Part 6 – Breswana

I spend a lot of my free time thinking about Haji Public School. I am currently sitting in Ranchi in a hotel room after a day full of adolescent girls laughing and I pictured my classes in the school.

I know teachers aren’t allowed to have favourites. But I might have enjoyed teaching Class 7 (now 8) the most. They were a small class full of characters. Mefhooz who could never really sit down. Munee and Humeera who were quiet and vibrant. Ajaz who asked questions and wouldn’t let me proceed till he understood. Haroon who surprised me with how well he wrote, everytime. Ramzan who was eager to learn, patient with my many failings and insistent with his questions. Shahid who spoke loudly and finished things quickly, his brain working much faster than his hand. Abbas who once made me cry while I corrected his exam paper – he wrote about the dismal state of the world with so much violence. Umar who rarely came to class but was always quick to grasp things.

Once before their English exam, I had created a treasure hunt with them. Each location would have an entire set of questions that they had to solve before deciphering the clue to the location of the next set of questions.

Ajaz being Ajaz was super sceptical. “We will lose. I don’t want to play.” I had to encourage him to have fun and not focus so much on the end. I stood back and watched them play that day. They were quick, active on their toes and very diligently answered all questions. I think it was my favourite afternoon with them, until of course they told me none of them had prepared for the test.

In the end it didn’t matter who won. We sat in the classroom after discussing their mistakes, sharing the clues with each other and learning. I hope I taught them some English; they definitely taught me to enjoy the ride.

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Part 5 – Breswana

She is the heart and the passion behind the school. Sarcastic as hell and a beautiful woman. She would shout at the kids and acknowledge their work at the same time. She is the reason that school has a functioning and absolutely amazing library. She instills her own want for learning into them. She treats all of the kids as her own. Her enthusiasm to retain good teachers, teachers who care and teachers who enjoy the space is incomparable. The kids have been exposed to new ideas, new sports, equipment and more because of her commitment to the children. She tears up when they achieve across fields. She creates spaces for argument, discussion and growth. This is an education I would have loved. She is special, this many people know, but she never sat in my classroom to monitor how I worked with the kids. I had a free hand to help them learn however I deemed fit as long as I was doing right by the children. This made her someone I loved being around.

You would catch her sitting around after school, before school, during lunch ensuring the kids who needed help had it.

But she isn’t all teach and no fun. Sree, Baji and I would spend hours watching a pakistani soap, playing scrabble and arguing about the world’s dismal state at large. She cares and cares a lot. I remember her asking the kids to read my work cause she wanted them to learn. The kids being themselves said wonderful, shy things later.

Sabbah Haji Baji is a fantastic woman. I would spend a lot of energy dissing anyone who disagrees.

Part 4 – Breswana

I would have to write about my adventures with class 7 (now 8) separately. But in today’s edition of nostalgia is the strength of my days in Breswana. Muneeza Banoo Khandi and Humeera Banoo Batt: these two gorgeous, intelligent and funny children were my daily light.

Muneeza, the earnest and hard working student. Her papers were marvel to read. She wrote with clarity beyond her 13 years. Her beautiful handwriting was an additional plus. Though superbly introverted, Muneeza, when used to you, would crack jokes. Her Mehfooz smacks are priceless moments in the day. Munee was every teachers charmed child. Her diligence and sincerity apart, there was a curiosity to her studying. She wanted more and more information. All the information her little head could hold and more. Her aspirations were to learn. She would be the most upset when I scolded class 7 (which was a lot, despite the biggest soft corner for them). For me Muneeza is a star not because of her academic achievements, which were many, but for her simple, kind nature. She took to reading so easily. She also took to sports. Her excelling in everything makes you want to hold her tight. To be honest, her sparkling eyes full of yearning to learn is what I remember about her. Muneeza Banoo Khandi would have read so voraciously at the age of 20 that I hope it opens many many doors for her.

Funny, smart and dancer Humeera. I’ll tell you a secret, her reciting Invictus at my farewell remains my go-to video on bad days. I still remember this confident girl step up and recite this poem infront of everyone. Giving us all goosebumps. The passion, the feeling in the words came through in her voice. She got away with a lot with me. She could lure me back to class and ask, “Why angry?” in the softest voice. She was a hardworking kid that could dance so beautifully. I fondly remember how she would turn up outside the volunteer house in case she wanted more attention after classes. She tells me that thanks to me she lost little bit of her fear for dogs. This is amazing for me. When I think of Humeera, I remember the smiling girl asking me how I am; I remember her nose buried in a book; I remember her leading my hand to dance with her. I hope this girl continues down the path of reciting fabulous poetry and owning the stage or whatever her kind heart wishes for.
Learning and acing multiple talents is a Haji Public School trait that most students owned. The teachers were mere vessels to direct them to their study books occasionally. And it was a pleasure on most days. Okay. I said most?

Part 3 – Breswana

She was a natural at teaching. I am not sure I have ever come across someone so at ease in a classroom. It was a pleasure to linger outside her classroom and watch the kids listen to her. I respected and admired her grace; for accepting her mistakes and for being vulnerable in the classroom. It was something the children loved and reciprocated. I could only teach subjects I cared about. She could teach anything because she cared about the students. Her class’s morning assemblies were always the liveliest. They sang songs with joy and actions. They actively participated in the making of their assembly. You could hear her reading books to them sitting on top of her table. It was heartwarming: her relationship with the students and her sincerity with teaching.

Her voice is still clear in my head. She is Shomasree Majumdar.

He was tall, lanky and honest. Brutally so. “Have you studied for the test?” “On my way to school for five minutes.” He never lied. He saw the world in firm shades of black and white. This meant our relationship was a difficult one. He was an honourable young boy. Hardworking and absolutely sweet. He was extremely shy but in the walls of the classroom he spoke his mind. It was special. He worked hard at getting better. I still remember all our big fights. He would sheepishly not look me in the eye till he apologised. He was smart, funny and extremely naughty. English was hard for him but he tried very hard (most of the time). He loved playing cricket and forcing him to play baseball for a games period was an arduous task. His letter to me when I left was beautiful. I still read it and can picture his confused face writing it. Most kids wrote letters to all teachers who left. Not this boy. He told me he would write only to those he found nice. It was so difficult for him to lie. In his letter he asks me why I didn’t inform him before and how hurt he is by my actions. This is the essence of him. His honesty is an integral part of him and I miss his shy smile every morning. He is Ajaz Ahmed Bhatt.

Part 2 – Breswana

Kulsuma, Class 5: *forcefully took her hijab off during class*

Me: What happened?

Kulsuma: it is very hot ma’am!

This wasn’t an uncommon feature in Haji Public School, the school hidden in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir. Many girls wore the hijab. The only compulsion was for it to be clean. The girls took it off without any hesitation when they felt like it. Some of them wore it on some days and didn’t on others. Sometimes it would fall off their heads. Without a sense of panic, they would readjust the hijab whenever the task at hand was completed.

I remember a mixed cricket match when Muneeza, Class 7 (piece of my heart) was  batting. The hijab plus the heat and helmet bothered her so she took it off and continued to play in style. She wore it back when she was done. Star.

If you follow @Imsabbah (who runs the school) on Twitter and glanced at her mentions, you would be shocked about the perception people have about children wearing the hijab. Though, visiting the school would tell you how diversity flourishes on its grounds. The girls and boys have school uniforms; girls wore salwar and kurta, and boys wore pant and shirt. On Fridays, the children wore their colourful best.

Most of the girls dressed in salwar and kurta. Ifra, Class 5 on regular days wore a shirt and pant to school. But on Fridays she dressed in salwars, flowing dresses, colourful prints and – wait for it – sneakers. Obviously she couldn’t be bothered by our narrow minded vision of fashion and dressed in comfort. Plus, I suppose sneakers are easier to run up and down the mountain, which the kids indulged in despite our frowns. She had jumped over the perceived pressures of choosing between what is understood to be feminine and masculine and explored the diverse items of clothing available to her.

I think back to my school days when I HAD to wear the pinafore. I hated it. I was ridiculed endlessly about my hairy legs and it was cumbersome to be my unfeminine self in it. It didn’t stop me but it felt tedious. I would have loved to have the option to choose something else. 

As an adult, my access to this choice has been liberating. I dress in loose kurtas purchased from the ‘men’s section’ in stores. I also wear tight kurtas stitched by a ‘ladies tailor’. This diversity in my dressing was always looked at with bewilderment in the city. I would hear comments about how I don’t dress appropriately or didn’t have a style. I dressed this way even while teaching at the school. The kids in the school didn’t notice an anomaly. In fact, going by their goodbye letters to me, they were only worried about the smile I wore or didn’t wear. (I cried a lot on the last day.)

When I began teaching there, Sabbah encouraged me to play sports with them. I loved it. After they read my essay on playing baseball, the curious fellows wanted to learn. I spent an hour teaching them the rules, explaining how to run, hit and catch. They were enthusiastic but bored in no time.

“What do you mean I need to run when I hit?? What if I become out?” – Ajaz, Class 7

It was hilarious. Soon after boredom reached its maximum point, we began to play football together. I was chosen on one team with Humeera and Muneeza was on the other. I was awfully gentle while tackling them. But I stopped for a moment to watch Humeera try to take the ball from Haroon and I realised, this girl is absolutely free on the field. There is something that was ingrained in me that she hasn’t learnt yet.

It was a moment of happiness.

The hijab has begun to occupy our mindspaces in a very powerful way. We tell women to not wear them; to wear them and obsess about what it means when we see them wearing it or not. These might have valid arguments in there somewhere. But, reducing muslim women and girls to the hijab is not helping anyone. If not wearing the hijab/niqab means no access to education or sports, would that be a better option? Yay we have freed the women and girls. Victory at last? The world unfortunately is not black and white. It is lived in the greys. Here are these beautiful girls learning about the world, learning sports and kicking ass at them. Expose them to ideas, to worlds and words, to sports and women achievers – dressed in varied attires. Teach them they can be among them. That is where I would put my effort.

With countries banning the hijab in public spaces and burqini on beaches, countries where women are forced into them, we really must stop and check why we are obsessed with the hijab.

Till then, I take cue from Ifra, Muneeza, Humeera, Kulsuma and many other lovely young girls.

Part 1 – Breswana

It has been a year since I went to Breswana. One year since my first glimpse of the village and the beautiful school. In a matter of weeks, the routine was down and I got used to the idea of waking up to the gorgeous sight of mountains and the kids screaming and rushing to school.

I’ve struggled to write about the school in the past cause it’s been an overwhelming experience with poor closure. I hope to return very soon and see them all again.

Breswana and Haji Public School are home because of the people there. Their warmth, kindness and concern are among my best memories of four fantastic months.

Here is to hoping over the next few weeks I can write about my fondest memories and the people that made Breswana home.


I would be making a huge error if I began by writing about anyone but him.

Standing in the fields with his rifle. His earnest smile. He fondly called me “Karunanidhi”. His reason was because we are both Tamilian and his name has nidhi as well. But the truth is that I had an injury when I was there and he wanted me to go around on a wheelchair or strapped to the back of a horse. (No jokes)

He would be found in the fields watching over the work; watching us mess up the barbeque; complaining about our bad hindi music songs; playing bridge in the middle of social gatherings; telling the craziest and wildest stories of militants and army.

Sarpanch Saleem Haji is incomparable to anyone at Breswana or otherwise. If you cannot stomach sarcasm then he’s not someone you will adore. But let it be said, his sarcasm is something you get used to and his kind heart then showers you with warm gestures and love. I miss that.

I still remember how he ensured I managed to get down from Srayan (after being in a lot of pain) without injuring myself further. He’s a man of many wonderful things if you get to know him.

 

Ghosts of grief

When I started reading Ghosts of Meenambakkam, I was very curious. The narrator stood at Meenambakkam airport while meditating on death. Despite all the flights I’ve taken and the amount I have thought about death myself, I doubt I had spent even a fleeting moment at an airport thinking about it. Maybe I feared if I did that the flight might deliver that swift wish. The narrator’s visits to the airport and his thoughts about death, however, were part of a process of mourning; his daughter had died in an unexpected plane crash several years ago. A wound he had barely let heal. He spent those moments outside the airport reliving those difficult last moments while pondering about the things that he could have probably changed.

At the airport, the narrator spots an old acquaintance Dalpathado, a movie producer, who swerves his life that night into a whirlwind of chases and hiding. The secrecy, the danger, the unexpected outcome of all the hush-hush planning make the book a very engaging read. The stormy night makes for an interesting detail in the story; much of which I spent imagining these three men crouched on their fours and whispering to each other in a hut. The danger continues to build around these men which keeps the reader moving forward quickly while imagining an explosive end.

Ghosts of Meenambakkam is written by Ashokamitran and translated by Kalyan Raman (who I was fortunate to have studied under). The writing is crisp and focuses on a lot of details of the surroundings and the night itself adding to the appeal of the book. The life and heart of this book is the underlying sorrow. Sorrows of the past. Of those lost and others forgotten. Of those part of tragedies, both created and accidental. I read it around the time of the passing of Layla. The grief he describes is a grief I understood all too well. Parts of me imagines that he describes these stories in such detail as to detract us from focussing too hard on the larger situation. The story for me was comforting as well as disturbing; like all good stories should be.

[I have had several drafts of this sitting around. But I was forced into thinking about these books and these characters when I heard that Ashokamitran had passed away. He was 85 and a legendary writer of everyday stories that were relatable.]

Lessons in love

It has been an odd six months. Six months of life without the love of mine.

She came into my life for reasons unknown, other than my sheer insistence for a dog. I had just been hurt by my first crush and I drowned myself in her shenanigans. In return, she taught me everything I now know about love.

Even in her loss, there has been great learning about love, holding on and letting go. Everyday I wake up in the morning with a thought of her. I don’t remember ever waking up to another thought. Boyfriends, girlfriends, lovers, friends have all come and gone. But Layla remains. In her infinite glory.

I joked a lot at home that she was the great love of my life; no human would ever come close. It is true because she taught me to not be insecure in love. To love her without expecting love in return (a love that she gave so generously). To share space with her, to allow her to make decisions, to care for her through her aging years, to be her companion.

I remember the kids at Haji Public School askimg me why I had to return just for a few hours to say goodbye. I said then I didn’t know why.

Maybe it was the right thing. Maybe I needed the closure of burying her. Maybe she needed me. I do not know.

I am sure she will be delighted to know that in my darkest, lowest, and happiest moments, she is my first thought. Her tail wagging. Her love filled eyes have carried me through and will continue to do so.

Happy Valentines Day, my love. Thank you for teaching me the magnitudes love holds. I will continue to try to be the person you thought I was.

 

Are you here again, Ms. Depression?

People are often surprised to find out that I live with depression. “But you are so cheerful and you smile so much!” – a common expression of surprise. The “so” emphasising the impossibility of it all. I would say they are misinformed about how depression looks but I also wanted to turn the reflection inward.

I was formally diagnosed in 2010. Since then the diagnoses have changed shape and size to anxiety and depression to trauma induced anxiety and depression to some form of depression or the other to some form of brain fog; meanwhile I have learnt to not hold any diagnosis too close to my heart.

I am often told I am too functional to be depressed. I look happy even. I would love to write what all depression looks like but turns out it has so many forms that would be pointless. Plus, it morphs itself from person to person.

My own depression and anxiety have many faces. A black cloud settling on me after travelling for long. The rocks weighing down on my heart, lower back and knees. Very little sleep. The lack of language, especially for writing. The inability to focus on a singular activity. The outpouring of poetry. Difficulty in doing routine tasks. The distracted-by-everything mind. The rats in my stomach craving food eternally. The socialising to forget. Unable to eat or drink enough. Sleeping a lot. Isolating myself. Focussed overworking spurts.

Mostly, you cannot see it in my functionality or demeanour. My sister would giggle at the number of people who told her I was the happiest person they knew. The truth, I knew, was more complicated than that.

I wouldn’t call myself happy or unhappy. I sprinkle my good phases with activity I enjoy doing. I am better equipped to recognise my difficult phases and deal accordingly. I improve self-care; I try to spend more time in company; I meditate. But the darkness-is-a-friend phases have stuck around and come around as often if not more. However, I do think I have difficulty pulling back on the pretending. I can act as if everything is normal for a long time. Till my body physically cannot do it anymore. Loved ones can enquire if I need anything, and I might never reach out. I have a stubborn independent streak.

Happiness, darkness, light and depression are all friends who visit, stay and leave. My inability to find a balance and project a balance are two different issues that need my attention. I would also like to not isolate myself through the difficult times and reach out to kind, loving, dear ones who want to help.

A lot of progress needs to be nudged into place. I am working on myself as much as possible, each day. That should give me some solace. Or so, I tell myself.

Homeward dove


We thought about what to grow in the area where she is buried. We argued over carrots, papaya or some flowers. She loved both carrots and papaya, so it seemed apt. She even stopped to sniff flowers. Amma suggested papaya cause granddad had said no flowers. But we finally settled on mustard. Mustard attracts a lot of butterflies which would help with pollination in Amma’s garden. And Layla loved butterflies.

Weeks later, the baby plants have arrived and Layla must be watching with delight.

I still can’t say her name or write it or read it without crying which means buses, trains, autos have seen me burst into tears these past few months. 

Learning that grief of this kind becomes a part of you. 

Learning that I will always love her unconditionally and miss her excruciatingly. Cause that is, was and will be the nature of our relationship. One of intense feeling.