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 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.