Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Bhavika-didi’s a better man than I am. We’re doing opposites, today, and she says, “Is Didi fat, or is Didi thin?” Catch me putting my own head on that particular chopping-block. She prompts the children with mime, blowing out her cheeks and stomping among the rows, like an elephant. The kids shout, “Fat!” Fat!” and squeal with delight. Bhavika-didi obviously has a healthier self-image than mine.
Self-esteem’s on the curriculum, here at Akanksha, though, and Didi’s getting tough. Just as, with our happy triggers, there came a point when mangoes weren’t allowed to make us happy, and we had to find something a little more cherché (like coming to Akanksha, or reading a book), so, now, the same upgrade, with compliments. Although Didi at first accepts, “Raja has a nice t-shirt,” or “Ashish has nice hair,” she now says we’re done with nice this and nice that, “I want something more about Ashish inside.” “Ashish is a good friend,” says Kajal, with a little prompting. And we’re off. Within ten minutes, we’re all good friends, but I like to think that that doesn’t stop our having nice hair, as well.
We also do what makes us unhappy (not-smiley face on board) – which turns up fascinating results. “I don’t like it when Didi shouts.” “I don’t like it if my friend cries.” “I don’t like it when my mother beats me.” The Child Protection Agency’d have a field day here. It’s a lot more direct and honest, somehow, a small clip round the ear. If a child’s fidgeting, Bhavika gets hold of his arm, swivels him back into position, taps him on the head, and restores order, all without breaking the flow of her odd and even numbers explanation. In the UK, a pupil can whip a knife out of his pocket, and the only sanction we have for protection, is to threaten to keep him in at playtime. Show me the youth, brandishing a broken bottle in your face, who will be cowed into submission at the prospect of doing lines after school... If Bhavika were unkind, the kids would simply stop coming. As it is, sending them away is her most powerful weapon: they’ll do anything, to keep their place on the frayed mats in Room 112. I think again, of the UK education system, where consistent truancy is punished by exclusion – how did we get that crazy?
Education’s not free, in India, but, as with all retail, there’s a whole spectrum on offer, depending on your purse. You can buy a sari for less than £2, down at D-Mart, or you can spend hundreds of pounds on a designer number, at Sakhi, in Santa Cruz. So with education. For those of more slender means, there’s education to be had at Rs50 a month (60p). Or, for something a little more up-market, you can pay Rs1,500 a month (nearly £20). Before you think, that’s less than you spend on cigarettes/wine/Indian takeway in a week, do a Mr Micawber balance-sheet, and consider that the average income, here in Mumbai, is between three and five thousand rupees a month (£50-£60).
For your child to be eligible for the Akanksha scheme, he or she has to attend state school, your monthly family income has to be Rs5,000, and you have to have a ration card. To get a ration card, you have to be resident in Mumbai for five years. (Our own Monu thus has a ration card, entitling him to buy basic commodities at a special price, “All cheap – flour, sugar, rice – all, all cheap.” Since making a cup of tea stretches the outside edges of his culinary capabilities, though, he’s not best placed for this to be much of a financial advantage.) The point of the salary and the ration card, by way of guarantee, is all about stability. Every day, another thousand people come to live in Mumbai, to discover, like the thousand from yesterday, that the streets are paved with rubble and excrement, not gold. Akanksha needs to make best use of its resources, by supporting children who will come week after week. It’s not a holiday club. In the state school, there’s no limit to class size, the average being around sixty pupils. There’s little in the way of interaction – child-centred learning hasn’t reached the sub-continent yet - so Akanksha, with classes of no more than twenty-five, hopes to furnish the missing personal touch. They can’t cover the whole curriculum, in two and a half hours a day - which is why attendance at state school is also necessary - but they undertake the TLC side of things.
In Mumbai, there are more children, needing educating, than there are centres of education, so the school premises work a double shift, starting early morning (as early as 6 a.m.!) and finishing in the evening. Some areas have a primary shift, then secondary, others, vice versa. My Mankhurd class loses Akash, because he’s changed state school – he was doing Akanksha in the morning, and ordinary school in the afternoon, but his new school runs in the morning, so he’s been reallocated an afternoon Akanksha session elsewhere. I’m very sad, he was extremely cute, but who am I to stand in the way of a boy’s education?

At the end of every session, there are parents waiting at the door, to complain to Bhavika about their wayward offspring, not wanting to go to state school in the afternoon. Bhavika keeps them behind, after the rest have thanked God for the world so sweet, etc., and been dismissed. She gives the recalcitrant scholars a right old drubbing, first in English, then in machine-gun Hindi, for good measure. Didi doesn’t believe in sitting on the fence.
Today, I'm in charge of “Head, shoulders, knees and toes,” which we do with more enthusiasm than melody, it has to be said. (I’m glad to note, that I can still touch my toes, without involving the knee-joint, although my padmaasana’s still lop-sided.) In a bold move, I try to get the children to miss out the word “head,” just doing the action instead, but it creates primordial chaos in about fourteen seconds. It does wonders for my playground cred, though – when Bhavika asks everyone to sit in a circle, Khaja and Sultana pat the floor next to them, invitingly, tugging at my dupatta, “Didididididididididi...” I don’t need asking twice.
When we do our thinking and stretching, at pack-up time, Bhavika says, “How does a mountain stand? That way we’ll always stand. Like a mountain.” We go back out into the world, with straight spines.