There was a knock on the door. Sivam got up and opened it. Outside in the pouring rain were standing Mukesh, Parvez, Chhotu, Jack, and Bishan. They were drenched to the skin.
“Hey! What are you fellows doing here in this rain. You want to fall ill of what?”
“We....” Parvez began when Sivam interrupted him.
“First come inside,” he said.
He handed them two towels and went into the tiny kitchen of his little shanty. He emerged five minutes later with mugs of tea.
As they were sipping piping hot tea Sivam asked, “Now tell me what brings you here?”
“Guru, it is more than ten days since we last met,” Mukesh said.
Twenty two year old Sivam worked for an NGO and lived on the outskirts of a slum called Dharmadi. A few months ago he had started teaching the kids of Dharmadi. Their special ‘School’, which they had named Gyandeep, was quite unique. It had neither a building nor walls, nor doors and windows. All that the school boasted off was a huge banyan tree and around it a platform. Sivam would sit on the platform and his students on the ground below. Most of kids were working and were busy the entire day. The classes were therefore held from eight to nine every evening. The children could afford neither the fees nor books. Sivam had managed to get each of them a slate and chalk pieces. And as far as fees was concerned Sivam taught them free of cost and loved every minute of it.
“You know Gyandeep has neither a roof nor walls - how could I teach you in this pouring rain?”
“We know that guru but we are really missing your classes,” Chhotu said.
“Yes, Sivam bhai. The only thing that I look forward tothe whole day is spending time in Gyandeep,” Jack added.
“I understand that. I too really enjoy teaching you fellows. But what do we do? Unless the weather improves we can’t have classes. If I had a bigger house than we could have managed to squeeze in. But there isn’t even enough space for us to stand let alone sit and learn.”
The weather improved sooner than expected and the classes resumed. A few weeks later Sivam made an announcement, “Friends, the ‘The Creative Forum’ one of our city’s biggest literary institutions is organising an Open Short Play Competition. The first prize is five thousand rupees. I think we should participate.”
“But will we be allowed to compete with students of all those fancy schools,” asked Roshni who worked in a Carpets factory.
“It is an Open Competition hence there should not be any restrictions.”
“But Guru, I suppose the competition will be in English and other than Soni none of us can speak more than a sentence in English,” Mukesh said.
Soni’s mother was a maidservant in the house of a Mrs. and Mr. Jacob Mario, a Goanese couple. Soni and her parents lived in their servant’s quarter. For the last 3-4 years Soni’s job had been to look after the couple’s infant son. She spent most of the time with the Marios and had picked up English. Mrs. Mario had even taught her to read and write.
Sivam thought for sometime and then said, “That could be a problem. Let us all put our minds to it and see if we can come up with some good ideas. Apart from the language we also have to think in terms of suitable script for the play.”
A week later, after the class was over, Sivam said, “Well, any ideas?”
“I think bhai the play should be about our life, the work we do, the way we live,” Jack said.
“Great idea!” Sivam nodded.
“In that case each of us can play ourselves. I’ll play a worker in a factory, Chhotu and Jack can play hawkers, while Bishan and Parvez can be shoe-shine boys,” Mukesh suggested.”
“Yes, yes, that will easy,” everyone chorused.
“But what about the plot? It is not enough for you to just act yourselves. There should be a story - script. Any thoughts on that?”
The kids looked at each other and then at Sivam.
“Well, this little discussion has given me some ideas. When we meet tomorrow I think I’ll have the rough outline of the play ready.”
Next evening, the after finishing the class early, Sivam addressed his eager students, “I feel through the Play we should address the biggest problem facing us. Can you tell me what is it?”
“We don’t have a proper place to study?” Chhotu replied.
“Excellent Chhotu. Our play is going to be a short and simple one. Soni will be the main character. She will read out a poem. It will be addressed to the other children who are more blessed than you are - who are fortunate enough to be given a chance to learn.”
“But Bhaiyya, we too are lucky to have you teaching us,” Roshni said.
“Thanks Roshni. It is very sweet of you to say so. But you know Gyandeep is hardly a school. We have not building, no books. You are all herded together under the shade of this tree and I teach everyone - from age six to sixteen the same thing. At this rate the most you people will be able to learn is to read, write and do a little bit of calculation - nothing beyond. I want to you to go to a proper school.”
“Bhai, what will we have to do?” Parvez asked, anxious to know about his role.
“While Soni reads out the poem which will be in English you will have to act it out.”
“What does that mean?” asked Bishan.
“Suppose she reads out the lines -” Roshni here works in a factory, With her gentle hands weaving carpets” then Roshini will act as if she is weaving a carpet and so on.”
“Is your poem ready?” Jack wanted to know.
“Yes. Let me read it to you.” Sivam recited the poem, pausing in between to explain the meaning in Hindi.
The next evening the rehearsals started in earnest. Sivam was a hard taskmaster and would not give up till he was satisfied. Soni had to practise very hard because she wasn’t used to some of the difficult words Sivam had used. However gradually the kids started getting the hang of it.
The competition was in Shastri Auditorium from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sivam had to convince the parents to allow the kids to miss one day’s work. After a lot of persuasion they agreed. There were 23 schools in the fray and Gyandeep’s number was the last.
This was the first time the kids were facing an audience and they were understandably nervous.
When Soni went on stage and saw the huge crowd she began to panic. From backstage Sivam whispered, “Come on Soni. This is for Gyandeep. Show them what we are capable of.”
Soni took a deep breath and started: We don’t have fancy dresses; we don’t have a terrific set. We don’t even have music and dance. But what we have is a straight from the heart message to all you children :
We too are kids like you
With hopes as well as fears
We too have our dreams
Our smiles, our joys, our tears.
A loving touch makes us smile
A hurt makes us cry
We too are often shrill and bold
And sometimes quiet and shy.
Though in some things we are like you
In a vital things we’re different
The reason is a combination of
Both hereditary and environment.
While your days begin with gentle hands
Getting you ready for school
For us it is a shout or scream
“Get up and go to work, you lazy fool.”
Roshni here works in a factory
With her gentle hands weaving carpets
Mukesh is busy with dangerous chemicals
Turning them into sparklers and rockets.
Parvez and Bishan polish shoes
Setting their business on the street
Jack and Chotu hawk newspapers
In rain cold and scorching heat.
Our childhood has been smothered
Our dreams lie in the dust
We are out roaming the mean streets
While you are safe in the family nest.
You take your comfort for granted
And often treat school like a burden
While for us a chance to study
Will be like a gift from the heaven.
We don’t grudge you your comforts
Nor envy you your lifestyles
We only want a chance to put back on our faces
Our innocent, lost smiles.
All we want to do
Is to learn to read and write
So that we can struggle
For our each and every right.
Armed with the tool of learning
We’ll battle the demon of ignorance
And create a world in which to learn
Each one will be given a chance.
A world in which innocence
Will be allowed to bloom
Dreams will not wither away
In the arid sands of apathy and gloom.
We need help to leave behind
The yesterday of suffering and sorrow
And of joy, love and learning
Usher in a fresh morrow.
As she recited the lines her friends came on stage to enact each and every word. The words and actions matched perfectly creating a beautiful collage. The audience, which seemed disinterested in the beginning now sat up. When Soni finally finished the lines and the entire cast came to take its bow there was a thunderous applause.
Sivam was hopeful his team would get at least a consolation prize. After the performances there was a gap of an hour to enable the judges to finalise the results.
However, when the results were announced Sivam and his young friends were in for a disappointment. All the prizes including the awards for individual performances had been bagged by the fancy schools. Roshni and Soni who were sitting on either side of Sivam had started crying and the others looked crestfallen.
The Chief Guest Mr. Brijesh Gupta, Chairman Trishala foods, the largest chain of fast food restaurants in the country, had come on to the dais.
“Ladies Gentleman and my young and creative friends, it has been a very enjoyable day out for me. I was thrilled to see such a wealth of talent, energy and enthusiasm. But I must say the results sort of disappointed me,” Mr. Gupta looked at the judges and then continued. “While most schools put up a wonderful show there was one play which impressed me for its off beat theme and sensitive presentation. I expected that this group would bag a prize but it didn’t. During the break while I was signing the certificates I made enquiries I found out that this group had been disqualified. Why? Simply because it was not from a recognised school or club. “If we award these kids, we’ll be opening up the gates to street urchins and vagabonds and giving them an opportunity to earn legitimacy through our forum,” one of the organisers said.
“My dear friends, I was shocked and also deeply hurt by this logic. Should we who consider ourselves educated and liberal harbour such prejudices? Should these talented set of youngsters be punished for what is clearly not their fault or should they be felicitated for beating the odds and put up a sterling show? Anyway I am sure you must have guessed which group I am talking about - the kids from Gyandeep. During break I talked to the mentor of the group Sivam. This school if you can call it that exists under the shade of a Banyan tree. Its students slog in factories, on the streets and in homes the whole day and come to study late in the evening. Their dream is to study in a full-fledged school. And Trishala Foods is going to make this dream come true.”
Sivam could hardly believe his ears. He sat on the edge of his seat hooked to every word being spoken by the Chief Guest.
“My company owns a building, which is not in use, close to where these youngsters stay. This building will be converted into a school - Trishala Gyandeep School. Sivam will be the Principal and he can hire a few staff members. The kids will be given free tuition as well as a small stipend so that their parents do not miss the income, which they were earning. I now invite Sivam and his group to come to the stage so that I can have the honour of sharing the dais with a really spirited, plucky and imaginative set of youngsters.”
As Sivam and his team joined Mr. Gupta on the dais the entire stadium stood up to give a standing ovation.