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Decision Pending - the pleasure and pain of paying school fees

We stopped abruptly when Indu spotted the cobbler’s stall. Every year we head down this dust bin of a road, jammed into the back of an auto-rickshaw heading to a community not far from Saki Naka but where we have no other business or reason to be there except to find Rajesh, a gentle man who fixes shoes beneath a tarp tied to two leaning bamboo poles. Rajesh has a son, a mentally ill wife and an income so scarce he is always in debt to simply live.

I wish I could say that the paying of school fees is a job filled with immense joy. That we skip down laneways clutching money to plonk down on rickety desks, enabling another child to enjoy the benefit of another year in school, but before we get to pay the fees we have to sort through requests from desperate parents and decide who is more needy. Everyone in a slum community is desperate in some way and they all cling to fractured bits of hope and help that might come their way.

Indu (with phone) gets stopped by a grandmother requiring school fees for her granddaughter.

There are parents whose children’s fees we have been paying for years. They wait for us to arrive back to the community. They serve us chai and biscuits in their dingy one room homes while rats scurry behind us where the wall meets the floor and the corners of large wall calendars flip up in the breeze from the low-hanging overhead fan. We hear that they have had medical problems in the family and taken out loans from shifty money lenders; that their husband has lost his job or his pay has been reduced or that he drinks; maybe he has left the family altogether. Perhaps their rent has increased or a sick relative has come to live with them in their already overcrowded room. For the lucky few, we notice their lives have improved compared to others in the community. Maybe they have a new television, or a motorbike, or the means to visit relatives in their native villages a few times a year if they buy general class tickets on the train. The appearance of material goods not usually found in slum homes can sometimes unfairly gives us cause to consider reducing or denying the family school fees payment at least for this year. Refusing someone who has worked hard to float on top of the quicksand of poverty that their neighbours can’t swim out of is a frustrating reality. The funds only go so far. Indu’s phone rings constantly. There are at least three new families a day who call who have heard we might be able to help. Their despair is more palpable and more gut-wrenching by comparison to those families we have denied this time.

A mother makes chai for us while discussing her school fees.

A home visit to Abrar Khan's house.

Does a single mother with AIDS who has two children, one of whom also had AIDS, require our help more than the single mother abruptly widowed at twenty-five with three daughters with no means of earning money? A young woman is being evicted from her slum room by her mother-in-law who has washed her hands of her daughter-in-law and her two granddaughters because her son is no longer alive. The wound is fresh. She dabs at her eyes with her dupatta while her youngest daughter sits immobile in the corner listening to mother explain their dire situation. Her husband died three months ago and she is being forced to focus on where to live and how to survive with no means, but she hopes we can assist her to keep her daughters in school.

A home visit with a distraught widow with two children.

So how do we decide how to dole out the money for school fees? We roam the lane ways visiting homes, pulling back the curtains, removing our shoes, stepping inside, sitting cross-legged while we hear the multitude of reasons for requiring assistance. They fish through plastic bags containing medical records, school records and recent death certificates while we gently ask questions that can help us decide if, or how much, to help. Their eyes become glassy and tears drip into their laps, children pop in and out, relatives gather, neighbours become nosy, rooms become crowded with spectators. We weigh the stories we hear against our own intuition and experience dealing with the issues of urban poverty in a slum in Mumbai and we try not to tear up. We listen to Indu’s advice as she translates their dismal stories. Then we make a decision. We try to offer something as opposed to nothing, such as paying half the school fees, or giving rations to sustain the family in an emergency, or paying fees for one child instead of two children. Like most humans in need, they reluctantly understand that a little assistance is better than no assistance. Sometimes they’re not happy and the pleading starts. They grab our hands and hold on tight. Sometimes they follow us out of their homes and down the lane way giving fresh reasons for needing help. Sometimes we have to be tough and they have to accept that we can’t help everyone. We hope they’re grateful for the help we’ve given them in the past.

Todd paying school fees at the Nandchhaya School office.

It’s people like Rajesh, the cobbler, who define the joyful moments we do get to experience while paying school fees. He never asks us for help; we search him out every year. He doesn’t know if we will come again. He understands that life is a lottery and when we pull up with the “ticket” for his son to go to school he gives us the best smile on earth, wipes his hands on his shirt stained with shoe polish and insists on buying us a cold drink.

Asfhaque taking his kids to school on a borrowed motorbike.

School Fees paid to date:

Shivam Vidya Mandir School: 5 students - 25,150 rupees (CAD $503)

Nandchhaya Vidya Niketan School: 30 students -164,300 rupees (CAD $3286)

St. Anthony’s High School: 3 students - 16,250 rupees (CAD $325)

Suvidya High School: 1 student (full fee and uniform) - 8650 rupees (CAD $173)

Total fees to date: 214,350 rupeees (CAD $4287)

We continue to accept calls from parents and are going through our established list of school fees to pay.

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