The 24-year-old man sat facing his proud father, showing off his Malayalam and Sanskrit to the journalists who had stopped by.
He was Kashmiri, wore a skull cap and had a long beard. He was sitting in a madrasa in Darhal, a Jammu and Kashmir village that was part of the militant heartland until two years ago.
The young man, Muhammad Asif Mir, is a "hafiz", one who knows the Quran by heart. He runs a madrasa complex for 500 students together with his father Mohammed Qayyum Mir and 27-year-old sister Gulshan Fatima in the remote village.
Apart from regular academic subjects like mathematics, science and computer education, students will soon also learn about Hinduism and other religions.
"We don't want to make them just imams. Religious education in this region does not have farsightedness. Imams in mosque also need other education," said Asif Mir.
"If we let them study only religion they could become fundamentalists," he said, sitting near his sister who wore a black burqa with only her eyes visible. "There is a perception that madrasas produce terrorists. We want to produce good citizens."
Half the staff comprises of women. Girls have a separate madrasa and also study with boys in a school – an achievement that came after tough opposition from parents.
"When a boy goes to school, only he studies. When a girl goes to school, the whole world does," said Mohammed Qayyum Mir, 65, as election campaign vehicles passed outside blaring slogans.
But the state's politics, and the result of the upcoming elections, could decide whether this landmark experiment is to succeed in the state.
The Jamia Mohammadiya madrasa was inaugurated in 1978 by National Conference patriarch Sheikh Abdullah. That has meant that the government's financial aid was shut down during the tenure of the rival People's Democratic Party government headed by Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, said the elder Mir.
During the past two decades, the school often faced pressure from militants. Its girls were once beaten for not wearing veils.
Despite that and their funds shortage, Asif Mir and his family are plodding on. Mir has brought in teachers from Kerala. He studied there years ago – and learnt Malayalam by default, when the young Kashmiri man had to stay in a hostel of 120 students who knew nothing but Malayalam.
He soon leaped across other walls of fire as well – he terribly missed Kashmiri food but acquired a taste for south Indian food. Asif Mir then started an interesting study of comparative religions, and stunned a Hindu family on a train journey once by telling them the meaning of several shlokas from the Rig Veda.
The madrasa wants to bring in all of that multiculturalism as it innovates education.
"All this has started a movement," said Asif Mir. "Everyone here now wants to send their children to school."