The narrow streets of Srinagar have ample space to hold many stories – stories of people who have lived and walked there. Time seems to change its flow in a kocha – a local word to describe these gullies.
In one such kocha in Fateh Kadal of Srinagar, specifically the Ashai kocha – named after a famous educationist and philanthropist in the region – stands a very old-looking school building. The place is not very far from the Pathar Mosque built in the 17th century by Noor Jehan. The area is clearly rich in history.
Once known to be the first girls secondary school in Srinagar, the old school building is now in a dilapidated state. Right in front of it is the new school building, yet, the old building has a strong character, maybe because it holds memories that the old manager of the property can share with the visitors.
In 2017, there were talks about conservation and restoration of this building by the department of education along with another special building – Moulana Anwar Shah Kashmiri’s house. He was one of the most renowned Islamic scholars and activists in the region. The common fact between the building of his residential house and the school building is that they are symbolic of a time that brings feelings of hope and pride to any Kashmiri.
The school building in Ashai kocha itself is known to be constructed in the mid-19th century. Today, if we step inside the gates of this building, one of the first things that we’d notice is a board on the wall at the entrance of the school building that says, “May 1992. The quality of a nation depends upon the quality of its citizens, the quality of its citizens depends not exclusively but in critical measure, upon the quality of their education. The quality of their education depends more than any other factor upon the quality of the teachers.”
These are words that are often used in teachers’ manuals and teacher-training reports. It is also something that most of us would have thought at least once in life – education has been and still is a part of the solution of many societal problems. Somehow the old walls of this school carry it with more grace than the pages of a report, they seem almost as if reminding, protesting even in its frail state.
The ground floor of the school is composed of classrooms that now have broken benches and chairs. The winding narrow stairs that bring us to the upper levels are hardly trustable. The uppermost level is the most beautiful because of its many little windows and loft-like feel. The floor of this room is tilted at an odd angle now but the roof still has some hand- painted paper mache embellishments. Apparently, this top floor used to be a good hiding spot for famous political leaders and activists once upon a time. The manager of the property tells some of the building’s secrets with excitement in his eyes. It is him who now adds a speck of life to this school.
Just outside the school building, rather, attached to it, is a small room that is still in use. It is where the manager of the property lives. The room is almost like a small cave, cold and dark, but according to him, it’s perfect. He brings with him his own stories too, his father’s stories – about how he always cared for others, about how he passed on his bike to the younger generation, about how he knew that he is going to die a few days beforehand, about how he died, in an unexpected way while going to a shop from the injuries that he received in the crossfire of a gunfight between militants and the police on that road, how he was an undeclared but genuine believer who always wished well of others till his last breath.
The manager of the property holds tears along with these memories, like many Kashmiris who have faced loss and pain. The personal and the general stories mix and live alongside each other, interwoven, just like the buildings in a kocha. The schools in Kashmir have now been shut for three years. First due to the circumstances after the reading down of Article 370 and then due to the pandemic. The frequent internet blackouts and lack of support for good quality education and teachers have made it even more difficult to continue schooling online. The old school near the Pathar mosque still stands opposite its equally empty modern version, waiting for children, teachers, and some occasional visitors who stumble across its open doors.
Text by Ovee Thorat, photos by Nipun Prabhakar