The children I teach, Nousheen and Tannu, both aged eight, taught me more about life and its contradictions in two months than the entirety of my school education did.
Living in a tiny slum in the heart of the national capital, their bright gummy smiles, their eyes beaming with curiosity, have always confused me. My very first class with them was me teaching them an excerpt from Alice In Wonderland, and the irony of the lesson didn’t escape me.
Just as Alice discovers a new world inside the rabbit hole, here I was, sitting inside a dingy room with a flickering tube light, watching two girls living in conditions unimaginable to me; their faces adorned with laughter that didn’t really suit the decor. But unlike Alice, who woke up to the world she was familiar with, the slum remained a reality long after I had caught a rickshaw back to college.
Every time I enter the slum, the world shifts around me, the narrow, dirty streets and the offensive smell permeating the air stands as a constant reminder of where I am, and how different it is from what I’m used to; but the smiles on the faces of the children never fade.
When I ask them what their ambitions are, the usually boisterous Tannu becomes shy and responds that she wants to become a singer, just like the ones in Bombay. Later in the day, when I clap along to her singing the latest Bollywood chart-topper, I’m hit by a sudden realisation that she’ll wake up one day and stop dreaming, that the circumstances around her will leach the laughter out of her eyes, and this thought hits me hard.
I realise, that at seventeen, Tannu will be yet another person whom the system would disappoint and she will scoff at the dreams she had when she was eight, deeming them as something unattainable and childish – reserved for the delusion.
The sudden realisation startled me, but as Tannu clung on to me when I was leaving for college, she made me pinky promise to come back, I smiled and said that I will, and I promised myself too, that I would do something, for her, for them, for their dreams. However childish it may sound, I suddenly wanted to be an agent of change. Not by slinging webs, or being a vigilante, but by preserving dreams.