Last week I was invited by the principal of Ela Sarawat School as the Chief Guest, for the farewell of their tenth class students. The biggest lesson I learnt, educated professionals like us are immensely privileged and we should be thankful for our education and the opportunities we have got. Moreover, be humble about it. My experience to the slum school and their function was most humbling. Children can be happy and can still be innovative in the most stifling environments, it is a miracle.
This school is located off the kachcha road at Malvani. Now if anyone remotely thinks India is a highly developed nation, a political and economic superpower, I request all to take a walk to this school for a reality test. Your stomach will churn, you will develop a lump in your throat and as you approach a brightly coloured school from the front, by the time your vehicle has moved towards the muddy road entrance, the entire school and Junior College resembles a rather posh slum.
This is the most depressing part. The school is run by a family trust which has the best colleges and school in the elite part of Bandra. But they seem least interested in giving money to this slum school. Guess the family treats this as their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project like many forced CSR projects run in India. As I recovered from being half covered by mud and tolerating the stench, I was asked to jump on a motorcycle to reach the venue which I was told was 10 minutes away. I was taken straight inside a slum. The roads were not continuous or well-laid. After every plot completed and next began, the middle portion was patched unevenly by rough concrete with no guarantee of balance. Goats and adults strayed in our path, carts were strewn in the middle and more stench from gutters which killed me bit by bit. It was a complete culture shock, to say the least. Mind you, I have covered stories in the gullies of slums in this city, but Malvani is inexplicable an experience.
We were made to sit in a duplex slum, the upholstery was rich for the environs. Later we were taken to a terrace, where there were no fans! An asbestos roof (killer) and the four sides open, completely surrounded by slums. One clarification, these slums are concrete, tin roof-shed types. Obviously there were peeping tots from surrounding neighbourhood. Finally the trustee, member of a rich Muslim family that owns numerous educational institutions made an appearance. Crisp white pants, silk shirt and white shoes, of course. Why did I seem surprised? Felt my eyebrows rise in horror. For the gentleman, this school is a compulsion and how they make it public! I cannot even remotely imagine a school with NO playground, but here was one. The principal T, is one beautiful, creative lady with a nerve of steel. She had whispered, this trustee, after much pleading had given the principal only Rs 2000/- for the school’s sports day. I was shocked beyond belief. Rs 2000 per child I would have believed, but as she told me with disbelief I seriously wanted to throw this man over the terrace. These kids will grow up into adults who have no medals or certificates to show their children and grand children. No extra cirricular activities which can hone their skills and help them discover their personalities, in the first place.
As I inquired about the school results, I got the best news which lifted my spirits. The school has a record of 98-99% results and same was the case for junior college. Imagine for a school that caters to may be the first generation learners, living in complete poverty–to come out of their deprivation and achieve these results is definitely a huge achievement. It is way above the 90+-100% high scores the rote learners, from rich families get after numerous tuitions and coaching. The school has zero extra curricular activities, music, other hobbies and the trustee has banned teaching or learning Music in this school. It was a like flash across my eyes, ‘how to make criminals’ that pervades such mentality.
Now in this environment yours truly was invited. If anyone knows anything about me, I love to break rules. I lived on the playground till I was forced out of injuries in my twenties; this was going to be one challenge for me to reach out to students from this school to motivate and inspire them. What can I tell someone who has never been on a ground? Hats off to T who simply has immense faith in me.
So the first rule I broke was to tell the trustee that he has a creative and a wonderful principal. Second rule I broke, to tell him sports IS important for the overall growth of children and third, to tell him it is amazing the students have given laudable results despite the impediments. I only got polite nods. And yes, he was felicitated and he simply walked out.
After his exit, it was like a heavy air was lifted from the terrace. Then there was a party. It may be the first time I have witnessed a farewell of this sort, where teachers put up a skit. Must give it to them, talented lot of teachers with minute observation, depicted the behaviour of their students. This was followed by another round of some beautiful singing. 3 talented teachers- lady sang, 1 played guitar, other the piano. Now the lady teacher comes from strict, conservative Muslim family. She is immensely gifted but is barred from singing (such tragedy). She loves it and is her passion, knowing her circumstances, the principal lets her sing in such events.
Around this time I heard the teachers dedicate a song to one Imran, who is no more. I was told he was given wrong medication and treatment by a hospital after he fell ill and died. I was aghast. Imagine the circumstances in which these kids are surviving. Lack of education, facilities and basic primary health. This was just 2 months before the board exams. This is the pathetic condition of our poor. A kid died only because of lack resources prevented the family from even getting the right medicine. The tribute brought tears to the eyes of the entire class. I am hopeful with this lot, after seeing young boys cry. By god, I held myself back, it was an absolutely low moment for all.
I was further informed, these adult teachers had never heard of the word, trek. And contrast it to our lives, I began to go on hikes and treks from fourth standard. The principal took them on a trek in Thane district and now they are excited to go on more.
I had to talk to motivate them to break rules, become fine adults and more so fun-loving. My concern was for the girl students. I was thrilled to hear from the students none of the girls wanted to marry soon. 1 wants to be a dancer, 1 a journalist and most had some dream. And I am eternally hopeful after listening to their dreams. They were happy, smiling, sang, danced and were not influenced by the forced choices expected from girls. Imagine an open terrace, kids from neighbouring slum terraces looking into, no great acoustics, no auditorium, no great food and still they had big dreams, were hopeful and believed in change. Wish Gandhi was alive to witness this.
The staff and principal are immensely creative. They lit a candle of knowledge, painted pots, cards with personalised touch to make us feel special. I can only say this is one school where teachers are surely doing a revolutionary job. They need more power and it only reminds us we take our privilege for granted.