R.Padmakumari is helping girls from poor families to study better and fine tune their practical skills

After 6 every evening, a small thatched room on the terrace of a building in Madhichiyam behind Anna bus stand sees an unusual congregation. More than two dozen young girls walk in with books. They sit on the floor encircling the teacher and complete their class or homework. They ask lots of questions and also share several personal problems without hesitation. When they leave for home by 8.30 p.m., they are chirpy and happy.

“Their grades in school,” smiles R.Padmakumari, “are improving.” As a member of the K.P.Janaki Amma Memorial Trust, she coordinates the activities of the tuition centre run by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in Madurai.

It is not easy to keep the girls in good humour. Daughters of cobblers, loaders, housemaids and dhobis, poverty pushes them away from education. “Most of these girls run the households when their mothers are away or augment the family income by doing some odd jobs in sweet or gift shops while their brothers continue to study,” says Padma.

She finds these girls intelligent and with a desire to learn. But circumstances often puts them through such torture that they tend to give up.

Padma’s heart wrenches each time she encounters a family trying to stop the daughter from going to school. There are about 500 girl children living in poverty in Anna Nagar, she says, but so far we have been able to bring 55 only.

When she started the centre two years ago getting even 10 girls was a task. “Parents were not interested in sending their daughters out in the evening,” she recounts,” and I went door-to-door trying to convince them and taking personal guarantee.”

Once the first batch of 12 came and enjoyed the luxury of sitting under a fan and light to grasp the lessons they were weak in, the others followed suit. Those who attend the tuition classes invariably leave with improved handwriting and better concentration level. Apart from science and math, they learn team work, concept building, problem solving and create strong friendships. Padma attributes much of the success to her two friends Geetha and Gnanasundari.

The girl children studying in Classes IV to IX come regularly now. “They have a place where they can be themselves, laugh, share and learn,” says Padma, whose problems are, however, far from over.

The onus of raising money through donations from friends and well wishers to be able to take in more girls and keep the tuition centre running, is on her.

An insurance agent, Padma joined AIDWA as a district office bearer in 2000 because people she knows or comes in contact with matter to her. “So many unknown peoples’ work is involved in the making of the saree I wear,” she says, always wondering how to give back something to the society from where she takes so much.

Her ideological conviction comes from her upbringing. Her father P.Ramachandran was a politburo member and her mother Janaki Ramachandran was the joint secretary of the first TN State Committee of AIDWA. From childhood, she watched her service-oriented parents work for the masses. Often she would accompany her mother from Chennai to Madurai on work but never thought the temple city would become her home one day where she would get the opportunity to do similar work.

Her marriage to trade unionist T.V.Chandrasekaran strengthened her resolve to work for women and their rights. She was also lucky to find a like-minded neighbour in S.Gnanam, who had joined AIDWA in 1980 and was her mother’s follower.

“She is my motivation,” says Padma about her friend. The tuition centre for the under-privileged girl children was Gnanam’s idea. Padma, has forgone promotions to continue staying in Madurai and helping the needy. “This work gives me more satisfaction than my career progression,” she says, adding, “It is nice to live in the hearts of the people.”

There are evenings when Padma finds some of her students looking dull. Invariably she finds out either their parents would have fought and left, or they didn’t eat anything during the day or were admonished by their teachers in school.

“These children need help and care and want someone to spend time with them,” says Padma, who spends more time counselling. Whenever a girl shows improvement in whatever she is doing, Padma is the first to encourage and reward her. “I buy them a water bottle or lunch box, a pack of pencils or colours or even a packet of biscuits and they get so excited.”

Their smiles and confidence today are Padma’s biggest rewards. The importance of education is not lost on these girls, she says, as many of them tell her that they are gaining courage, confidence and the strength to dream big.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)