Untouchable Education: a postscript

I related, in an earlier post, the changes in the three Dalit girls, Guddi, Laxmi and Maya over the time I knew them. I wrote of Guddi’s natural competitiveness and of her learning to apply it to English lessons with cousin Laxmi, of the calm self-assurance that replaced Laxmi’s childish tantrums, and of Maya’s new-found voice.

I also wrote that they will start the private school I have sponsored them to join in September, at the start of the new school year. When I walked down to the Saraswati School to pay the fees, however, the headmaster told me they could start right away.

***

Helen (my fellow volunteer), Usha (our new local teacher; sister and replacement of Rekha), and I took Guddi, Laxmi and Maya shopping the same day. One shop showed us rolls of fabric and told us they could have the school uniforms ready in three days’ time. But I was to leave the village in the same amount of time, and was impatient to see the girls wearing them, and, more importantly, to see how they liked their new school. The next shop could sell us the uniforms, marginally more expensively, but – crucially – ‘readymade’.

Guddi hopped from one foot to the other, unable to supress her excitment, making it difficult for Usha to get the startchy school shirt over her tired-looking floral t-shirt. Usha had just done up the last button when Guddi spotted the colourful stack of school bags by the door. She dashed over and began to pull them out hurridly, presenting each to the stunned-looking Maya for her opinion. Laxmi struggled to maintain her usual expression of cool bemusement as a wide smile spread over her face. We bought shirts, skirts, socks, shoes (belts and ties, we were informed, would be provided), and, finally, tiffins.

The tiffin is the most ubiquitous symbol of daily working life in India: a small, stainless-steel tower comprised of two, three or even (in exceptional cases) four sealed compartments – separating a lunch of vegetables, chapati and sweets – with a small handle on top, it sits on the passenger seat of the middle-class commuter’s car, in the rickshaw-wallah‘s lockable compartment, and swings proudly on the schoolboy’s bicyle handlebars. It is a little piece of home taken into the outside world. And the choice of tiffin, this coveted symbol of hard-work-rewarded, nearly killed Guddi – she spent a good twenty minutes changing her mind.

The following day Helen and I were sitting with our neighbour, Gunjan, enjoying a breakfast of spicy, curried channa (chickpeas) and discussing an old Bollywood horror film on television, when Guddi, Laxmi and Maya dashed passed the window heading for our bedroom by the Sambhali school. Helen and I exchanged the briefest of glances before abandoning our channa to meet the girls.

And there they were, red tartan shirts shirts tucked into pleated grey skirts, socks pulled up, and hair oiled and combed. We took photos of them, then waved goodbye. I felt a surge of affection and fear and sadness all at once.

They came to see us at lunchtime and again when school had finished. Each showed me her new books, complete with the first few letters of the Hindi alphabet, some ABCs and 123s. “Oh, easy, easy!” said Guddi waving her had dismissively at my encouraging noises. Maya showed me how she’d arranged her various books and pencils into the different compartments of her bag, and how you could lock it with a little, plastic key. Laxmi simply wobbled her head, smiling. – You’ve done it, my eyes said, – I know. Look at me! said hers. I felt the protectiveness of a mother, the fierce loyalty of a sister, and the pride of a teacher all at once.

Yet we’re the same, Laxmi and me: I’m no older, really, and certainly no wiser. I know you, her eyes told me. And she cut through me and pieced me together in one look.

***

I left the village two weeks ago now, but I think of those girls everyday. One day, I’ve promised myself, I will go back and see how they’ve grown.

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Making a funny face

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~ by Griselda Murray Brown on March 21, 2009.

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