Friday, June 08, 2007

Savitri Devi..of the slums

At 12:00 p.m. everyday, if you happen to turn left from the Rahimnagar Chauraha, it is hard to miss the group of little children running towards a particular shanty. “Namaste Madam ji!” each one says as you descend the slope into the slum these sixty families call home. It is time for school at this “basti”, where no mother comes to drop off her little one, none of the students have school bags and often not even pencils and notebooks. But what they do have is an urge to sit in class.

Outside the school stands Savitri Devi and her daughters sixteen year old Mona and the fifteen year old Komal. Smiling and folding their hands in a namaste they invite visitors to participate in their classes. “We have thirty children present today,” says Savitri as her daughters begin class with a small prayer. The class is decorated with strings of tiny colourful flags. The cane chappar-walls have small paintings of the Mickey Mouse series character Goofy, posters with A,B,C and a crayon drawing of the Indian flag. While in a small cage lying in a corner of the room is a white rabbit called Chun-Mun. Pointing at a rusty old board hanging outside the door, Savitri says “Because of this board we have had visitors to our basti, people see the school and come to meet us”.

Savitri, though informally educated she has pledged to educate all the women and children in her basti. “I want my daughters to be able to put their problems and their issues forward, they should have the confidence to talk to anyone,” says this forty year old mother whose sons work for a caterer. Her daughters Komal and Mona are avid sports girls, “I used to watch Mona play hockey at Karamad girls and my elder sister Soni was a very good kabbadi player, no one could beat her!”, gushes Komal. Soni is now married with two children but Komal and Mona have taken it upon themselves to use hockey as a stepping stone towards a better life. “Look at Sania Mirza!” pitches in Mona who reads news from a second hand newspaper that her mother occasionally gets from the principal of a school opposite the basti. “I have always taught my children that knowledge never decreases by sharing, but I wish adults would understand that too”, says Savitri who has faced opposition from many of the residents at the basti regarding the school. “They threatened to break the roof and I challenged them to just try,” she remembers.

It is not uncommon to see some women attending these classes as well, Alisha Begum is having her name added to the list as she settles down to study. “When I wanted to have my eyes checked and get these spectacles, I had to take Savitri with me to the doctor. I felt shy because I couldn’t read the alphabets on the chart. Tomorrow I can get lost in the city because I can’t read directions and I don’t like to ask people to read for me!” she says as the women sitting around her concur. Savitri, who’s husband died due to a respiratory problem during last year’s monsoon remembers how each family spent three days without food sitting on the roofs of their shanties covering themselves with plastic sheets to protect themselves against the rain. “The day after my husband died, I had to distribute rations donated by an organization to everyone in this basti. It took all the strength I had in me, but I did it”, Savitri says.

Komal and Mona dream of being selected in their school hockey team, something they have strived for over three years “If I make it this time, I will get a six hundred rupee scholarship and then I can try out for the state team”, beams Komal. Mona is looking forward to wearing her very own hockey team kit and playing for her country is her only dream. Their mother wants them to learn “computer”, because it’s the call of the day. She seeks advice on her daughters futures and their “service” prospects from “kind visitors”.

Sitting at her little shop next to the school, where she has stocked two rupee notebooks and 50 paise pencils which her son bought from Aminabad, Savitri calls Mamta, an eight year old girl washing her hands after cooking food to attend school. The girl joins the class and Savitri looks around for other children that might be bunking class, “If they study and learn something, no one can take advantage of them,” she says before settling down to eat her only meal during the day.