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GOING NATIVE

In love with Kashmir

Carmen Hussain has revelled in the challenges and wonders that India has offered

Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Making a difference Carmen Hussain at the German School

A chicken sacrifice disoriented Carmen Hussain but did not scare her off. A German national, living in the countryside near Cologne, she was used to wide open spaces, silence and planting spinach to the lunar calendar. When she first found herself in Pahar Gunj in 1985, she did not think that she would stay on. But more than twenty years later, Carmen is still in Delhi. She speaks of her life with a delightful frankness sprinkling her narration with sparkling anecdotes.

Aged 26, she decided that she had to “go far”, wherever that might be. On hearing a speech, by Pir Vilayat Khan, her friend and she decided to move to India for six months to join the Hope Foundation in Nizamuddin. On the flight here, the two girls spotted a man. It was the first Indian man, they’d seen. Less than a year later, Carmen was married to him — Aslam Hussain, an artiste from Kashmir.

Married without the knowledge of either family, Carmen says that just as her parents expected her Indian husband to be a turban wearing, elephant riding moustached man, his family expected her to be a bikini-clad blonde, he’d found at the Goa beach. “It was the same story on either side, only different versions,” she says good naturedly.

She recounts the first time she met her in laws in Kashmir, “We walked to the house. And were suddenly told to stop. Then they brought a chicken to the doorstep and cut its neck and smeared the blood on the floor. (she shuts her eyes at the memory) I did not know what was happening. I thought it was voodoo. My husband had never told me this. He laughed and said, ‘Be happy it’s not a goat’. The house was dark at first. Suddenly, my father-in-law put on the lights and we saw 100 people waiting to greet the newly married couple.”

Old daadis were soon checking her pulse and scrutinising her teeth. Christened ‘Kamini’, she had to play the idle and bashful bride for 20 days. A hardened worker, she was glad that on her second visit her family did not treat her like a bride. Instead they asked her to help with the carpentry.

While her work at the Hope Project initially was a bit of everything, she soon became its director. With her short hair and tall, lean frame, students thought she was a man. The girls would scurry to cover their heads with a purdah, when she entered. Having learnt carpentry in Germany, she first went about repairing the school, be it the desks or the windows. She would travel to Old Delhi by DTC bus undeterred by having her pockets cut.

The Hope Project expanded under her, but Carmen knew from the start, “I’d to slowly withdraw from the project. I wanted it to be an Indian project.” Through concerted fund-raising she and her team succeeded in building a school for the children. While still on the Board, she is now more a visionary than an administrator.

Having worked at the German School, since 1991, Carmen is at present the head of the kindergarten and pre-school there. She is also involved with work in Kashmir, adding, “I love Kashmir. My heart is there.”

NANDINI NAIR

( nandini@thehindu.co.in)

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