The humidity in Mumbai on this hot Tuesday afternoon is 74 per cent. Drenched in perspiration, we lose our way in the narrow alley-like lanes in Ambujwadi, Malwani. I open my bag and grope for my water bottle, only to realise that I’ve left it at home. I wipe the beads of sweat from my forehead as our photographer follows the instructions an uninterested watchman gives him.
We enter Ambujwadi, which is lined with MHADA houses on either side, slums peppered generously in whatever space is left in the surrounding areas. Residents are preparing for the rains — men put sheets of blue tarpaulin over roofs to keep the water from trickling into their huts. In one corner, we see a group of men and women hurriedly filling water into cracked buckets, tin cans and drums. “They are stealing water from the pipelines,” the photographer explains. Separate from all the frenzied activity, a blue van stationed comfortably under the relentless sun, occupies an open field.
“It must be this one only,” the photographer assures me, as I recall a familiar feeling — of the first day of school. I am visiting School on Wheels (SOW), an initiative by Project Crayons, an NGO for empowering marginalised communities through HER (Health, Education, Rights). SOW started the project in Mankhurd initially, and then stationed the bus in Ambujwadi, after the Mankhurd project got its own centre. It could be the impending arrival of monsoons — but everything about the bus reminds me of school. Wrought-iron steps lead into the bus that has been beautifully transformed into a classroom complete with benches, learning charts of fruits, vegetables and poultry animals. The ceiling is covered with a poster of planets. The moment I step in, a practised ‘Good Mornnnnning, Didi’ rents the languid air.
“They were just starting their prayers,” Usha Nair, the 45 year-old head teacher tells me with a big smile. As Nisha Choudhry, the 24 year-old assistant teacher, asks them to stand in neat files of five in a row, Nair talks to me about the project. In the background, the kids, aged between four and 12 sing God’s Love, throwing their hands up to gesture ‘it’s so high’. Nair, who worked as an admin executive for a tutorial class, says she jumped at the opportunity when she heard the NGO had a vacancy.
“When I first came here last September, I had a certain understanding of life. With this project, I see an entirely different viewpoint. Some of the kids here don’t have shoes on their feet, their clothes have more holes than colours. But, they have the will to learn. And they inspire me to teach,” says Nair, who follows the school syllabus, which includes grammar, mathematics, drawing, basic rules of cleanliness and behaviour. SOW has a tie up with MHB English School, a BMC school and Kalavidyalaya, a private school in Malvani, absorbs students who exhibit the calibre to join mainsteam education. Meanwhile, the prayers have now turned into poems that include Twinkle Twinkle, Rosy lips and Teddy Bear.
“Since it is ‘vacation time’, the kids don’t want to study,” Nair tells me. Eight year-old Ahisha Ansari, who lives in the nearby slum, tugs at Nair’s dress. “Mere pass pencil nahi hai,” says Ansari, as it is time for some drawing.
It takes a whole 10 minutes to ensure all the children have their papers and pencils in place, by which time, a few have already broken their nibs, and started demanding new ones. “They are so excited to learn and take part in activities that it is an effort to calm them down,” says Chaudhry, who lives in one of the MHADA homes, and thus, helps communicate with the students’ parents.
“It helps to have someone from the vicinity take initiative in this project, as it is sometimes tough to explain to the parents that this is for their child’s future. We counselled parents at the start of the project. While this education is free, we asked them to provide for the stationery, so that they value the initiative,” adds Nair, as she hands over a sharpened pencil to Shivam Patel, a nine year-old, who wants to draw a car on his blank sheet.
Next to him, an 11 year-old answers all my questions in clear English — “My name is Rudr Verma. I come to School on Wheels at 9.30 every day.”By now, the art class is in full swing, and the only words audible are rubber, lubber, razer. “What is the correct name? I will not give it till you don’t pronounce it properly,” Nair tells the students, in a firm tone. “Eraser,” Neha Verma, a nine year-old shouts.
In another corner, six year-old Sameer tells his neighboutr “Main angoor banata hoon.” To this, he gets a reply, “Angoor mat bol. They are grapes. Speak in English.” Yhat’s how they learn, I conclude; by sharing, and helping each other transcend the limitations of their existing condition.
By now, Rudr has completed his drawing. He hands it to me and says, “For you, madam.” It is a storyboard with four panels. It tells the tale of the Hare and the Tortoise. “While the oversmart rabbit was sleeping, the slow tortoise overtook him.” And that is what I pray each and every child associated with SOW will do. Win the race at his / her own sweet pace.