by the corporate world just because of my stammering," recalls an emotional Singh


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