Six-year-old Fiza grabbed her five-year-old sister Saniya by the hand as they scrambled over a couple of basketball-size chunks of concrete studded with rusting rebar. They were heading home after tuition class where they would find dal and rice left out for them on the floor of their hut by their mother who was into the fifth hour of her ten hour day, cleaning a home for someone else and looking after their children. Alone all day, Fiza and Saniya fend for themselves except when they are in tuition class, a few huts away. Their hut is perched on the side of the wide gutter that runs through the slum. A tiny slip would put them face first into the muck. Neighbours look out for them, but they have their own problems. They are but two of many, many children of all ages in the slum who are alone all day and manage to survive without parental care until nightfall when their weary parents trudge back home from a day’s work that pays menial wages.
Indu’s Excellent Tuition Centre, only a few huts away from Fiza and Saniya’s house has become not only a place to learn Marathi, Hindi and English, but a safe place for kids like Fiza and Saniya who roam the lane ways, some as young as two years old, and need some attention, a bandage, some food, and a place to feel secure. They find it all here and then some. Like the Goddess Durga, Indu seems to have many arms and fiercely protects her charges while trying to instil the love of learning.
The tuition centre is located in a cramped lane way near one of many entrances to the community. Housed in a simple ten-foot by twelve-foot hut made of flimsy corrugated tin walls attached to a structure of whittled tree branches, the centre attracts kids and parents like crows to a shiny object. Inside, colourful mats are laid on the barely there pock-marked cement floor, the children’s art is stuck to the dirty, dusty walls with strong tape and hand-made paper kundils (lanterns) the kids made for Diwali hang from the roof supports fluttering with the wind of the fans, providing a bit of colour and whimsy to an otherwise basic, dreary slum hut. A large whiteboard hangs from nails strung with wire.
What happens in the tuition centre is anything but dreary. Lump 20 to 30 kids of all ages sitting cross-legged on the mats for each two-hour session and you get a lot of nose picking, pencil stealing, glue eating, paper scrunching, and a lot of learning. The level of noise and chatter is so loud a lion could roar and not be heard. Used to crowded conditions, heat, and shouting to be heard, the two year olds fall asleep unless constantly challenged with crayons and blank paper. Riya munches on chalk (she likes the pink chalk the best), eleven-year-old Simran performs impromptu skits poking fun at the police and the government, and four-year-old Fakriallam brings scraps of tin, small sticks, rocks and pieces of burnt paper hidden in his pockets which he proudly displays as if they are made of gold. The kids who are excited to learn have eager minds, sharpened pencils, neat notebooks and pinned back hair. Some of the older boys like to stare into space, draw on their hands and create more chaos than is required. Amidst the loud chatter, the fans creaking, some laughter and occasional crying, Indu manages her charges with panache and heaps of built-in patience, all while nursing her own small daughter, Aagya. For all this, she charges 200 rupees ($3.50) per child per month which is the going rate for tuition classes in the area. Fewer than half of the parents pay her on a regular basis, yet she never turns away any child.
Keeping the kids awake, alert and engaged requires nutrition and a good nights sleep. While DWP can’t do much about how much sleep the kids get or the conditions of their homes, or where they sleep, we can address the nutrition issue. Each child gets a handful of mixed nuts before they start tuition class - a little hit of protein to help them manage their long days. They are a hardy bunch with immune systems that defy logic but they bring free-loading germs to share. Dripping noses, mumps, malaria, lice, colds, fevers, boils, cuts, bruises and rotten teeth are just a few of the maladies we see every day. Each hand that stretches out for their ration of nuts has probably just recently fished something out of the gutter, wiped their sibling’s nose, picked through garbage or strained toxic dirt through fingers while playing. To try to keep the germs from multiplying ten-fold, we have one child squirt liquid soap into the dusty palms of each child and we point them to the nearest water supply to scrub the germs away. They return to the tuition centre with their freshly washed palms pressed against their noses breathing in the flowery smell of the soap. They love the soap routine and happily inspect each others hands and remind us who hasn’t washed. Once they have eaten their nut supply they resume sneezing into their hands and handing us their pencils to correct their homework.
On Saturday the books are put away and sparkles fill the air. It’s a free-for-all day of creating something out of nothing with the aid of sparkle glue, coloured paper, crayons, staples, scissors and ingenuity. The kids have an innate talent for using recycled, found materials to create personal works of art that draw oohs and ahhs from each other and us. They love to draw robots, glue one thing to another, make masks from cardboard, and fly around the lane ways in capes they created from donated fabric. Having to make do with nothing but what they find in the garbage or scavenge from the street has made them creative geniuses who create masterpieces when given paint, paper and new coloured paper.
While the kids benefit enormously from Indu’s Tuition Centre, it has also become a place for the women of the community to come to chat, air their problems and sometimes ask for help. Rani has a handicapped son and because of this she has a staggering medical bill debt. She speaks English, Marathi and Hindi which prompted Indu to offer her employment. She recently started working alongside Indu and DWP will pay her a monthly wage (determined by Indu) which will help her pay down her medical debt. Monika has a violent, abusive husband who rarely works to support his wife and two children. Proud, strong but deflated, she appeared at the tuition centre doorway to collect her child with bruises to her face and a large gash on her head. Letting the tears flow, she told us how her husband beats her most nights. Indu offered her the use of the tuition centre between classes to teach other women to sew. She will be moving her pedal-powered sewing machine in to the centre in the next few days. It’s her hope (and ours) that she’ll soon be independent from her abusive husband.
Indu’s initiative, work ethic and desire to help kids with their homework has morphed from a tuition centre into a full-fledged community meeting place. It’s a place where kids like Saniya and Fiza come to learn ABC’s, get a bandage for their scraped knees, some nutrition and a sparkly cape to dance in the laneways and their parents get some peace of mind when they leave their children to go to work. Indu has provided the community’s resilient little lane way stragglers with another place to call home.
DWP provides the financial support for Indu’s Excellent Tuition Centre: