The author hands over the narrative to children and watches an adventure unfold.
Despite the 45-degree heat, children arrive early every morning, excited and raring to go. Those in my group are mixed; from Std. VI, VII and VIII. There are a few from Std. V as well. They rush into the building, run down the veranda and slide into the big room that is our classroom. The smooth kota stone floors make sliding fun. Our room has no furniture; there is nothing on the floor. Only a blackboard and a white board on one wall. That means that one long slide can take you from the door, all the way to the far wall where the windows are.
“Today you are going to work on a story,” I announce as soon as everyone has settled down into their small groups. “Work on a story? What is that?” someone wants to know. We have two stories — one about the tortoise and the hare and other about the lion and the mouse. These stories are in pieces. Literally! Each sentence is printed on a strip of chart paper. The first task is to arrange all the sentences strips in the right sequence. Each story has 12 to 15 sentences.
Children attack the task with gusto. Most of the small groups are sitting in a circle. Sentences are spread out in the circle between them. There is a buzz as the sentences are read out loud. You can also hear some arguments about the sequencing. Some groups find this task harder than others. Nikita, Divya and Priya are really struggling. Somehow the sentences about the tortoise and the hare are not quite falling into the right order. Roshan’s group, on the other hand, is moving rapidly ahead. Some are putting the sentences in the right sequence and the others are just holding the sentences down so that they don’t fly away. Truly a group effort.
“You have more work to do on your story,” I say to the groups that have set their stories straight. I hand them another 10 chart paper strips. But these are blank. Now each group must write sentences on these blank strips and insert them in the story wherever they feel it is appropriate. Diyva, Nikita and Priya are still having a hard time. They are worried that everyone has moved ahead. The sound of the buzz has changed and so has the level of discussion and argument. Another 15 minutes later, most groups are done. By this time, Priya and team have managed to get their original story arranged in the right way.
By turn, someone from each group reads out the newly expanded story — which is the old story with the inserted new sentences. Unaccustomed to this kind of activity, there is a palpable mixture of pride and shyness in the voice of the readers.
I am worried about Poonam. She is small, frail looking and tries to make herself inconspicuous. Her face is serious. In class I have rarely seen her smile or talk to anyone. But her friends seem to take good care of her. She sits close to this group of girls. They shield her from others and often let her copy from their work. If she is asked a question, they answer for her. One day when I was trying to get to know her more, I coaxed her to read. I think she can just about decode letters. But she is in Std. V.
After a little break, we move to our next activity. This time the activity is not for small groups; children have to write on their own. The sheet has four pictures that tell a story. There are three lines under each picture. Everyone has to write some sentences describing each picture in such a way that it all becomes a story. Most children jump right into this task as well.
I can see Piyush fidgeting. He doesn’t really like writing, all these discussions and working in groups. Like Poonam, Piyush too is small in size and has a very serious face. He does not like talking or writing but he loves reading. He has figured out that I have story books in my bag. So as soon as he comes into the class every day, he always finds me. In a soft whisper, he says, “Please can I have a story book to read?” It is our unspoken secret deal. No matter what is happening in the class, I silently hand him a story book every day. His quiet presence often goes unnoticed. In the happy chaos and commotion of the class, he finds himself a quiet spot in the room to read. Even though he has just gone to Std. VI, he still likes to read out aloud. As he reads, his index finger moves from word to word. I watch him from afar. I see that he reads everything — from cover to cover. And his head does not come up until the last word is done.
Little Tulsi has come to the camp today with her cousin Sandeep. She is only in Std. II. I give her some crayons to colour while the others are writing. She gets down to work on the pictures. Seeing her, some others who were having a hard time writing come and get crayons. The story sheet gets fuller and fuller — some with words and sentences, some with colours and some with both. I am surprised at how much even the middle-school children are enjoying colouring. I notice that Poonam has left her secure circle of friends and come in search of crayons.
The stories vary in size, shape and substance. Some narratives flow smoothly around the pictures. Some have a nice twist. Many are hard to read. Un-obstructed by punctuation, words have spilled on the paper in a breathless hurry. There is not much attention to spelling or syntax. But everyone has a story.
As the class leaves, I hand out little star stickers. A prize for good effort. Stars for the stars. Children put out their books, notebooks, name tags, pencil boxes for me to stick the star on. Almost all the children have gone to their next class. I suddenly feel a tug on my hand. I look down. There is Poonam. All by herself. She wants a star too. I put a star on her hand. I am rewarded by a big bright smile — like a beautiful rainbow after a dark thunder shower..