Agra: In the communally restive western UP, an open-air classroom held every evening in a temple premises in Agra’s Sanjay Nagar colony offers hope and also a rare insight into the state’s composite culture. Here, 18-year-old Pooja Kushwaha, who is herself a normal class XII student by the day, turns into teacher at dusk giving away lessons to 35 Muslim kids in the area lessons in Quran.
With her impeccable accent tiding over difficult Arabic phonology involving a variety of syllables and emphatic consonants, the young girl looks every inch of the teacher the parents of these kids always wanted. Reshma Begum, mother of 5-year-old Alisha, one of Pooja’s students, said, “It is a marvel to see her achieve this rare distinction at so young age. I am very pleased to have her as my kid’s teacher. Her religion is the last thing on my mind or any other parents’ that I know.”
So, how did she learn Arabic? “Many years ago, there was another woman of mixed faith in our locality. Born to a Muslim father and Hindu mother, Sangeeta Begum used to hold Quran classes for the kids. I got interested in the holy book and started attending her classes. I made steady progress and was ahead of all others in her class soon,” Pooja told TOI.
Due to some personal problem, Sangeeta Begum had to discontinue her classes and she requested Pooja to keep alive this legacy. “She taught me an important tenant of Islam, that there is no point in gaining knowledge if you don’t share it,” the 18-year-old says with maturity that belies her age.
She does it all for free. “Most of the kids are from poor families. They do not have money to offer and I do not want it either,” she says. As the number of kids in her classes grew, her house became too small to accommodate all the kids. Elders in the locality readily offered her premises of a temple for her classes.
Pooja’s elder sister Nandini, who is a graduate, also imparts local kids lessons in Hindi and Bhagwat Gita. “These children are from underprivileged backgrounds and giving education to them is a great work. I am proud of my daughters,” their mother Rani Kushwaha says.
And how does the general Muslim population in the area see her efforts? One of the city’s most prominent Muslim leaders, 70-year-old Haji Jamiluddin Qureshi, who chairs many social forums and has a school of his own, says, “It’s heartening to know that such rare examples of communal harmony exist in our city. A teacher is a teacher and her religion doesn’t matter as long as she knows the holy scripture well. Moreover, Islam doesn’t object to anybody learning Arabic or reading Quran.”