The sun shines brightly over the bust of Dr Ambedkar which welcomes you to the cramped streets of the Ambedkar camp in the Jhilmil Industrial Area, Delhi.
My eyes are clicking a million shots ---- a group of children running barefoot, kids sitting on the road and playing carrom, women in full-veils going with plastic containers to fill water, girls sitting on the narrow handleless stairs, some of them holding books, men bathing in the jammed streets, kids sitting and playing pebble games, a hawker selling Hisab (Arithmetic) books on a long rod resting on his shoulders.
Jyoti –‘I dream of a study table of my own’
Jyoti and Kiran study from the only mobile phone in the family . (Picture credit: Simi Chakrabarti)
Jyoti, 17, closes her book with a pencil in between to mark the page, because she and her sister Kiran have to leave for work. Since their mother is suffering from Typhoid, both the sisters have to work as domestic helpers in the residential area of Vivek Vihar. Between them, they earn Rs 4000, which is the monthly income of their family comprising seven members. The girls are in a rush - they have 'Class 12th Pre-board exam' the very next day. Kiran quickly wraps up the household work, Jyoti gets up to give medicine to her mother and they leave.
Here I am in a colony where existence is a struggle and proper education a luxury.
Were the pandemic and the lockdowns not enough to wreck their lives that this online education came to further widen the gap between these children and the quality education they deserve? In a community where students were not able to buy their books; affording laptops, mobiles and stable internet connections is an unattainable dream. Online Education - What the government and the coaching industry claim to be the future of education, is right in front of me wearing its hopeless present.
“When we could not attend online classes for the first two months of the lockdown, our teacher called and suggested arranging a phone for at least two hours daily,” Kiran tells me. “We tried borrowing a phone and somehow managed for a couple of days. But when the exams started and we had no resources to study, our mother borrowed money from where she works and got us a phone. It has been 6-7 months and she is still paying instalments of that phone.”
Their father worked as a daily wage mason and is unemployed since the announcement of the lockdown. They haven’t paid their rent for the past 8 months and are living in the 25 guz room at the mercy of the generous landlord.
Jyoti bursts into tears as she recalls the lockdown days and those never-ending queues where they had to stand for the only meal of the day. “When we couldn’t afford food, how did they expect us to buy a phone?” she asks wistfully. (In the whole conversation, they never even mentioned a laptop. Truly, imagination sprouts from reality.)
Jyoti and her sister, Kiran, talk to their mother, who is under treatment for tuberculosis. (Picture credit: Simi Chakrabarti)
“Everything was delayed because of the pandemic - food, shelter, wages, studies…But we were asked to pay our fees on time. Why?” asks Kiran. In a family with a monthly income of 4000, Jyoti, Kiran and their brother had to borrow and pay 7500 fees to be able to give their board exams.
I see a momentary smile on their faces when I ask about their dreams for the future. With a sparkle in her hazel eyes, Kiran jumps up and returns with some drawings in her hand. I cannot stop but wonder at the sheer beauty of her paintings. With the very talented girl standing beside me, her fine sketches in my hand and her hapless reality in front of me, I cannot muster the courage to look into her eyes.
When I turn to Jyoti, she tells me, “I have two dreams (she giggles). One, I want to be a teacher…”
“And?” I ask. She pauses for a bit and says, “I wish to own a study table of my own. I wish I had a study room like the children in public schools have.” I am speechless.
Jyoti and Kiran take me to their friend Neha’s place. After returning from work, the three of them wind up their daily chores and then study together at night. Neha’s father died from prolonged illness a month before the lockdown. Her mother is a domestic helper who earns 6000 a month to feed her four daughters, Neha the eldest.
Neha: A book in one hand, a ladle in the other
When I saw Neha for the first time, she had a ladle spoon in one hand and a book in the other. She was preparing for her exam and her right hand was busy making Dalia for her youngest sister. Like other children in the areas, online education is out of the question for Neha and her sisters. After her father’s demise, she had to work as a domestic helper and ironed clothes for residents of Vivek Vihar. After borrowing money, their mother arranged a mobile which is used by one sister at a time. Meanwhile, the other three have to miss their classes.
Neha stands outside her one-bedroom house (Picture credit: Simi Chakrabarti)
The small, dingy room they live in was claustrophobic. In one corner was a gas stove, the kitchen so to speak. The other corner had a shabby almirah where their clothes were kept on one side and the books on the other. For studying, the girls sit on the single bed against the wall. The room has nothing but an old, dim bulb to help brighten up the books. A photograph of their father rests beside the only bulb in the room. “My father is not here anymore. But he has taught me to speak my mind, to be fearless and hardworking,” Neha told me. “I would give my best to make him proud one day.” Neha wants to pursue hotel management. "Someday, if I become a chef, I would buy a proper home for my mother. I would try my best to give my family a better life."She is well aware of the dearth of resources and opportunities for her and how expensive her dreams are, the ugly chasm between her dreams and her reality. A smile on her lips and the gleaming hope in her eyes is her answer to it.
As someone who grew up in a middle-class family, I have often had to hear things like: “See!!! It was an auto-rickshaw driver’s son who topped the exam”
But today, in front of these girls standing on this tightrope of dreams and reality, deserving and longing, hope and despair, it makes me wonder, why did that autowala’s son or daughter make an exception? Was he or she the only one in their locality who had the capability to excel? Weren’t there many Jyoti’s, Kiran’s and Neha’s waiting with immense potential to be unleashed? Don’t we lose them because even today education remains a luxury of a few? Does every poor kid have to be "extraordinary" (in the ugliest sense of the word) to be able to live a dignified life?
With too many questions and very few answers, I bid them goodbye.