By Shruti Sonal:
Amidst all the news of let downs, shortcomings and heartbreaks, we sometimes come across stories about people who are doing their bit to make this world a better place. I happened to capture such a story happening in the campus of my college, Kirori Mal College in Delhi University. In a conversation with Shreyash Dwivedi and Deepak Mishra, two of the many volunteers of ‘Sahyog’, the story of the initiative unfolded. Started two years ago, it aims to brighten the lives of the children living in surrounding slum areas through the torch of education. As we sat down in the lawn, surrounded by kids sincerely doing their tasks, Shreyash began to talk about how the idea emerged.
“It was an idea that clicked in my senior Aditya Chowdhary’s mind. He used to interact with the non-teaching staff members of our college a lot. One day one of them told him that he couldn’t afford the fees of his child and thus, didn’t send him to school. Aditya offered to teach him in the evenings after classes. Then one day, the thought struck him that there must be many more kids in the areas surrounding the college who’re missing out on education due to certain circumstances. He gathered his friends and roamed around the area, picking out kids who used to sell stickers in the market or Prasad at temples. As more and more kids came, the initiative was registered under the National Service Scheme (NSS). The group talked to the Sarpanch of the nearby Chandrawal area and organized seminars in order to attract more kids to the initiative. Thus, the team of ‘Sahyog’ grew.”
He joined a month later, in October 2013. With a gleaming face, he described the joy he felt while sitting with the kids. Smiling he said, “In those two hours of masti and padhai, the tensions of the entire day melted away. I loved the experience so much that I kept coming back.”
Before I turned to Deepak, we were interrupted by a child, who hugged them and shared that he had scored well in his previous test. I pulled out a candy from my bag which he gladly took and ran away to play football. Dreamy-eyed, Deepak began to describe his first experience of teaching.
“I still remember the first day. Aditya bhaiya briefed me about the strict 6 day a week schedule. I sat down as I had no student allotted. Luckily, just then I got to know that one volunteer was absent. Thus, I got to teach his kid. I felt different that day. Having come to Delhi to pursue my education, I hadn’t yet experienced a day which felt complete to me. That day as I headed back to my room, I felt as if I had dedicated a part of my day to do something for others.”
I could feel the sense of happiness they got from initiative, yet I was curious about the challenges they would have faced while convincing parents to send their children to be taught by them. Shreyash thought for a while before he spoke, “Their first concern is safety. It’s a hard task convincing them that they’ll be safe in our custody. Secondly, due to the background they come from, they often fail to understand the importance of education or activities like dance and art. Most of them engage their children in jobs like selling small articles in order to contribute to the family income. Some of them are sent to government schools, where their main concern is just passing exams. The onus was on us to win their trust. Once we gained a foothold in Chandrawal by talking to the Sarpanch and other elderly, the belief cemented. Soon parents became less reluctant.“
With a hint of pride in his voice, he added, “Now, some of them come on their own to leave their children with us. Almost every household in the area recognizes our faces.”
Seeing the success of ‘Sahyog’, I asked him whether such initiatives should be made compulsory in all colleges. He strongly rejected the idea, for making it compulsory would “take away the very essence of service”. Deepak pitched in, emphasizing that “it is not merely a task, but a responsibility. The kids and their parents choose to trust us with a part of their days. If an individual is even 1% unsure of taking up this responsibility, he should not.”
I enquired about the loopholes in government education that they came across while teaching. Sighing, Deepak said, “We often come across kids of say class 8, who are not even clear with the basics of class 3. some of them have difficulty in recognizing numbers and alphabets. In school, the sole emphasis is on their performance that creates a positive track record of the institution. As they become older they hesitate in learning the basic things. Thus, the task becomes harder for us. While on one hand we have to help them finish the syllabus, on the other, we have to work on their basics.”
Just then, a highly energetic little one came and climbed on the shoulders of Shreyash. “Won’t you be teaching us today?” she asked him. Pulling her cheeks, I offered to teach for a while. I asked her what she wanted to become when she grew up. “An English teacher. Yes, that’s right. I will tell stories to children like the bhaiyas and didis tell me.”
As she ran off to do her homework, I asked Shreyash about the importance of co-curricular activities along with studies. Smilingly, he replied, “We believe that every child has a talent. Some like to sing, some dance, others play or draw. Thus it’s important that along with academics we create an atmosphere that helps them to hone their talent. We regularly hold competitions to boost their confidence. We also collaborate with other societies like the dance and music society for classes. We even hold movie screenings. We have fixed specific days for different activities.”
So far so good. But it must be difficult to manage this alongside studies, right? Deepak rubbished my doubts. “I don’t find it difficult. If you cut down on the time for WhatsApp or ‘fooling around’ as we often do during college, you can manage it. During exams, we adjust our schedules so that no volunteer suffers on the academic front.”
Shreyash wasn’t so dismissive about it.“I do face problems as I have to travel quite a distance. When I reach home, I’m so tired I just have a bath, eat and sleep. However, I’m equally serious about my studies. I believe that if you’re passionate about something, you find time for it.”
I was inspired by their commitment, yet a nagging doubt persisted in my head. Doesn’t the socio-economic background of the children hinder interaction in the classes?
Thinking about it for a while, Shreyash answered. “Some kids are outgoing, some are a little scared and quiet, like any other children. Most of them stay are at an age where they stay aloof from home, spending most of the time in school or outside with friends. You have to take the initiative of interacting with them, drawing them out and act as friends instead of teachers. Once they open up, they also talk about their personal lives.”
As the first streaks of dawn appeared in the sky, I noted down Shreyash;s last thought on the conversation, which will hopefully inspire people to start something similar.
“I just believe that as part of a bigger society, it’s our responsibility to give something back to it. As students, our main motto remains our studies but if we can utilize our time constructively, we can create a better future for our country. We’re trying to find gems from those parts which have been neglected till now by the system. If you do not give them a helping hand, they’ll continue to live oblivious lives.”
We got up and gathered all the volunteers and students for a group photograph. The youngest one, who was three, came up to me and said, “Didi achi photo lena! Smiling wali (Take a nice picture of us! One where we’re all smiling).” I smiled for the photograph and the happiness lingered long after the moment had been captured in a lens.
Photo courtesy: Shruti Sonal.