A lesson on the pavement in Allahabad
Whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I say Delhi immediately. I don’t really mention Allahabad or Lucknow. I don’t really need to, given that I was born and brought up in Delhi. However, if we were to consider the traditional understanding that one is from where one’s parents are from, then yes I’m from Allahabad and Lucknow. I had the opportunity to go back to Lucknow every year during the summer holidays since my maternal grandfather lived there until about five years ago; but my link with Allahabad broke while I was still in primary school. I never thought about the city, it never even jumped at me from newspaper headlines, nor did I feel any sort of pride reading about the landmark Allahabad High Court judgments during law school. I wasn’t particularly enthused when my father was posted back to Allahabad (where he also had his first posting as a Railway officer) about a year and a half ago.
During my very short and irregular visits to this city ever since, Allahabad has grown on me. It isn’t nearly as noisy, crowded, fast-paced or polluted as Delhi. Many colonial buildings, including Allahabad University (once called “Oxford of the East”) still stand tall, the Ganga and the Yamuna still meet at the Sangam as they’ve done for millennia, and people still believe that Allahabaadi special chaat is the cure for every misery in life. But the biggest reason that I’ve become fond of visiting Allahabad (other than the prospect of meeting my family, of course) is that I’ve had the opportunity to visit and participate in the activities of an NGO called Shuruaat, which seeks to provide an education to the most deprived children in Allahabad, and help them build a bright future.
The last time I visited them, I joined the founder Abhishek in teaching Maths to about 10 children on a pavement near a very busy road. The moment we arrived, some of them came running to Abhishek with big smiles on their faces. It had recently rained heavily, and so the kids had tied their notebooks in plastic bags and hung them from a tree. It was much better than keeping them in their huts, which had terribly leaky roofs, they said. Two of them proceeded to run to the tree to fetch their notebooks. I saw that the kids were aged between 3 and 13. In addition, the oldest one, a girl, was carrying an infant with her - likely her sibling or cousin, whom she had to take care of as the baby’s mother worked. Here was a 13 year old child who had taken up caregiving responsibilities while also trying to piece together an informal education. Abhishek counted the kids and said that he needs to bring the others whose parents don’t let them go easily. One of them was sitting just across the road, selling fruits with his father. I saw him go over and negotiate with his father to let him join. When the two of them returned, he told me how difficult it was to make sure the parents let their children make use of this opportunity—most of them believed education was of no use, and would rather have their children work as soon as they turned about 6.
The class began with a look over their homework. They peered into their notebooks with eager eyes as we checked them one by one. They smiled every time I drew a tick next to an answer. They often looked over their shoulder and showed their proud faces to their friends who waiting in line for their turn. I couldn’t imagine how much this must have meant to them - this was perhaps the only space where they were properly treated as children, and allowed to be their age. Perhaps the only space where they were shown prospects for a brighter future. Perhaps the only space where they were, for one hour, getting an element of life, every other child who is not poor, so easily receives - an education. I made sure to give each one of them a pat on their back after finishing correction; I’m sure it meant a lot to them, and it for sure meant a lot to me. When it was time to leave, the children promised to keep their homework ready in the next class, revise their corrections and thanked us. I could see the sincerity in their smiles as each of them closed their notebooks, deposited them back in the plastic bag and got up to trod back to their huts. I wondered if I had ever been this grateful for my notebooks and my teachers when I was in school, and made a mental note to constantly remind myself to not take anything for granted, especially my education.
I don’t think I did anything special to deserve a birth into a family that could afford three meals a day, pay for my education, and give me the safety net of “exploring” before I settled down into a job. I don’t think these children did anything reprehensible to deserve birth into a family that cannot give them a proper childhood. I wonder if any of us would have gotten where we are if the story of our families, or where we come from, would’ve been tweaked. How then, can we, as humans, who try but cannot for the life of us understand why our lives begin as they do, assume that our achievements are entirely our own, or that we deserve that fancy job, that next promotion, that applause? And what do we do about this strange situation - being bound by factors beyond our control, while also being in charge of our destiny? I think it begins with acknowledging the limits of one’s agency, while also putting one’s agency to the best possible use. In my mind, it begins with humility with respect to everything we have managed to achieve, a will to continue to work harder, respect for everyone’s struggle and a mindset to share our bounties with the less privileged through charity. These are big words of course, but I’m taking small steps towards ensuring I live my life in accordance with them.
Clearly, the children learnt during that class on a pavement in Allahabad, but I learnt even more.
(Note - I do not have a picture of this class— I did not think it was appropriate to make a photo out of what are ordinary and everyday conditions for these children for consumption by more privileged eyes. But if it helps, please imagine the most run down huts and the dirtiest pavement near your house).