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.

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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.]