‘Roots’ on Houseboat: A Dehradun-born teacher’s novel Kashmir classroom

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Amid desperate attempts of revamp and restructuring, a classroom has appeared on the waters of River Jhelum in Srinagar where a young woman is trying to impart the importance of Humanities, critical thinking and judicious learning among the valley’s young and receptive class.

By Hirra Azmat

It could be any classroom in the valley, except for the sight of mist floating over the violet hillock of Shankaracharya which comes into view from the window. Outside, sunlight sparkles on the muddy waters of Jhelum as an occasional bicycle rings its tinkling bell out on a leisurely stroll.

This is not your run-of-the-mill classroom, but a classroom in a large houseboat, the kind usually reserved for tourists.

Roots – a newly established first-of-the-kind learning group for humanity students, is a novel experiment.

Charity begins at home, and so the institution has been set up in a houseboat moored on the banks of River Jhelum to establish a relaxing atmosphere.

Mahi Burza

It is the brainchild of Mahi Burza – who is a product of St. Stephens and Azim Premji University, and a former teacher of Social Sciences at Akaash Institute, Srinagar.

She goads the students gently into a discussion on casteism: “Is there casteism in Kashmir?”

No, comes the reply in unison.

“Okay, do you feel pride when you say that he or she is a Bihari or there is some discriminatory attitude? Or when you say the word: Watal, Watij, Gujjar, Gamik te Shahriq?”

The startled students slowly open up and the discussion ends on a good note with one student getting up and saying, “My mother takes out a separate plate and cup for the servant, which is quite discriminatory. I will not let that happen again.”

Satisfied and happy over his remark, Mahi Burza, their teacher calls it the day.

In her early thirties, Mahi has a lean build, hair neatly tied in a bun. She sits in a corner of a low-roofed room of the boat with a wooden wall freshly painted.

As a young enthusiastic academic coach, Mahi founded the centre which also has a club for extra-curricular activities open to all students.

“In 2008,” she recalls her journey from a corporate employee to an experimental teacher, with a warm smile, “I passed out of St. Stephens college, Delhi and got recruited in a start-up by some entrepreneurs. My first job didn’t survive long as a recession hit that very year.”

Mahi’s journey landed her in various professions which neither satisfied her heart nor soul, until a chance encounter with young students brought her to the dream job.

“My second job tested my PR skills for a production house in Delhi and got paid well. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. I eventually left that job as well,” she continues.

This was followed by working in a photography gallery for another year where she worked as an assistant curator. This job met the same fate.

“I developed an aversion and quit,” recounts Mahi who is originally from Dehradun.

One day, out of the blue, she got a call from Shri Ram group, for which she had to market some educational products.

“I interacted with a lot of students during these workshops and felt an instant connect,” she says.

After the artifice of corporate communication, the engagement with students was a breath of fresh air. She longed for student life, and decided to pursue academics again.

In 2012, she wrote an exam for Azim Premji University, Bangalore, where she pursued her Master’s in Education.

Those two years shaped the teacher in her, who wanted the students to experience the same creative freedom that she felt in a classroom of students from diverse backgrounds.

“The course was different from the conventional B.Ed and M.Ed which I believe is quite non-engaging. We studied Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy of Education which redefined the teaching that I am doing now,” explains the young teacher who got married in 2014 and shifted to Kashmir.

Marriage brought with itself its own issues and obstacles.

After her daughter was born, she realized how discriminatory work spaces are. Dealing with a mother’s guilt and working full time became her daily struggles.

“I would have these moral dilemmas. I wanted to be in a place where I am not accountable to anyone and at the same time create a space which is exemplary in policies for other employees,” she says.

This triggered the idea for creating ‘Roots’ where education would be prioritized over rote learning. She chose to teach Humanities, as she is of the firm belief that it has the power to change worldviews and engage with the society differently.

“It makes you more aware of your social surroundings, look at the world differently and allows you to be more compassionate,” she says.

Mahi plans to include a linguistic lab, an audio-visual room and a café in the houseboat. Besides the classroom, the center also houses a student’s club, especially earmarked for workshops.

“This is going to be a place where I will conduct a lot of workshops and short-term courses on different things and interests,” she says.

“The Roots club is open to all students. As long as you are in a frame of learning, you are welcome.”

Drama and Creative Writing workshops are in the pipeline.

But after establishing her own way of learning engagement, what is her greatest challenge?

“Resist herd mentality,” she promptly replies.

She stresses that her aim is not to produce an assembly line of students, whose only interest in Humanities is to crack exams. Rather, she insists, “I am not going to compromise on quality and will ensure that my student develops a critical thinking without crushing his/her creative freedom.”

This is a daunting task, and she agrees it is not an easy mission to fulfil in a place where skepticism looms large.

“A lot of young people are already inquiring: Do boys study there? Do girls study there? What age group do you cater to? Where is it located? How cool is the place? Is it popular and unpopular? These are questions which I had hardly considered,” she laughs.

But, for a change, this houseboat in Srinagar is indeed hosting a different footfall, than the usual world-weary tourists on sabbatical-mode.

Meanwhile, as the sun sets on the river, we look over the itinerary of a workshop on storytelling to be held soon. Will it be a new academic dawn? Only time will tell.

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