Monday, June 9, 2008

The New Didi - Akanksha

In Lalubhai Compound, the road’s awash. Little boys wade out from the kerb, up to their shins, in the swirling floodwater, to play. They float paper boats, and waft a tatty carrier-bag to and fro, under the surface, to catch as much as they can, then they lift it clear, and shriek as it spouts and collapses over them. The monsoon’s not all bad news, it seems. They’re giddy with the novelty of their new game – the rains only started four days ago, no-one’s jaded yet, at least, no-one under ten - so I stifle curmudegeonly thoughts about pollution, and let boys be boys.
This isn’t the best-heeled end of Mumbai – in fact, it’s often not shod at all. Every turn takes us further and further off the tarmacked track: as each res we pass becomes progressively less des, the potholes in the road increase, until they’re in a majority, and the way forward is more broken cinders than made road. A goat kneels on all fours, to eat scraps from a stainless steel bowl. A white hen, and her half-grown chicks, fastidiously pick their way across the rubbish-silted path, trying to keep their feet dry. We’re in Mankhurd.
The tenements run into each other seamlessly, and the building I’m looking for has no name, only a number. The painted numerals aren’t Arabic, forcing me into the backseat, navigationally, as well as physically. We find it the way we find everything, by getting into the zone, and asking, and asking, and asking, until we narrow down the options to our ultimate goal. (I say we. I mean Monu. I loll about looking gormless, as always. I point out to Monu, that if I didn’t have him, I’d still be at the airport, bleating, “Can you tell me the way to Powai, please?” in ever shriller tones. He laughs, but it’s no joke.)
I’m after Room 112, on the first floor. Akanksha, the slum school. And here it is.
Akanksha” - Sanskrit for “wish” - is a non-profit-making organisation, founded in 1990, by a young student with a vision. The scheme aims to improve the lives of less privileged children, through education, helping to make their dreams come true. These children don’t dream of Disneyland Florida or a new iPod, they dream of having a flat with running water, or a job in a decent hotel. It makes you think.
The original recipe was simple: enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers, unused rooms in forgotten corners of buildings, and youngsters, wanting the chance of a new future. Simple, but not easy - the establishment always resists change. Akanksha only needed one person with the imagination to take a risk. They started with one class of fifteen pupils. The programme now reaches three thousand children of all ages, in nearly seventy schools and centres across Mumbai and neighbouring Pune. A young girl explains what Akanksha means to her: “If I will not be educated, people will not treat me well, and then my life will be a waste. I’ll get married to an alcoholic, and have babies, that’s my life without education.”
It’s difficult to say how big Room 112 is, here in Mankhurd, because there’s no furniture, apart from a tall cupboard in the far corner, and a plastic stool to one side of the blackboard. The floor’s covered with small people sitting, cross-legged, on straw mats, all wearing red t-shirts which say, “Be The Change.” I walk in, then walk straight out again, to leave my shoes nudging cosily up to their little flip-flops, outside the door.
At the front, Bhavika’s in control. Eighteen pairs of brown eyes follow her every move. We’re in the middle of doing What Makes Us Happy, as far as I can tell. There’s a big smiley face on the board, surrounded by suggestions from the floor. Apparently, what makes us happy, so far, is eating: there’s mango, and chocolate, and ice-cream – children wouldn’t be children, otherwise - but Bhavika wants us to think beyond our stomachs, now. When Rakesh says “It makes me happy, when I eat banana,” she agrees, but it doesn’t make the blackboard. Khajit – with some coaching – finally produces, “It makes me happy, when I play computer game.” The whole room erupts with admiration. I clap too.
You will notice we have a new didi, today,” says Bhavika. (I assume “didi” is “teacher” but I find out later that it means “big sister” which I instantly prefer to “Miss.”) I stand up, and tell them about myself. They think it’s very funny, that my baby boy is taller than me. It has to be said, he thinks it’s very funny, too. One by one, they stand up to return the compliment, the shy and the not-so-shy. You can spot mischief a mile off, even when all he says, is his name.
We do reading from flashcards, and sentence-building. We have to use “am” in a sentence, which is trickier than you'd think, because it's Hindi for "mango." Once over that hurdle, we get a bit stuck in the “I am a girl/I am a boy” groove, until someone says “I am a teacher,” which turns out to be witty as well as grammatical. “I am a doctor” brings the house down altogether.
We do personal descriptions, which takes less time than in a primary class back home. There’s not a single blonde hair or blue eye in the room (present company excepted), and, as they’re all below waist height, no-one fairly qualifies as “tall”. Even the girl/boy divide’s a matter of fact, not discretion. And then, I get sent to the back of the class. Not for being naughty. For Group Work.
Let me introduce you to my group. There’s Sultana, with looped plaits tied up with ribbons. She likes copying. Anand, with no front teeth for the time being. He’s very shy, but, it turns out, he’s a good speller. Kajal’s the tallest person in the class. She has dangly earrings and, a perfectionist, is over-fond of the eraser. She’s still drawing her fringe, for the twenty-seventh time, when everyone else is colouring in their t-shirt. And Khaja, who tells me he’s seven, but who’s very small. His self-portrait includes hopeful muscles on his arms, bulging Popeye kneecaps, and a rather fine frill of toes on each foot. Then he pencils in roller skates, for good measure. Open-topped ones, obviously. He demonstrates how they might work, until Bhavika tells him to sit down, from across the room. I would quite like to take Khaja home with me. I see that all four of them draw themselves with beaming smiles, and I’m glad.
Like diligent scholars, all round the world and back again, these children are longing to hear those three little words – “Right, pack away!” There’s a flurry of activity, then each child sits down again, in an enviably plasticine-limbed lotus, eyes closed, fingers and thumbs joined into little circles, palms turned up. We have a stretch and a think, and straighten our spines. Then we say,
“Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything.”
Bhavika-didi makes us do it again, because we were shouting, not praying. Everybody thanks everybody else, and the mat-monitors stash away the mats for tomorrow. Then they all scamper off, for a flip-flop free-for-all, on the landing. I tell Miss, that I used to sing the same poem, at school, when I was five, and she says, “Next time, you show us, we will sing.” So, that’s a plan, then.