What would you see if I asked you to imagine your mornings when you attended school? The cold water hitting your face, when you took that morning shower to wash away your sleep maybe? Does the image of your school bus, and the face of the conductor asking you to hasten up come to your mind? Probably the broken seats and the potholes on the road greet your imagination at this point. Having been woken up in the morning from the comforts of my bed is what I am reminded of, my sweet sleep broken and my dream of eating the biggest, most delicious chocolate cake in the world, disrupted.
But what would you do if your world was defined by an odd, 100 metre area, where you slept amidst filth, woke up to the pungent smell of rotting cloth and went to school with only an old fan greeting you? Mind you, that’s the best comfort any of these slum-dwellers get, in a small garbage-dump in a town called Basai. Here you’re greeted by the advances that technology has afforded human beings on one horizon, and the apathy of the larger system on the other. This little slum brings you to the grim reality just a few kilometres away from Gurgaon-the “mirror to India’s Growth(1)”.
Interning with Smile Foundation as a YES Fellow Designate, gave me the chance to visit this community and the school situated right in the middle of the slum. It isn’t the place that shocks you as much, but the grave irony which hits you in the face, the high-rises and magnificent college buildings under construction serving as a mocking background to the miseries tainting the slum, with its school and the children sitting outside reciting the varn-mala in unison.
But all’s not lost when you see these children earnestly trying to work hard to take a place in that fancy college. Talking to them makes you believe that there is hope in a world of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Their little, unclean hands skimming through the pages of their copies while they try to keep up with their teacher, the lines on their foreheads showing their grit to do better- it all points to them reclaiming their rights as equal citizens of this country, refusing to be treated as lesser citizens anymore.
“We too want the jobs, we too want to get out of here and lead a comfortable life where we’re not evicted from every place we decide to go at”, says Santosh, a 13 year old who studies at the Maxvision centre and dreams of becoming a doctor.
They’re taught everything, in a class that ranges from children who are 3 years old, to teens who are as old as 15. They are mainstreamed from this centre and sent to schools, either government or private, once they learn enough to cope with the kids who don’t have to worry about food, or who haven’t seen life through the same lens as them. The teachers and volunteers know that their jobs not only include teaching these kids the basics of science, hindi and math as we know it, but also inspiring these kids, giving them the assurance that their dreams will take flight on the wings of their hard-work.
“We’ve been here thirty years, me and my wife. We have grandchildren now, who go to this school. We send them here because we know that this takes them a step forward to a better, more secure life”, says Pawan who has a character that is larger than life, and a laugh that is infectious and lifts the spirit. This community of rag-pickers have made their own makeshift hutments at the back of the dump, their own refuge from the world.
“I draw very well, and I’m also the best in class when it comes to reciting the poem that was taught to us by the teacher a week back”, says Jonu, as he goes on to recite “Raja Ram Sipahi The” for the camera that I’m holding very determinately. His copy, which doubles up as his drawing pad, shows all the makings of a great artist of only 10 years of age, Chhota Bheem and its characters his clear muse.
As I leave to go back to ‘my side of the world’ with clean drinking water, IHOP openings at malls and Black Friday sales, I come to realise that it’s not the place or the resources that solely add up to what you become, but determination, grit and a reassuring smile that truly defines your dreams.
While having schools or centres of education which are accessible for every child in our 1.3 billion population is imperative, giving children from weaker sections similar footing as the children who grow up with more resources can only be achieved when teachers take it up to themselves to inspire these children to aim higher. But that is not it.
We need more support from the other side- “the privileged”, people like you and me, to make these children aware that they too can stand with their self-respect in place with the children of the privileged sections and actualise their dreams. That they too can grow up to be doctors, artists and teachers. This is the future that we should all work towards, spirits united and our time dedicated to our dream of “India shining”, as my high school sociology teacher would put it.