It is a small building at the end of a muddy road. The driver swears aloud and screeches the bus to a halt. “The engines are gone.” he says to no one in particular. I give him a quick glance and get down lest he begins to tell me where the engines went.
I almost step on a frog, which leaps away. The rains have stopped for now, but the season hasn’t. The earth is still wet and soon my blue shoes are no longer blue.
We are a hoard of college girls, each sporting a badge. National Service Scheme, it says. Our hair is tied up properly, our dresses neat and ironed. Some of us even wear shades of eye liners and lipsticks. We have our pretty purses and we have our prettier prides.
We walk towards the building. It is two storied and whitewashed. The name, written in huge block letters, is visible from a distance. “Rajkiya Ucch Madhyamik Vidyalaya, Kalyanpura”
I hear a few phone cameras click and the story is already viral. When we reach the school gates- only half of us- for the other half aren’t done with their selfies yet. When we reach the school gates, our contrast realities stare into our faces. There are girls in blue and white kurta pyjamas, with a white dupatta pinned up sheepishly. There are boys with patched trousers held up with old belts and shirts hanging out loose on their frail bodies.
A few of them giggle. Little boys run away and stare at us from a distance as if we’re something freshly out of a museum. One among them runs past me as his friend looks on. When I smile at him, he grins back. I move on but notice from the corner of my eye as he nudges his friend and whispers something.
“What is it?” I ask him out of curiosity.
He shakes his head furiously, smiles and runs away. The other runs behind him. Naturally, this leaves me puzzled. I look at myself. No ketchup on my shirt. What was it about, then?
I leave it for later and begin to look around. A few girls from my college are already shaking hands with children and talking to them. At the far end are a stack of unwashed plates. A teacher tells me the mid day meal is just over. Most children will leave now. “They come for food, these kids”, he says.
A tap beside the utensils is leaking; a stream is already flowing. A little girl dares her friend to jump over it, who does and lands in the puddle. They laugh. I laugh too. They catch my eye and scurry away like rabbits in the forest.
From a college in the heart of the city, we have travelled to this small dilapidated wayside school building. I feel strangely out of place. It is like a forbidden, sacred area, not to be polluted by the city and the city-dwellers. We bear the service scheme logo and thus must bear the responsibility too. Our teacher instructs us in English, for some reason. She tells us to teach them, to educate them. She tells us to tell them to wash their hands before a meal. “Don’t give them a sanitizer, instead”, she says.
We disperse. Girls look around fending and fighting over kids they want to teach. “I’ll teach that girl with short hair.” “I’ll teach you, cute plump boy!” It indeed is endearing to look at their dedication. By the time I stop observing them; I realize I have no student left to teach. Each child has a fairy teacher now!
I climb up to the second floor and there in a class labeled 4B. Three of the classroom walls are grotesquely dirty with pale colors painted haphazardly. These are walls of solid stone with only one tiny hole of a window to let the air pass. The fourth wall is contrastingly covered with maps and cartoons and oversized flowers. It is a contrasts to the three walls and also to the children who stare at it. Looking around, I find the boy who grinned at me. And his friend, of course. I wave at them. This time, though, they don’t giggle but wave back. I am encouraged to walk over to them. It’s a small desk they sit on. Generously, they stick together to make room for me! It’s good to be back on a school desk. No sooner have we adjusted ourselves when the friend says, “Didi, ek baar hatna”
My face falls. Something’s wrong with me, after all. I get up with a heavy heart. The friend comes out too. He asks me to go inside and I do as I am told. He then sits on my left. I am sitting between the two boys now. I tell him it was a smart thing to do and he blushes!
They are still eyeing me uncertainly. I ask them, “What happened?”
They look at each other.
‘What? You can tell me.”
“I like your hair.”
This is when I remember that I have a stream of hair, highlighted golden.
“Do you want the color too?” I joke with him.
“Heroes have this color in their hair.” he answers innocently
This is my cue. “You will be a hero if you study well. You can color your hair any way you like then.”
Both the boys look at each other and pass a secret message with their eyes. They seem to agree on something and they turn to me. “Teach us fast, then.”
“I must know your names first! I cannot call you hero just yet, can I?”
They pipe up together.
“So let’s study fast!”
For the next hour, they show me their books and copies which hardly justify their names. The copies are four pages held scarcely together. The books are torn, scribbled on, eaten on, and played with. As to what is inside, the boys have no clue.
I start with the basics again-letter formation, numbers and names. It is a difficult task. Much more difficult than it seems. To start with, I can find biases seeped in their text and my education refuses to ignore them. A picture on the first page is titled, “What makes a good boy?” Another picture answers it saying, “Good habits, good manners and love for one’s country make a good boy.”
“What makes a good girl?” is nowhere to be seen.
Apart from the text, it is immensely difficult to keep a boy’s interest going. Somewhere mid way, Ajay would stop studying and would rather look at the parrot outside. Force would never work because they are used to that method.
I did scold him at one point.
“How are you going to study for your exams, then?”
Sehdev has the truth ready. “We don’t need to study. We can cheat.”
“No! You cannot. And you never should. Don’t your teachers scold you?
“No. they write the questions on the board and ask us to write the answers form the book.”
This is my saturation point. I realize there’s no point teaching them from their textbooks. I, thus, take out a few story books I had put in at the last moment.
Stories can always do wonders. And that is not less true here. Ajay and Sehdev flip though the pages open mouthed. At one point, they exclaim when they look at an elephant inside a pot. They point at pictures of giraffes and kangaroos and ask me what they are. I tell them the story of the Three Little Pigs as they bombard me with questions about what happened to the wolf.
We are interrupted by a short woman with wispy hair.
“Hindi ma’am” Ajay whispers.
She comes over to us, looks down at the illustrated books we’re reading and lets out a snort.
“Stories won’t help them. Teach them the truth.” she tells me.
When she leaves to inspect the others, Ajay tells me how she hit Sehdev with a stick the other day and his brave friend never let out a yelp. Sehdev grins proudly and all I can do is pat his head.
It is time for us to leave now. I give them the books.
“Can you write our names on the books?”
I write their names in block letters on the first page.
“Will you come tomorrow also?”
I tell them I will.
Back at home, I look around for more books. I also buy them each a new box of pencils.
The next day, when I give them their gifts, they don’t seem so happy.
“What’s the matter? Did you not like it?”
“How much do I pay?”
This is when all of their lifestyle comes crashing at me. They are poor children of poor parents. Money is important for them. It is not the means, like for most of us. For them, money is the mostly the end. It is a monetary life where things start and end with money. There are no gifts. There are no freebies. Everything comes with a cost for them.
I tell them it’s a gift so that they can study and write better.
These thoughts are still occupying me when Ajay pulls out a crumpled up page from a math notebook with grids, and hands it over to me.
“This is for you”, he says.
I open the page to find a rough sketch filled in amateur colors. It is a drawing of three pigs and a book. I laugh out loud because it is such a smart thing to draw. He tells me his elder brother drew it for him.
“And what did you get me?” I ask Sehdev.
He presents me with a guava.
On the way back to college, I eat the guava and look at school children waving at us from their classroom windows and corridors. Some girls have got us wild flowers which grow on the roadside. It is a heartwarming gesture in return of what little we have done.
The next time I go, I carry a laptop and a few power point presentations to introduce them to something new. I am afraid that the introduction to technology might have an adverse effect on their simple minds.
I am surprised to find out though, that most children; especially boys know what a laptop or you tube or a pen drive is. One of them goes so far as to ask me, “Didi aapke paas Salman Khan ki picture hai kya?” I tell him I do have Andaaz Apna Apna.
“Main apni pen drive le aaunga kal. Aap mujhe de dena.” I have nothing to say to him but, “Okay”.
Other boys ask me if I have Hollywood movies and car games and I vehemently lie about the Hollywood movies and deny the car games!
Although, when it comes to teaching them what a water cycle is, through PPTs, they are just as interested. They are eager to learn, agree that their books are not adequate enough and cite examples of water conservation from their own homes.It surprises me how much learning is important for them. For one, no one cares what class I am teaching. They all gather around and listen to whatever it is I am talking about-whether it be puberty or air pollution. It surprises me more that they are very much aware of basic things like water conservation and covered food. It almost embarrassed me when I went up to talk to a woman in the Basti. Their houses, though made up of tarpaulin and tin sheets, are much cleaner. Their water, though scarce is clean. Even if their infants are uncovered and roam about, their children go to school and come rushing back to take care of a herd of goats.
Ajay and Sehdev are long lost friends. It was last winter. I hope they read the book. Someone who went to school a few weeks back told me, two boys were flaunting a book. I hope those are my boys. I dream they have learnt to read and have written their own stories. I can imagine them as boys inside a story- probably Swami and Mani. It is a story in a dream which is in a story. Too complex? Or too simple?