The lady with the lamp


On International Women’s Day, meet a doctor from Kashmir, whose healing profession has transformed into the charitable cause, thus making her an inspiration for the community battered with pain and pathos.

By Iqbal Zargar

Her pensive eyes reflect the lost world she silently carries with herself. Yet, the doctor who drives her jeep like a pro on some treacherous terrains of the valley wears a fighter’s attitude and a Samaritan’s humility. A survivor herself, she’s now helping others to survive the life’s tragic twists and turns.

She traces her beginning as a diligent schoolgirl fascinated by Florence Nightingale—“the lady with the lamp” and the founder of modern nursing. The legendary nurse’s sense of devotion to heal wounds of the world plagued with war and woes would amaze her.

She would be equally inspired by Mother Teresa—the Roman Catholic Nun, known for her charitable work. The girl would often imagine herself wearing the Saint’s shoes.

But Dr. Sharmeen Mushtaq Nizami never thought that her childhood idols would make her traverse their paths, years later, when a certain tragedy in her life would make her a lone parent, a solitary racer and a pleased philanthropist.

Before she would nurse wounds, like Florence, and do charitable works, like Teresa, Sharmeen was born and brought up in a common household in Srinagar. Her mother came from Batamaloo, while her father had his roots in Lahore.

“You can’t dodge pain in life. One has to face it for healing.”

The insurgency was yet to erupt in Kashmir when this girl would find company of her books inside her parent’s home at Rajbagh, Srinagar — where the first militancy strike would end up in the killing of the local lad, Aijaz Dar, in late eighties.

“Most of us were oblivious of our surroundings,” Dr Sharmeen recalls the days of yore. “The situation had thrown its own restricted routine. That’s when I picked up books on Florence and Teresa as my bedside reading.”

Then as war dragged on, this well-read girl quietly qualified common entrance test and was sent to Jammu by her father, to study medicine.

It was mid-nineties, and her hometown was still in throes of raging conflict.

“We had our alternate residence in Ramban,” she says. “This is where I saw my father and uncle driving jeeps, on hilly tracks. It would tempt me. I was drawn into jeeps.”

Years later, this passion would come handy and make her one of the first Kashmiri women driving her roaring machine through unruffled woods and wilderness in Kashmir.

“Life is a great teacher,” she says.

By 2000, she was married to a Jammu-based doctor. But seven years later, when the couple was happy parents of three-year-old son and seven-month-old daughter, a tragedy would shatter their small world. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

Despite being medics themselves, the life-consuming disease was getting out of their hands with each passing moment.

“It was a life-changing period for me,” Dr Sharmeen recalls the agonised period, with a sense of pain. “You simply wanted to move heaven and earth to see your loved one get back normal again. But no, Allah had something else store for me.”

Her husband died as a miserable man, a year after diagnosed with tumour.

That moment changed Sharmeen, who was now fully exposed to the real life cascading pain — the one her idol, Florence, had watched during the Crimean War, when many soldiers succumbed to their wounds despite she putting her best efforts to heal them.

After trauma, she gave wings to her passion.

Life after lifelessness became blank. It could’ve taken any turn, as she was young and self-sufficient. But she chose her kids, over almost everything.

During that traumatic period, she sought a momentary refuge in her solitude, and returned with a new understanding and meaning of her life.

She began brooding over her husband’s life-consuming disease, and how it drains out person — both emotionally and financially. She wanted to help others to deal with such diseases. But before that, the doctor had to heal thyself.

“And the only way to do that was to pass through the pain,” Dr. Sharmeen wells up. “We all carry a broken world with us. We all suffer. But I believe, the real healing comes from facing the pain with dignity.”

And that’s how, she says, healing happened to her. But, at times, given her growing up kids, it wasn’t easy.

Her children had gradually felt a void in their lives. And when they began questioning the perpetual absence of their father, Dr. Sharmeen decided to expose them to the harsh reality of their life.

“Not everyone is lucky to have father in this world,” she would tell them, fighting tears and aching heart. “And you’re one of them!”

She would, however, console her children, saying, “But you’ve me, as both your father as well as your mother!”

Putting up that brave face would often leave her numb. “But then I had to make them practical, than an emotional being like me,” she says. “Emotional person becomes vulnerable. I can’t let my children to become one.”

Alongside this personal battle, the doctor carried her professional duty with utmost grace. While treating her patients, she eventually thought of doing something bigger for them, especially for those who can’t effort the costly medical procedures.

That ‘bigger’ moment finally came when her alternate home address, Ramban witnessed a massive accident, somewhere during late 2000s. As a medical staff present on the ground, Dr Sharmeen saw scores of dead bodies of labourers—either littered on the highway, or down on the deep ravine.

“When the injured were rushed to the local hospital, I cried over their painful state,” she recalls. “It was heartbreaking. And when I couldn’t take it anymore, I cried: ‘Will you people help me collect some funds for bearing their emergency treatment costs.’ I took some cash from my pocket and exhorted others to contribute.”

Within an hour, she raised around Rs 25,000 as funds for poor patients. Her initiative that day saved many lives.

With that welfare initiative, ‘Florence’ had inadvertently followed ‘Teresa’. With some divine intervention, Dr. Sharmeen believes, the childhood inspiring story had become a real life plot for her.

Her idols influenced her life.

On heels of that highway tragedy, she met her doctor friend and discussed her idea of starting a medical welfare works for poor patients. The idea clicked. And soon, she was collecting funds for needy patients.

She first involved her own family members in charitable works, before approaching her friends and acquaintances for the noble cause.

Dr Sharmeen’s welfare work took a proper shape when she floated her own Al-Hajira Trust two years ago.

“Hajira means joy and that’s what we try to spread through our Trust,” Dr Sharmeen beams with happiness. “It feels so overwhelming when you touch someone’s life positively. One feels blessed to have been chosen by Allah for this noble cause.”

Her Trust goes for crowd-funding on social media and help the patients — especially those suffering from life-consuming diseases.

She rose above her trauma and followed her passion.

But when she’s not healing or helping people, she goes out on a long drive, to console her burdened heart. The same passion has now transformed her as an adventurous person.

As part of Kashmir Off Road, she goes for the sporting drives every now and then, with her tribe of travel aficionados. But the journey ahead, she reckons, is still a long one.

For now, Dr. Sharmeen is looking forward to bring war-widows and conflict-battered women of Kashmir under a single roof, for a therapeutic session.

“I believe, somehow, pain unites us all,” the doctor says. “So why not to come together to put that pain to the best use.”

But while that initiative might still take some time, the doctor has already announced her arrival as a healer and helper on the battered landscape of the valley. And that’s what makes her a superwoman for those, whose lives she’s touched, changed, saved.


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