Remembering Sabiha Hashmi: The teacher, the mentor

Sabiha Hashmi was born on November 8, 1949 into a family of Indian freedom fighters and writers. Married by the age of twenty, she had two sons who were classmates with my brother and I at the Modern School, Vasant Vihar, in Delhi, where Ms. Hashmi taught art to middle and high school students. Earlier this month she died at her home in Bengaluru at the young age of 72.

I first met Sabiha Hashmi when I entered Modern School in 4th grade, filled with restless energy and shame brought on by the awareness of my identity as a gay boy. She found something in me curious enough to let me into her classrooms, where she taught older students. It was as if Ms. Hashmi knew I was hurt inside, lost in and with myself, and felt lost to the world. And so she, who was in many ways an “other” herself (a divorced woman in a conservative nation, a single mother and an artist), found an opportunity to be there for another who was an oddity, one who one needed anchors and role models, who needed a sanctuary where inner fears could find artistic expression and who needed to feel safe from the harsh treatment children inflict on those who don’t belong.

When I was a teenager, Mrs Hashmi told me how her family fortunes changed from a place of comfort to abject poverty when her grandfather’s furniture business was ruined during the partition. She and her siblings experienced very hard days and the separation of their parents who had jobs that they had in different cities. Mrs. Hashmi also told me about her own marriage and how challenging life can be in a difficult relationship and even more challenging when children are involved. She taught me how to deal with difficulties and, through her own experiences, showed me the importance of making difficult decisions and persevering in the face of adversity. I kept seeing her take on the courage of a lion, although her build seemed more like that of a much smaller animal like a rabbit.

When I got to class XI, I decided to study science. At the behest of Ms. Hashmi, I introduced the school and my family to my desire to take graphic arts and screenprinting, as well as my science courses – something that was unprecedented at the time. Ms. Hashmi let me know that she would fight teachers who failed to appreciate my unique gifts as a student, and would therefore allow me significant time off from class while I fit art and music into my day. During those last two years of school, there were weeks when I wasn’t seen anywhere but Mrs. Hashmi’s art room or the music room, and there were nights when I got home well after dinner because I had another project to finish. My classmates envied her love for me and teased me endlessly about being an extension of her and her pet. That certainly wasn’t something I always appreciated, given that their love came with strict engagement rules, high expectations, and high standards.

Ms. Hashmi motivated me to climb rocks, a boy who was not at all athletic, saying that if I tried, she would let me show my cooking skills to the other students. I ended up climbing the rocks and then making french fries, and my classmates were suitably impressed. Mrs. Hashmi told me which books to borrow from the library – Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were two authors I would not have read at 15 if it hadn’t been for her. At her urging, I learned to read and write in Urdu and took classes in Hindi. She took me to theater performances and gallery openings; She would read my writing and poetry and reciprocate my efforts with reviews that made me strive to do better. In my end-of-school diary, where other teachers wrote flattery and congratulations, she wrote: “Jump into a well.” But the next morning she came with a great letter of recommendation, which I sent to the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, where in 1991 I became the only non-Maharashtra student accepted into the commercial arts program. I’ve always said that all the good things I said, thought, did or rightly saw I owe to Ms. Hashmi and Ms. Hashmi alone.

After I heard of Ms. Hashmi’s death and shared the news in a WhatsApp message to my mother, she replied and said, “You lost your guru.” How smart my mother is. As the youngest of my siblings, I was born into bodily comfort and a whole family. By opening my eyes to the world around me, Ms. Hashmi taught me to be the eyes of those who cannot see, the agitator for those who cannot defend themselves, and the voice for those who carry from generation to generation have been marginalized and therefore lack both vocabulary and expression to even verbalize or show their suffering. Despite being stoic and reserved, I saw a childlike grin appear at times – but only when what was being discussed passed from one place of honesty, thoughtfulness and consideration to the other.

Ms. Hashmi awakened humanity and empathy in me and many of my classmates and teachers who post online odes to her brilliance and incomparable personality. She modeled caring and caring, both for herself and for the other. She was selfless and powerful, of scanty means and rich vision, short of lofty ideals, a single mother of two with thousands of children who looked up to her as their guide and mentor. Ms Hashmi lives in the stories of our lives and is immortal for having blessed so many with her unparalleled grace, dignity and kind-hearted guidance.

Leave a Comment