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Notes from a school on the hill

  • Sabbah Haji runs a school in the Himalayan village of Breswana in Jammu and Kashmir’s Doda district
  • She has kept the school running every day these past two months despite government orders

Students of Haji Public School.
Students of Haji Public School.

The good news is, Fanny is pregnant and due next month. “She seems quite miffed I didn’t tell you over the phone," Sabbah Haji texts me just after I finish chatting with her on the phone.

The 37-year-old founder of the family-run Haji Public School, in the distant Himalayan village of Breswana in Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) Doda district, has the most brilliant long-running story—think James Herriotmeets Heidi over cups of nunchai (salted tea)—on the Indian internet.

“When our internet is killed, don’t forget we’re still in here." Haji tweeted this on 3 August, two days before the government disabled the internet in Kashmir and announced it was withdrawing the special status of J&K, guaranteed for more than 65 years under Article 370 of the Constitution. “That’s when things will go from bad to worse. And that’s when we’ll need some spine from the outside," she said in another tweet. I called her on Day 70 to tell her we hadn’t forgotten Kashmir.

Haji has since lost hope that the rest of the country cares about what’s happening in Kashmir. Her own civil disobedience, she says, has been to keep the school running every day these past two months despite government orders.

The prolific social media user and wickedly humorous “Chenab ki churail", as her Twitter bio describes her, brings alive her picture-book village school, located, as she is fond of saying, in the “most beautiful corner of the world", with photographs, videos and stories on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.

Fanny is one of the stars in this real-life fairy tale. Last December, Haji’s brown cocker spaniel was attacked by a leopard and we were there, courtesy a series of 23 tweets. “She let me close and, good Lord. So much blood. Slashed deep across back of neck, deep bite and claw marks in throat, several deep lacerations across body. This is now around 11 PM. No one at home but me. Also, this is the village and it’s winter where everyone is fast asleep by 9 PM. Or homes are far enough away that cannot call anyone," Haji tweeted from her handle, @imsabbah.

The next morning the villagers came early to help. Fanny got 50 stitches and was driven to the vet, hours away. Miraculously, she survived.

But this story really began when Haji returned to her village after living in Dubai and Bengaluru and realized that decades of militancy and state apathy had ensured that nearly two generations of villagers had no education.

In 2009, she set up a school in two rooms of her home. Ten years later, Haji Public School’s more than 500 students come from 30-plus surrounding villages. The children who joined kindergarten when the school first started will appear for the class X board examinations this year.

By 2011, Haji was shooting pictures on a digital camera and posting them online every time she visited Jammu—a whole day’s travel by road, foot and horseback—in the hope that it would encourage volunteers to apply to work at the school. By the end of 2016, she finally had internet at home.

That day, 5 August, was a normal school day. “All the teachers were restless. The children could sense it. They had been keyed up from home when they discovered the internet and phones were dead that morning," she says.

Kashmir is no stranger to internet shutdowns—there have been 176 over the past eight years, including a six-month blackout in 2016, according to online tracker Internet Shutdowns—but something was different this time, and Haji knew that when she tweeted in early August.

“I kept going down to the TV room to check what announcement was going to be made at 11. And then it came. That fictional stuff you hear about a roar in your ears and noise in your brain? It’s not made up after all.... And then we had to go back to class and the kids could sense something was very wrong. So they were tense as well.... Now Day 70, and it’s still incredible."

Up at 7,500ft, the machinations of the real world don’t penetrate the lives of the apolitical villagers who are focused, as always, on the business of survival. It’s that time of year when the harvest season is done, the vegetables and fruits have been sun-dried and preserved for the months to come, and the final grass harvest was completed a couple of weeks ago.

“During this time, the villagers walk with sickles on their belts and heavy loads of hay and corn on their back as they zigzag the mountains. It’s 40 days of very hard work, and the village does this turn-by-turn for every household. There are big mountains of corn and hay everywhere that should last till March-April for animal fodder." says Haji. “It’s that time of year I would post a picture of my 40-kilo aunt carrying a 30kg load on her back."

Haji lost a foal to a snakebite three days ago, and, yes, a leopard with three cubs was spotted sauntering behind the school at sunset. It’s time to keep an eye on the dogs again.

Stories from the Kashmir valley—well-attended protests, empty ATMs, the proliferation of army checkpoints that are a throwback to the 1990s and the daily humiliations and tragedies of friends and family—do get through. Haji has a lot of questions for the rest of India: “Where are the elected leaders? Why is everyone in jail, in solitary, not allowed to talk? What are you celebrating? Why isn’t the press doing its job? What kind of farce is ongoing?"

“In Breswana, a man died but all his family was outside and nobody could be contacted. So we buried a man without any family," says Haji. “I am sure that’s happening across Kashmir."

Haji says she doesn’t want to impose her politics on the families who send their children to her school but she can’t help but see the irony in teaching the civil disobedience movement in her history class. The teachers have been writing open letters to media organizations. “And since we have been telling the kids how we are writing to all and sundry, they have constructed a big post box at school—red and black and beautiful—where they will post letters and then it will be on us to forward them. So far they want to write to Malala (Yousafzai), Greta (Thunberg) and the UN, apart from all the teachers who have been here," says Haji. “We have a Kashmir shutdown counter running at school."

Meanwhile, final exams start the day after we speak. Baby Sports Day (kindergarten to class II) and Junior Sports Day (classes III to V) were held last month. “I wish you could see the pictures. And they can’t run in straight lines, good grief. The number of track disqualifications," says Haji. “House Gondor won. Champions were Mufeeda Banoo, Yasir Mushtaq, Aqib Lohar, Nadiya Batt. Abdul Kariem of class IV got a special prize for best sportsmanship when he went around consoling sobbing kids who didn’t pass the baton cleanly in the relay races."

The sheep and goats have just come back down from the higher meadows where they grazed all summer, Haji texts me a couple of days after our conversation. “The dogs are going crazy. The herd will now settle on one field for a few days—their bodies warm up the earth and their manure is super good for the next sowing." They’ll move through all the fields in the coming weeks before the winter crop of wheat is planted.

Last December, Haji shared some pictures of Fanny undergoing treatment on Facebook with this caption: “Fanny’s game face. Bring it. Learn from Fanny, be like Fanny. Fanny is a champion. Please send in prayers BECAUSE THEY WORK." One year later, it’s Kashmir that needs our prayers and a miracle.

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