It was a typical love story that started when a Ganderbal man met a Swiss tourist in South India. 15 years later, the ‘foreign bride’ is showing the way by running a talent-harnessing school in the outskirts of Srinagar.
Traditional Kashmiri gold earrings that dangle from her ears do not betray her Angreez image. Despite appearing as a serious and strict principal, she warmly greets visitors inside her school, situated 10km away from Srinagar’s Soura in Daghpora.
With a typical Kashmiri salutation, “Asalamuailkum! Theek chew?” she invites people in.
Her tough schoolmaster’s image effortlessly hides her love story that changed her from a travelling Swiss woman to a perfect Kashmiri bride who also brought home the concept of skill based learning.
The love story started in South India at the turn of the twentieth century, when Christina ran into Manzoor, then working as a salesman.
As they started seeing each other, they fell in a love where language became a barrier between Ganderbal’s letter-less lad and the learned Swiss citizen. With time, as the difference faded away, they decided to marry each other.
It was 2002, when Christina became Zamrooda and came to Daghpora as a Swiss daughter-in-law.
Back home in Switzerland, she was groomed as a strong, independent and outspoken woman. But the culture she was married into, expected her to be humble and ‘obedient’.
It didn’t take her too much time to adapt with the new culture driven by strong family institutions and societal value. She tried to imbibe every fabric and aspect of Kashmir. Being married into the Kashmiri society taught her to be “extra-loving”.
But in Daghpora, Christina became a household gossip. She would step out early, to the surprise of her neighbours, to enjoy the morning breeze, in a village lacking even the basic amenities.
“Simply too much talk was going on,” remembers her husband Manzoor, taking a stroll with her in the school campus. “Some of my relatives and neighbours would alarm me that she would eventually leave me.” Some even remarked that Manzoor married Christina for money.
Despite being the talk of the town, Zamrooda would mind her own business and eventually started picking up the threads of the new culture. Years of lived experience taught her many things and left her confused on many counts. She is yet to understand the co-existence of extravagance in marriages and poor education system in the society.
But for the pricipal, who prefers Haakh over Wazwaan, the existing schooling which gives minimal exposure to children was the most disturbing. She wanted to change it.
Coming from Switzerland where the education system is very diverse as enshrined by its constitution, Zamrooda realized how the violence is used to control Kashmir-based schools.
“It absolutely appalled me to realize how they’re spoon-fed and lack proper counseling,” she says, taking a casual walk around the campus.
“The existing schooling system impairs the student judgment about their life goals.” Instead, she surmised, they’re driven to follow the path that others have been walking.
In other words, she was reading a dangerous pattern plaguing the J&K’s education system, controlled by vast network of private schools and tuition syndicate, known to charge exuberant fees from students. Her immediate worry was that the system was only producing the “herd-mentality” in the name of race and grades.
When all these observations began bothering her, she shared her idea of setting up her own school with her husband. Her long-awaited moment came in 2012, when her Syed Sahib Memorial School was established with a belief to teach children as per their special abilities and talents.
“It was a conscious decision on my part to impart real life skills to students and harness them according to their core competence areas,” says Zamrooda, who doesn’t mind if her only son ends up a carpenter as per his skill. “But given the space we’re operating, we must strike a balance between the existing system and innovation.” She reckons that the real life skills (like carpentry, masonry) are equally important for society to grow as the grades to qualify other professions.
Her personal involvement has already started showing results. Today around 200 students—most of whom have already bagged medals and prizes in different school competitions—are enrolled in her school. To ensure their proper grooming, Zamrooda herself tutors her teachers the art of dealing with kids.
“I make them understand the need to be taught through the language of love and not the stick,” she says, as the autumn sun from her office window shines on her face. “I believe children should learn by experiencing things rather than by dictation.”
She is equally active outside her campus. She works for the welfare of the local women in Daghpora, making them understand the importance of skill in their lives. “I want more and more people to join hands with me,” she says, “for helping the society to grow in the positive direction.”
Fifteen years after arriving in Daghpora as a daughter-in-law, Zamrooda has become an example of the strong family institution and sense of belongingness to one’s family.
“For all this,” she says, “I’m proud how my husband and I’ve been able to withstand every societal stereotype and create a family.” The journey, she says, is worth it.
All photos have been taken by Afshan Rashid.