Remembering the Times of Darkness
Back in 1991 when militancy and the sentiment for freedom were at their highest peak in Kashmir, I took my Higher Secondary Part I (Class 11th) exams like many others of my generation amidst extreme tension and turbulence. My school, the Government Girls Higher Secondary School at Soura (situated a few blocks away from the majestic uninhabited house of the “Lion of Kashmir”) had been burnt down and many of our classes were held out in the open or in make-shift rooms which were never repaired until I passed out. I still remember the charred logs and wretched beams and the deadly cold winters. I also remember how my hands would freeze while writing for there was hardly any heating arrangement. Right before the exams, I was advised by a friend that there was “no need to study this time”. I ignored the advice and studied any way. I worked very hard and prepared myself for the exams. On the first day of the exams, when the question papers and answer sheets were distributed, one of the examiners came forward and said: taamath bihivu ithay paeth, pata bihiv raundas manz ikwaTa ‘Sit properly like this for now, in a little while you can make a circle together’ – words that resound in my memory in the same order even after literally two decades. My eyes almost popped out of my sockets when she instructed the girls to bring their notes and materials from their bags so that they could copy their answers in the answer sheets. A handsome young man was standing guard at the entrance to the examination hall holding a pistol. Tears fell from my eyes, perhaps not as much at the state of affairs that had unfolded but more because I could not bear the fact that the girls who barely managed to pass in the previous examinations might receive a higher score than I could possibly make without copying my answers. My friend turned to me, ‘You are stupid. Why don’t you do what others are doing?’ I kept quiet and wrote my answers reluctantly.
A couple years later, when I was pursuing my Bachelor’s degree at the Government Women’s College, M.A. Road (it took us five years instead of three to complete the degree, thanks to the “freedom” struggle), a similar incident took place which made an imprint in my memory all these years. While we were taking our exams, a supervising examiner came into the hall and read out answers for a bunch of questions; special privileges were offered to one girl sitting somewhere in the big hall. When I objected, I was threatened of expulsion. I had no choice but to mind my own business. A number of incidents happened in the following years where I stood at the forefront of opposition in the college premises confronting the principal at several occasions on issues that girls did not agree with and at which she would extend her “rustication” warnings to me as a ritual while the entire college would watch quietly. One of these warnings was based on my refusal to follow the dress code made mandatory by the “Daughters of the Millat”, who used to pay regular visits to the college to provide lectures on azaadi and shariyah. The college had to shut down on many occasions merely because some people from the next door men’s college – the famous S.P. College, were unhappy that girls were “not sacrificing enough”. Many hand grenades were hurled right outside the college entrance, at the girls on the pretext of not observing purdah, or for some unknown reasons. One of my friends got injured in her face while I managed to escape as I was still crossing the road. I found out many months later that one of my childhood friends too had been injured in the incident; she was paralyzed and remained indoors for several months.
It was during the second year of my college that I made up my mind to leave Kashmir for higher studies. I started writing letters to many colleges in the United Kingdom, sending them my writing samples and finally I received a response from the King’s College, London. I managed to raise some money for the application fees, got it converted to the British Pounds at the Grindlay’s Bank after much struggle explaining the reason to the high-browed bank staff and mail the application out. The next step was to get letters of recommendation from my English teacher and my college principal. While the English teacher was incapable of drafting a letter in correct English (so I had to actually write the letter for her), the principal got uncomfortable at the thought that how was it possible for a daughter of a not-so-affluent father to be able to send me to London – “What does your father do? How will you pay? Who will bear your expenses?”, she asked and I explained that I was applying for a scholarship and if I got it, it would cover my expenses. The Principal made various excuses until the deadline for submitting the letter was too close; finally she called me into her office and said: tse ma chey patah ba dimay tse letter? Kihin dimay na, gatsh kar kyah karakh ‘Do you think I will write a letter for you? I won’t, do what you want’.
The principal’s refusal to write a letter for me did break my heart but it did not break my resolve to further my educational pursuits.
© Sadaf Munshi. February 2, 2012.
(Note: This article was inspired by the “copying” controversy vis-a-vis our education minister for schools. Basically, since corruption is a part of our entire system, it has affected all of us in one way or the other. There is more to the story. I hope to be able to continue it.)