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The International Writers Magazine
: Teaching the Lost Children with Pratham

My First Day
Reva Sharma
For an individual, born and brought up in London, whose previous experience in India had been limited to whirlwind tours of the North, with fleeting stops at the Taj Mahal and Punjab, an internship with Pratham in the slums of Mumbai was bound to be a ‘different’ and ‘new’ experience, to say the very least.

However, the extent to which my perception of India and India’s 'lost children' as I call them would metamorphosis and develops, even had me surprised. Furthermore, the effect this had on my thinking, my mindset and dare I say my soul was more profound than anything I could have imagined.

My first day working with Pratham saw me thrust straight into the action. Pratham aims to have every child in India literate. This phrase had been echoing in my head since the day I visited the official Pratham website for the first time. It was this phrase alone that had compelled me to volunteer with Pratham Mumbai. But other than this phrase what did I actually know about pratham? Barely anything.

My lack of knowledge struck me hard on my first day when instead of a gradual induction sifting through files and documents as I had been expecting, based on London work ethos (I soon realised that comparing London practices with Mumbai practices was a pointless task) I was teamed up with Ujwala, a feisty looking Maharashtran woman, whose tiny structure contrasted her fierce tongue and authoritative demeanour completely, this woman commanded respect. She herself was from a slum community and worked with pratham as a community teacher until she has been promoted to supervisor, she told me proudly.

I would be shadowing Ujwala, as she visited the railway platform classes. I quickly learned that these classes were held daily at set times throughout the Mumbai train network. A well organised set of teachers would teach the classes. A mat was laid on a space on the platform where least disruption would be caused and children were enticed to sit and join in reading and writing exercises, with the help of brightly coloured books provided by the teachers. The endeavour of these classes was to reach out to the platform children who worked long and tiring hours, making their little money by selling goods on the trains : magazines, newspapers, hair accessories, or simply by singing or begging. By giving them a chance to develop literacy skills, the children would be able to increase their job opportunities and break free from their poverty stricken and often danger ridden lives as platform children.

Getting the children to participate in the classes was no easy task, I was soon to discover. Although there were many children around, few were willing to give up 'selling time' to actually attend the class. What struck me about these children was their adult-like demeanour, looking at them they were small, under nourished and frail, but the words they spoke and the voices they spoke them with were tough and aggressive coupled with glazed eyes that seemed entirely inpenetratable.

I watched as Ujwala tried to persuade them to join the class,' we don't want to study, we are working' some replied, 'just one hour' Ujwala coaxed, 'I’ve got new books today' that seemed to do the trick, I saw a newspaper seller come closer, eager to call Ujwala's bluff. The sight of the shiny new books in Ujwala's hand was enough to create some interest with the boy and his companions.

Meanwhile, one little girl had quietly crept up and positioned herself neatly at the back corner of the mat. She sat cross legged, her hair braided into two neat plaits, laced with red ribbons, wearing a faded patterned dress; she sat staring at the ground. I sat next to her, sure that I would be of no help in the operation to round up the platform children. She glanced at my face, slowly moving her gaze around my features and then my clothes and hands as if she was slowly taking me in and processing me, I think I must have passed her initial test as soon her little mouth broke into a smile. I reciprocated with a smile, and pushing fears of my accented Hindi being incomprehensible aside I asked her what her name was, 'Sita' she replied in a soft voice. I asked her how old she was, 'ten' she replied, which surprised me, she did not look older than 7 or 8.

Sita told me about her family history, she was from Bihar, her father had passed away soon after she was born, her mother had brought her and her brother to Mumbai with an uncle, in an attempt to find work. Sita had been begging on the trains for as long as she could remember. I asked her if she liked studying, to which she nodded her head fiercely, she liked 'reading stories the best' she told me. Just as I was about to lean over to pick up a book of Sita's choice, we interrupted by a loud and coarse shout from across the platform, three men were walking towards us, their faces were angry, the main man who seemed to be directing the shouting, was dressed scruffily, his shirt was open exposing his broad chest, he was unshaven and had shoulder length wavy hair pulled into a tight knot. All three of the men were chewing tobacco and together created an intimidating persona. As they came closer they began to quicken their pace, my instincts told me to grab Sita and shield her from the pending danger, but as I glanced over to her I saw no fear in her eyes. ' Kya hua? ‘‘What happened?', she shouted in a soft but assertive voice.

I stared in amazement as this tiny girl crouched on the ground combated these men who must have seemed like giant-like aggressors from her perspective. The main man, completely taken aback by Sita's bold response, paused momentarily and then shouted ' What are you doing wasting your time? What are you going to get from studying? ‘
Sita avoided his threatening gaze and looked to mat, stroking its woven pattern. Dissatisfied with the lack of response, his attention shifted to me, ' Gori mem! ' he shouted, 'Are YOU going to feed her mother and brother? tell me this, what money can she earn from reading?' He said kicking a nursery rhyme book that was by his feet ' In this much time she could have made RS 50! Is reading going to feed her?'

The initial fear that was inside me had now dissolved and had been replaced with anger. Who was he to terrorise this child for trying to gain some skills and opportunities for herself? almost pre-emptively, Ujwala, who up until this point had remained completely unfazed by the entire outburst, stopped mid sentence with the book that she was reading with one of Sita's companions and looked at me sensing I was about to stand up and retaliate, and whispered 'Let barking dogs bark!' Deciding to take her advice, I picked up the book that had been kicked to the side and opened it, signalling to Sita that she should read it. For a while the men remained where they were, making random comments and trying to distract the children, but after a while they realised they were not going to get any retaliation and left. Later, I was told that the men had been part of a low level gang who force children like Sita to beg and demand money from them at the end of each day.

The next hour was spent in an enjoyable environment of reading, writing and laughter; I almost forget that we were not in a classroom but in the middle of a busy Mumbai rail station. The next class we attended was in Kurla a busy station that was full of 'working children.' After half an hour of coaxing, and persuasion a group of half a dozen children gathered on our mat ready to study. The group consisted of four boys and two girls, the boys were dressed in torn vests and shorts and the girls in equally ragged dresses. This time Ujwala prompted me to speak. The children were intrigued and perplexed at the sight of a newcomer into their private world, they clearly respected and more importantly trusted Ujwala and the class teacher Neeru fully, which was a commendable achievement. For the children, theirs was a world where adults were looked on with suspicion and contempt, many of these children had been in trouble with the law, and as a result viewed all adults as the enemy, on the other side of the coin many of these children had suffered abuse or were victims of crime from the crooks and thieves that operated here, again creating distrust for adults in their minds, few of them knew their parents again contributing to the lack of trust for adults. So, the position that ujwala held was coveted and clearly had been achieved with time, effort and patience.

I was nervous, 'how would these children perceive me? An outsider, who both looked different and sounded different.' To begin with the reaction was pure amusement, which I decided was a positive sign, as I introduced myself, and explained how I had come from London, I was greeted with discrete half smiles and giggles. I asked each child where they were from and soon realised they were more interested in where I was from, there was a simplistic joy in explaining to these 12 and 13 year olds that I was from far far away. The concept of 'London' and 'England' was completely alien to them. 'Is that further than Bihar?' one of the boys asked. 'You have to cross the sea in a plane to get there' I answered, they were both amused and suspicious, then the flow of questions about London began, I was happy to answer them, and felt pleased that the children had accepted me in their circle. When I told them I could barely write and read in Hindi, I was met with gasps and shocked looks, I broke the silence by asking akbar one of the smallest boys if he could teach me the basics of reading Hindi. Unsure if I was mocking him, he shyly shook his head, 'Please?' I asked, and with some prompting from Ujwala, Akbar picked up his book and placed his finger under each letter in an exaggeratedly slow manner and began to read 'ek -din' then he looked at me, 'its your turn' he said. Following my cue, I continued 'ek din -ek - la-...'and there I stopped, I was stuck I explained, I could not read the next letter, the class broke into peels of laughter, I laughed too.
I was having a truly great time.

© Reva Sharma December 2004

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