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.]

Ladies special

I recently moved to Bombay to work on a project. Bombay itself is a beautifully, well-connected city. It has been just three weeks of taking the trains and I’ve already been pushed against the door, fallen flat on the platform and broken my phone’s headphone socket. But it still has not deterred me from taking the trains everyday. Only cause it’s the easiest way to get to work and the most suitable for me.

Last week, I moved to Chembur which is on the Harbour Line. This line seems to be relatively calmer than the Central Line which I earlier took. What is a joy about the Harbour Line is the Ladies Special train. (I’m not sure all the lines have it. At least the Central one didn’t. But I digress.)

It has just been three days of taking this train and I’m in love.

——–

The alert woman announces the arrival of the 12 dabba ladies special pulling into Chembur at 9.04 am. Women step forward and occupy the entire platform, otherwise restricted to the markings of First Class or Ladies coach. A sea of colour is one’s first sight. Once I board the train, I patiently look for a corner to sit down and scribble this post or read, a little in awe of affirmative action.

What this special has done is fill a train with women going to work. But that is just not it, is it?

It is a train where women can occupy seats with abandon. A train where women know each other. The gentle nods of recognition. The smiles. The hellos and goodbyes. Some talk about their work, partners, homes. Laugh. Joke. Accomodate each other. Play on their phones. Listen to music. Read. Pray. A variety of working women all possibly looking for a little less hassle in the morning.

The train stops at every stop and ambles it’s way to CST. For those ten minutes in the morning, platform number 1 at CST is mostly women. Going to their respective workspaces. Hopefully in a better mood.

Got me on my knees, Layla

We were gathered around her. All five of us. The doctor held her front paw and injected her. I heard the words slip out of mom, who stood in dad’s arms a few feet away, “Her heart has stopped.”

Huge wails followed from all of us. For several hours later, we kept breaking down. I’m barely holding it together right now.

For many years, it was a recurring nightmare for me: I would wake up and she would be gone. But she fought everything that came her way – Paralysis. Weakening heart. Fungal infections. Tick infestations. Her will to live and eat was very strong. The last few months of her life were filled with visits to the doctor to ease her pain and give her a better life. One her giant heart was deserving of.

Her heart gave everyone love without any discrimination. Not a soul has anything else to say about her but that she enriched our lives. She changed several pre-conceived notions about dogs. She managed to envelop each of us in her never ending cycle of warmth and love.

I will miss her. Like I would miss a limb. She is a part of me and always will be. So that’s not it. Her calming demeanour that got me through several depressive spells will be missed. Sorely. I think she will haunt me for a long time to come. And I’m not sad about it. After all, she taught me how to love. She loved me unconditionally. She gave me reason to live when I felt lost and at brink of yet another abyss. She eased my worried mind with a few tail wags, licks and her reassuring presence. Her zen face, warm body and soft snores were home for me. 

How can I not miss her?

As we set her down in her grave, a part of me wanted to curl up with her there and tell her she made me a better person and I was eternally grateful. But chances are that she knew it all along. Chances are she’s still watching over me. Telling me I’m a fighter and I can beat anything life throws at me. Just like when she was with me.

Choose kindness

I have a 12-year-old dog. She is a gorgeous Labrador. Two years ago, she had a paralytic attack and lost movement in the back legs. Slowly with therapy and medication she fought her way back to walking. A little while ago, she had some trouble again; but if you see her sitting down or sleeping you will not be able to tell. She is one of the happiest, kindest, most loving souls I have ever met. Her tail is a whacking device she uses often when she meets strangers or loved ones.

We take short bathroom breaks outside the house a few times a day. Walks are not really possible because she has to be assisted even for short distances. We always sit down below the house for half-an-hour or so after our evening walk. The footpath is wide enough for both of us. The weather is usually pleasant and sitting down is a good unwinding session for me. She watches the vehicles go by, her street friends come visit us and we sit in silence. Occasionally, people stop by, pet her and talk to the dis-interested human sitting with her (mostly me or my dad).

Off late, I hate most of the people stopping by (with a vengeance). They offer their priceless nuggets of wisdom each time. I have forgotten how many times people found it necessary to tell me, “Your dog is in great pain. You must put her to sleep.” There is that extended stress on the must. Like a doctor advising the terminally ill. I don’t always have the time, patience or energy to explain to them that I would know this far sooner than they would. My dog, though very old, has a spirit to live that I cannot always explain in words. I usually snort and drag her back inside. “We do not need this negativity,” I tell her. I wonder if people offer my dog this wisdom. If they don’t maybe I should consider wearing a grumpier, more intimidating face.

Layla has never really complained about the pain she is in. But we as a family have always known and rushed to her aid. We have done doctor visits, stayed up odd hours and been there for her in the myriad of ways each of us is usually there for her. But it isn’t really about that. This whole unsolicited advice has gotten me thinking. How easily do we hand out advice to others? Their advice doesn’t make me question how I treat my dog because I know I care very, very much. (In fact I perhaps have a serious case of separation anxiety right now because I am leaving her for a few months.) But it hurts me. It hurts that we as a society don’t always think about the harm we might be causing. How little we have begun to think before making these well-meaning, concerned statements. Or that we are somehow experts in this matter and know that death is the only way. This is obviously not a one-off experience. I have friends who have been offered such advice too. We brush it off and move on. It seems to be a pattern especially with ageing, sick dogs. I don’t want to be crude and draw a comparison on when else would anyone offer such advice. But it upsets me.

So, I want to send out a message into the universe. Hoping that people would think before they callously utter these words. Without realising that the family is already well aware about the short life that dogs live. They are grappling with the sheer magnitude of such a loss. They are willing to do as much as possible to ease their dog’s pain. They are more uncomfortable seeing their dog in pain than anyone else. They are already doing the best they can. So if you ever encounter someone with an old dog: Let the dog shower love on you. Pet him/her. Whisper lovely things about treats and flowers. Leave a little happier.

Choose kindness.

Don’t. Talk. About. Euthanasia.