At a time of unprecedented violence and unrest in parts of the world over the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims, a heartening example of communal harmony and respect for other faiths is being set in a nondescript gali at Sundar Nagari in East Delhi.

Three years ago, a madarasa for girls and the feisty nonagenarian woman who founded and ran it surmounting great odds, fell into tough times. The madarasa had to close down and Saleeman Bi was on the verge of destitution when a Christian charity, the St. Stephen’s Hospital community outreach programme, stepped in to help.

The hospital’s Community Health Centre which performs door-to-door medical check-ups on people living in the vicinity found Saleeman in a pitiable condition. She was suffering from bed sores, her hair was infested with lice and there was no one to take care of her. She was also depressed that her madarasa had to shut down. From that day Saleeman became “Amma” to the centre’s doctors and nurses.

Saleeman claims she is over 100 years old; the deep wrinkles that run across her forehead and the shrivelled skin on her face suggest that she could be right. “I started the madarasa 30 years ago because I wanted forgiveness for any sins I have committed. I believed this would help me attain heaven after I die,” says Saleeman. Her husband had pronounced talaq on her nearly 80 years ago. She then accompanied a relative to Delhi and has lived here ever since. Saleeman worked hard to earn a living selling milk and oil, taking up weaving and even agricultural work.

Using her savings and the money donated by local Congress leader Razia Begum of Turkman Gate she expanded her jhuggi to accommodate the class and hire a teacher. Asked how she achieved this impossible task despite starting the institution at a comparatively late age, Saleeman points her index finger upward: “It was my kismet. Allah helped me. When teachers quit, I was able to find others to replace them. I had Allah’s blessings.” For the next several years she managed to find means and ways to keep it running until her health failed her.

Dr. Amod Kumar who runs the St. Stephen’s CHC came as a saviour then. “We considered it our religious duty to take care of Amma who was our neighbour. But we can’t love our neighbour until we give adequate respect to our neighbour’s faith too,” says Dr. Amod, who is appalled by the lack of this same quality that the makers of the controversial film exhibited.

Today, nearly 30 girls between 10 and 14 years of age come to the madarasa daily to study Arabic, Urdu and the Quran in the afternoon. Their teacher, Ruksana, is well-qualified and has completed an Alim course. Ruksana is paid a salary of Rs.2,000 per month by St. Stephen’s.

Though her mind keeps tripping and her memory fails, the vast reserves of faith help Saleeman recall and recite prayers and devotional folk songs learnt in childhood. The blessings she whispers into the ears of visitors are much sought after here in Sundar Nagari. “I am not sad any more. I am enjoying my life now. I get much happiness listening to the children reciting the Quran,” she says.

While Amma’s health and her hygienic condition are monitored daily, her food comes from an old-age centre that the hospital runs nearby. “I came to work at this locality 20 years ago. Amma was known as a tough, resourceful woman then. We attempted to get local Muslim community leaders to take over the madarasa but there were differences of opinion and that plan fell through. Finally we decided to help,” says Dr. Amod.

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