While last time it was fun with seven gangsters hitting it in the morning, there was one sight that remained in my memory and which made me visit this place in the early morning again. What was about those kids sitting in the carpet on the side of the walk-way and studying under the guidance of volunteers, who certainly did not look like teachers? Unfortunately, I had to give it a go that time considering the mood of the group but was determined to come back to know about it, for it was also a possible topic for my next article for TBI (The Better India). So, this time I went alone. Based on my search on internet, it was surely some teaching drive by an NGO called Navjot Foundation.
It was 6:30 in the morning, by the time I reached. But the walk-way was empty. So, I took a long walk till the food joints at the other end of the road. By the time I came back, it was a little more than 7 o’clock and I saw what I wanted to see. While Carter Road is buzzing with people running, jogging, strolling, exercising and laughing (literally and deliberately), a lady in her 60s, came down to one of the benches, took out a couple of bottles of milk, a container of biscuits, disposable cups, fruits and chocolates. A kid came down to her, took the cup of milk and some biscuits and head back to the carpet where her school bag was placed. Soon, others followed.
I went to her to know about what’s exactly happening over there. The lady’s name was Mira Mamnani and it has been 10 years since she joined the initiative to teach these kids coming from the nearby slums of Danda and Hanuman Nagar. While there is no formal name to the initiative, it has largely spread through word-of-mouth. The initiative was a brainchild of Mr. G L Singh, founder of Navjot Foundation that manages the initiative, who lived nearby and used to visit Carter Road regularly. The idea was to provide that extra push to these kids so that they are ready to compete with the privileged ones once they go out all by their own in the academic or the corporate world. Later on other volunteers like Veena Metri, Jyoti Kale, Mira Mamnani and Gurmeet Singh joined in.
The initial years saw around 8-10 kids coming down on a regular day. Volunteers joined and left as per their convenience and commitments. Currently, the number of kids ranges from 50-60 on a weekday to approximately 120 on Sundays. At present, there are three active trustees in the Navjot Foundation, each one of them contributing in their own manner – financially and voluntarily. Contributions also pour in from other locals who know about the initiative and want to celebrate their happiness in a different manner.
Some of the brightest kids from this Paathshaala went on to become bread earners for the families and other professionals and have made their parents and teachers proud.
Thankfully, the support of the parents in sending their kids to this Paathshaala has also played a major role behind the success of the initiative. With increasing awareness about the importance of education, parents in the nearby areas – mainly auto drivers and household help hands – have been proactive in getting their children educated. Milk-biscuit, fruit, chocolates and breakfast adds further incentive to that. Currently, the number of children coming in the morning has been increasing due to word-of-mouth publicity.
However, availability of the volunteers is the single biggest challenge for the initiative. Speaking about the problem of volunteers, Mira says, “In abroad, volunteers come and teach, but here there is a difference between rich and poor that stays in the minds of the people. We have put a board for volunteers since we need them very badly”. With no certainty about volunteers, there are times when children themselves become teachers sometimes with elder kids teaching the younger kids or academically stronger kid teaching a weaker peer.
Monsoon, just like the rest of the Mumbaikars, doesn’t spare these kids as well. While the teaching is conducted under the shade of trees in the rest of the seasons, monsoon witnesses call-offs on some of the days. Sometimes the teaching is also conducted in the cars parked nearby.
But the boat has been sailing along since last 14 years, withstanding all the storms. Like there is a saying in Gujarati, “ram rakhe tene kon chaakhe” and Punjabi, “Jinnu rab rakhe onnu koi maar sakda”.
The issue of volunteers stuck me particularly because I saw many retired people walking around, joining laughter clubs, doing prayers (probably buttering Gods to get them an entry to heaven) and all kind of bull shit but not one of them joining this lady to help her in her initiative. Since I did not have much work to do that day in the morning, I volunteered to teach something to these kids.
The next one and half hour, I realized the difference between intent and ability. Those kids made me realize how much of a teacher-material is there inside me as they probably got bored of me in the first 5-10 minutes itself. After 20 minutes they figured out that there is as much strictness inside me for them to circumvent. After 30 minutes, I realized what sort of nerdy teacher would select human nervous system to teach after having barely scored passing marks in Biology in his final year of school (accounting for yearly depreciation in knowledge, I wouldn’t even score half of passing marks if I appear for a biology paper today). However, it was an experience worth taking.
I met Meera before leaving, thanking her for her inputs and explaining exactly how the article work will progress. But the gratitude was evident in her eyes. For an initiative that’s on for 14 years now and still struggling to get enough volunteers, it required very highly optimistic bunch of people.