Will they realise their dreams of a better future?
A young boy of 10, Anil, peeps into the hostel room of Harsh Gupta, delivering his laundered clothes one evening, and asks him tentatively, “Do you know how electricity is produced?” Harsh, a student at IIM Ahmedabad replies: “Yes! You want to know about it?” Anil nods eagerly. Harsh tells him electricity comes from water. When huge amounts of water fall from a height, electricity is produced. But Anil is unconvinced. “In my village whenever there are rains, we don't have electricity for days and weeks.”
Building a bond
A bond grows between the young boy and the MBA student. Anil confides one day why he ran away from his village in the hills of Uttaranchal. His father, a drunkard, would beat his mother and the children. Anil got the worst of it, and one day lifts his shirt to reveal a deep scar on his belly from one of these lashings. He works with his uncle in Ahmedabad, who gives him his meals, and beats him but less often. He asks Harsh wistfully about school, and wishes he could have studied and made something of his life.
In a course I teach annually at IIM Ahmedabad, I ask my MBA students to research and write the story of one impoverished person. Many MBA students write stories of children. Mahima Chugh visits 16-year-old Ganpat Thakur incarcerated in a remand home. The first thing that strikes her about the boy is his refusal to look away from his feet. Back in his village, a cascading feud over a game of cards ended with a murder by the men of Ganpat's family. The others went to jail, while under-age Ganpat was locked up in the remand home. Mahima describes the daily routine at the remand home, which “is not only monotonous but devoid of any physical or mental activity. The restriction of staying within a dormitory rules out outdoor games and the limited set of books and absence of any teaching or training programme ensures that the day passes by cooking, eating, sleeping and watching TV. Ganpat has found something better to do with his time. He has discovered books and the joy of reading. He has almost finished all the Gujarati books in the so called library”, not more than a single shelf.
Mudit Chandra draws an affectionate picture of cheeky Sachin, whom he meets in an after-school coaching centre for slum children run by an NGO called Arzoo. They initially bond with each other discussing the Indian cricket team. The little boy's idol is bowler Zaheer Khan. “Have you not seen how far back Dhoni stands when Zaheer is bowling? You cannot catch the balls by Zaheer if you stand too close to the wicket,” he tells Mudit expertly. Sachin's father, a carpenter, wastes his money on illicit liquor. The household is largely supported by his mother, who gets up at four in the morning and goes to help in unloading the trucks at the nearby sabzi-mandi. Sachin himself, after school and coaching, at four in the evening, sells vegetables which his mother brings back from the vegetable market.
Gayatri, 13 years old, cleans dishes in the homes of faculty in the IIM campus, and tends a one and a half year child. She nostalgically remembers her village in Orissa, where she went to school. But after a labour contractor recruited her father for construction work in IIM Ahmedabad, her schooling was interrupted; she was initially unable to enter a school in Ahmedabad because she lacked documents and did not know Gujarati. It was then that she began to work. Today, between work, she is able to go to a government school in its afternoon shift. Amruta Dhokale writes: Gayatri “does not like washing utensils in people's homes, but is doing it to support her family. She wants to complete her education and become a teacher when she grows up and make her parents proud of her.”
Ashish Jha meets 12-year-old Mujahid in Juhapara, a Muslim ghetto in Old Ahmedabad that swelled with victims of the 2002 carnage who were unable to return to their villages, in another after-school centre supported by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. Among the children there, he found Mujahid the brightest and most confident. “He wants to become a doctor and has a clear plan to it,” he writes. “Right now he is in the seventh. He will study hard for the 10th boards and then the 12th. Then he'll do great in college and get an MBBS. I was amazed by his conviction and self-belief. We briefly discussed God, suffering, curse and sins. He had a clear and precise definition for all.”
Ashish describes the communal divide, which has grown between children after 2002. The children were sharing jokes, and “there was a particular pattern that I found amusing. There were these jokes on a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian trapped on the 20th storey of a building on fire. They all jumped one after another and due to some funny reason the Hindu kept dying every time. I recalled listening to similar jokes in my childhood; only that the Muslim kept dying in them.” Ashish adds: “I asked if any of them has Hindu friends. All went silent. Only Mujahid quietly said, ‘Not any more'.”