I met Rajesh some three years ago when he approached me for contribution to an organisation engaged in social service. Something about his demeanour encouraged me to contribute without knowing anything about the organisation. Nearly always the funds were for the food service for poor patients undergoing medical care at the city government hospital. On each occasion we met, I have found him graceful and humble. And he carries a most disarming smile that shows his untidy teeth (something I have suggested he should attend to). Last year, while Vadodara was struggling with another instance of failing civic infrastructure in the face of torrential downpur, Rajesh and his friends were busy running a food stall for those without homes and the means to cook. While his home was more than half submerged in water! His father, a cancer patient, is (probably) unable to contribute much to the family in way of monetary or person support. But it is clear that he is the source of Rajesh’s humility and politeness.
A few days ago, Rajesh informed me of the requirement of notepads for kids at a school in Ahmedabad. I agreed to see what I could do and gave him a date when he should contact me. It turned out to be a busy week and I slipped twice on my committed time to him, which made me feel unusually guilty. Until one day some repair work at home had me leave office earlier than usual. The repair work did not happen but that gave me some time to go shop for the notebooks. By the time I was done it was already late in the evening. And the following 2-3 days were again looking to be tight. So I called Rajesh and offered to drop the stuff at a known spot quite close to his home. At first he refused, saying he will pick them up next day, but I knew that synchronisation could be an issue and that will only add to the delay. So, I persisted and he hesitantly accepted the proposal. While simultaneously adding, in his characteristic style, that I must visit his home and have a drink. I gladly agreed and the deal was stuck.
Dinner done, I reached the rendezvous. Hardly had I parked that a young girl peered into the window, leaving me mildly startled. As I got out, I noticed two more girls and another woman who seemed like their mother, flanking one side of my vehicle. They were looking at me with questioning smiles. I returned a half smile and proceeded to call Rajesh to enquire his whereabouts or the way to his house. Only to realise Rajesh was standing a few feet away and the women surrounding my car were his family! Greetings exchanged, I handed over the notebooks and was “escorted” to his house. Rajesh lives in the basti (collection of shanties) adjoining the Vishwamitri rivulet in the Mujhmuda area of Vadodara. Some of the houses were made of brick and mortar while others were rather temporary structures made of tin roofs and loosely put together walls. Nearly all houses were huddled together tightly, as if in fear. As we walked, people stopped and looked with curiosity, leaving me somewhat uneasy. I wonder what Rajesh and his family might be feeling?
The house was hardly 50 paces from where I parked and, to my great relief, we reached it in no time. I stooped to enter the low doorway and was seated on the bed which doubled as a sofa. Rajesh, his mother and three sisters sat on the floor forming a semi-circle in front of me. Unaccustomed to such an experience I was confused on what to do. Should I join them and sit on the floor or continue sitting on the bed? I noticed they were totally at ease with this arrangement and I decided to keep it as such. One of the sisters brought an aerated beverage for me and after some cajoling they added a tumbler to allow for the drink to be shared. There are certain traits which were unique to the unfolding scene. Above all, was the easy atmosphere. Second, other than Rajesh’s father (who was away for treatment) the complete family was taking part in my visit. We got chatting in no time and I got to take a small peek into the lives of a different India.
Over the next 45 odd minutes, I learnt about their struggles and triumphs. Of how simple their expectations are and how miserably the government fails to meet even those. Why government sponsored primary education (in India) is only a facade. And what makes the elder and middle sister exit their education to contribute to the family’s earning. When school does not even teach you to spell your name by class 3, you know there is not much that will come out of another 7 years of it. Of how, in the absence of proper sewerage they have no choice but to defecate under a nearby abandoned bridge. I find it irritating that in India, toilets (and their cleanliness) are not looked upon as priority. What civic sense can you expect from people who are so failed by the government that they have to start their day by hiding from public eye as they answer nature’s call? People need to be trained to be better citizens who care for the environment. And this training cannot happen when you treat them as filth. To quote, a clear case of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”.
Rajesh’s mother is a house-help and so is the elder sister, who is just 15. Rajesh, the eldest of the four siblings, is 21. The middle sister, all of 12 is learning to stitch. The youngest, aged 9, goes to school where she learns nothing. The school, if we can call it that, is a single unpartitioned hall where students of all grades sit next to each other. So close that dictates of one teacher (for her students) are mistakenly followed by another grade. In the chaos that ensues, what learning can happen?
Together, the mother and two sisters contribute some three thousand odd rupees to the household income of eight to ten thousand rupees. The remaining comes from the cloth trading by Rajesh. And this is not even close to what poverty is in India. Real poverty is at least five, maybe ten, times poorer. But even for Rajesh’s family, the not-so-bad financial situation has come at the cost of terminated education of the children. If all three sisters were to be enrolled into a decent school, the cost of education and their missing earnings would have turned the tables; throwing this family into very tough times. Possibly, impossible times. They are also saving for the marriage of the eldest girl. The little flesh left on their bones will be gnawed by the evil of dowry. It is in such settings that you feel the impact of traditions set by society. No dowry and a low cost marriage could have meant good education for the children. They will now be left to the whims of their husbands who will make them work and not wink an eyelid while beating them black and blue.
And amongst all this Rajesh finds time to help others. And his actions are appreciated by his mother who says he must do what needs to be done. It was time for me to leave. But before I said goodbye I made them promise me two things: they will marry the elder daughter only when she turns eighteen and they will enroll the youngest to tuition classes where she can get some real education. I intend to follow-up on the later and will post the outcome here.
India, for all its drawbacks, is not deficit of people like Rajesh. If only the government and the citizens adopt welfare as their foremost role, we can set alight these candles of change.
In every home.