Delhi December 2015: It was a dusky, winter afternoon. The Capital City of India was reeling under the harmful effects of pollution with haze obstructing a clear view of the surroundings. Fuel guzzling SUV’s, buses and bikes were whizzing past around me adding misery to the already bleak environment.
Tagore’s Kabuli Wala and weaving a dream: I was reading a short story, though I don’t remember precisely but I think it was Kabuli Wala, written by the maestro Tagore to Sahana, Ravi, Ismile, Himu, Taniya and Imli.
A sudden harsh disruption: My train of thoughts was jolted by a loud, somewhat rude voice, “Hello Madam, what are you doing here again? Who will take your responsibility if something happened to you?”
I looked back and saw a pot bellied traffic policeman. He came marching towards me with anger and frustration dripping from his face. The seven street urchin fled by the time he came near me. He yelled,” Madam, how many times I have told you it’s not safe here! These kids are only interested in money. They won’t learn anything.” His statement made me nauseate with anger, an emotion I experienced for the first time. I took a deep breath and faked a gentle smile,”Sir, please don’t worry. I am teaching beneath this flyover just for a few days. I will rent a room soon and then teach them there.” After a lot of persuasion he left me alone. As he reached his designated traffic signal my eyes started itching. A tear rolled down. I silently told myself, “It must be Delhi’s pollution, cannot be tears. You are a fighter Jassi, cope with it.”
Delhi 2015: A robotic life without any purpose: I had a 1 room rented apartment in Delhi. The 400 sq. feet apartment, situated in the by lanes felt like a cave. Sun had disowned the place as the rays could not penetrate the canopy of concrete jungle. The cave was where I slept and saved myself from the beasts lurking in every nook and corner of the concrete jungle. My job helped me in paying the rent of my cave and saved me from starving myself to death.
I had fulfilled the necessities to keep myself alive but my mind was fed up with the monotony of my life. I felt like a hamster waking up every morning, going to work, returning to cave, feeding myself, going to sleep only to wake up and repeat the exact same sequence of events.
I wanted a purpose to live a meaningful life and I found a cause:
Delhi March2015: Two years back, one day while returning from office, I was walking towards my newly rented apartment; I saw an inhumane sight which got ingrained in my mind forever. I saw few street kids wading through a river barely able to keep their heads above water. The river was the dumping ground of all the toxic wastes and human excreta the city produced on a daily basis. The river had been dead for many years now and merely reduced to a drain. The kids were collecting plastic bottles and other recyclable materials. This sight is quite common here and nobody is affected by this despicable act. (Represental picture I didn’t have camera at that time, but this picture closely resembles to what I saw).
A shocking sight: The initial shock gave way to feeling of despair and it felt my heart was throbbing with pain. That’s the first time I saw Sahana, Ravi, Ismile, Suvo, Hina, Taniya and Imli, a group of seven street kids, I called them SRISHTI. They lived nearby, beneath flyover.
Fight with inner-self: A battle was raging between my mental faculties and my emotional feelings. My heart was asking me to stop there, jump aside from the race that I was running and do something for the kids in front of me. My mind was advising me to take the easy way out and get lost in the crowd. No one would notice anything but my conscience did not let me walk away. I told myself if you change nothing, nothing will change.
A Dark Black World: I waited for the kids to come out from the river. I could not guess the color of their clothes or their complexion. They were covered in thick black layer of mud. The smell made it impossible to stand near them. For a split second I thought of turning away but my conscience stopped me.
I wanted to face it: The kids looked skeptical and baffled when I asked them to meet me after washing themselves. I handed them some bucks because I could not come up with anything else to convince them to meet me. After half an hour they came back. Now I could see their faces, their smiles showing their broken teeth, their cuts, their bruises from the thrashing, their torn clothes, the fissures in their heel because slippers is least of your problems when you are uncertain of your next meal. The smell had still not gone as if it imbibed in the flesh of those kids. I could also smell country made liquor from their breaths.
Initial hesitation of Children and their parents: The kids were suspicious and from the corner of my eye I could see that their parents were watching me. I started talking with them. It was the first and most difficult step for me. I had to become friends with them to break their silence and disbelief. This initial discussion took lot of my courage.
Children opened up to tell their traumatic stories: I came to know that they were originally from Rajasthan. Their parents had to migrate from their villages in search of better employment opportunities. The kids were forced to work to help in the earnings of their families and to escape from starvation. They scavenged the river and other dumping sites nearby for reusable items and sold them in the evening. They were given a strong shot of country made liquor by their parents to numb their senses when they went into the river for scavenging. They told me how people beat them up for no rhyme or reason; they were like punching bags for people to vent out their frustrations. They were made addicted to smack and liquor at such a tender age. They were sexually abused. They were also forced to vacate the flyover whenever the authorities wanted.
What children wanted: The kids wanted to go to school. They wanted to learn and experience the world outside the flyover. I patiently listened to them for hours. It seemed as if the dormant volcanoes were made active.
But I was afraid: I felt pity, anger, despair and a varied range of emotions all at once. I could not fathom the amount of pain and humiliation these kids had to suffer every day. Some of them had already been married off at the age of 7 or 8. The problems were endless and I could not come up with any instant solution. My heart felt as if it was crushed by tones of weight. I was afraid of taking any long term responsibilities.
Friends discouraged me: I discussed the issue with my friends. My friends discouraged me by saying that it was not safe for me. My colleagues told me that it was not my duty. I did not owe anything to the kids. People should not give birth to children when they cannot afford to up bring them. It was the duty of the State to look into their welfare. After all the State is running so many schemes for the well-being of the down trodden. Then there was the constant pressure from the traffic police.
I decided to start small: But, I was sure I would not turn my back to those kids so I decided to start small. I assured the kids that every day I would come and teach them for an hour in the evening. I started teaching them beneath the flyover. I went door to door and convince parents to educate the kids to send them to school. Sometime they agreed, sometime they shut their door on my face. But I did not lose hope. I enrolled them to school. I bought them school dress and all required stationaries. I did everything I could do to send them to school. I was bearing all expenses alone and I used to run out of money. But I did not give up.
After an year: After an year of efforts, now I am teaching more than 150 kids in the slum area.
Scaling up: As number of kids has grown up I needed more teachers. Now there are 3 dedicated salaried teachers who are there to help kids outside school, every day.
Sports and self-defense: 7 kids from my school has enrolled for sports at Thyagraj stadium in Delhi, It provides training of different sports to children less den 15 years of age.
Remote Teaching: I also teach online to that remote tribal school in West Bengal. I am sure I will set up similar infrastructure here also.
Special Care for specially abled children: We are also trying our best to help specially abled children so that they can continue study like all other kids: