Sneha informed us that her school project was due the next day when we were just steps away from entering our apartment building. Used to, but always traumatized by the the drama her father causes most days, Sneha and her sister Nikita were coming to stay with us for a few nights, while back in the community their neighbours and relatives crowded into their small hut to comfort their wailing, distraught mother.
Sneha - age 4 - 2009
“Your project is due tomorrow? What is the project?” I asked, as my stomach did a flip and my mind raced back to the days of last-minute homework assignments my children would routinely foist upon me which usually required trips to a store to get the special pen, paper, clay, or whatever supplies we didn’t already have to complete their assignment in record time.
Enrolling Sneha at Nandchhaya Vidya Niketan school
We stopped in the busy scrum of late afternoon traffic and trudging pedestrians to think this through; this project required a large piece of cardboard, coloured tape, crayons, and scissors. Collectively we scanned the small shops on either side of the busy road, covering our mouths and noses with scarves to keep out the dust and exhaust fumes, searching for small shops that might have what we needed.
Kane and Sneha (2010)
Sneha is a bright, fastidious, student who thrives on completed assignments and acquiring high marks; better yet if she receives the highest mark in class. Incomplete homework assignments at school are met with the teacher shouting at the student, and most unfortunately, the student will be punished by having to hold their arms high over their head at the back of the classroom for an hour; one of many regular punishment tactics for children who flaunt disrespect for assignments or teachers. School in India harkens back a generation in the West where corporal punishment at school also meant punishment at home, with no room for explanation or discourse with the teacher. We had to prevent this scenario for sweet, studious Sneha.
Sneha's extended family (l-r: mom, dad, Sneha, maternal grandmother, brother Nikil, uncle, maternal grandfather)
Sneha has been a Dirty Wall Project sponsored child for eight years; her school fees paid in full by the same donor. Her undernourished stick-like limbs dangle awkwardly out of her clothing, but her mind is not frail. Her growth has been stunted by a daily diet of watery dal and white rice flecked with tomato so that her weight at her current age of 12 years old, is just 51 pounds. Her family of five manages their daily life on a few rupees. Her exhausted mother works numerous low-paid jobs, while her father recuperates from daily bouts of drunkenness, fuelled by country liquor costing a few rupees, and endures continuing failing health. There is also the drama of her older, rebellious sister’s fears that her parents will soon arrange a marriage for her, and a brother who keeps his mother in fits of despair when he fails to go to school in favour of finding odd jobs. Despite the daily dysfunction, the demolition of their home, two moves to find another home, and entrenched poverty that her family endures, Sneha manages to focus and diligently digs in to the task of completing her school work (she frets over marks less than an A), and attends tuition class after school.
In her classroom at Nandchhaya Vidya Niketan School (2012)
The sweat on our brows had dripped into our eyes as the sun settled low into the sky behind a row of beige apartment blocks obscured by wet clothing pasted by grit and dust and heat to the iron bars that framed the windows, when Sneha pointed to a shop behind us. “There we will find my paper.”
“But that’s a shop filled with glass trinkets and light fixtures” we said, anxious about wasting too much time.
Sneha in costume for her Annual Day Dance performance and her mom, Rita (2017 Nandchhaya Vidya Niketan School)
Sneha and her sister led the way to the shop, carefully stepping around a chai stall and a trio of lazing street dogs sniffing the air as we passed. We pushed through the glass door clouded by handprints and dust to find thick glass shelves overloaded with Hindu gods and goddesses. Some were painted, some were gilded, and some, like Sneha, were quietly serene, cast in brass and silver. She blurted out in Hindi what she needed to the man behind the desk near the front of the shop. We watched the man’s face, ready for a solid shake of his head that would indicate he didn’t have what we needed while also surveying the street beyond the glass door to for another shop that might have art supplies. Before she could finish her sentence he pulled open a drawer in front of him and produced sheets of cardboard in every size and weight. But what about the crayons, the scissors, and the rulers we would need? He moved to the other side of the room, and below a row of Shiva statues, he opened another drawer. There were neat rows of crayons in every size. Another drawer at the back of the store yielded an assortment of measuring tools, and a pile of scissors. Within minutes we had everything we needed and were back out on the street forcing our way through traffic, protecting our rolled paper from being crushed by the wave of humanity in a rush to get home.
Sneha holds her 2017/18 fee card - paid in full
While Todd and Nikita cooked dinner, Sneha got to work on her project. I hovered over her while she tried to find the right size of cooking pot to trace a planet. When she became stuck I tried to help by offering advice on how to use shading to make the planet appear round. She let me try it and then used half of an eraser to erase most of what I had done. In the end, she had her masterpiece, on her own terms, using her own ingenuity and talent.
Sneha in 2018
Sneha is in the 8th standard this year. Without the past 8 years of support she would not be in school. Instead, she would be facing an arranged marriage with no opportunity to be an individual, to contribute to society, or be able to use her innate talents and ingenuity. Girls are the most economically disadvantaged group in India, lacking access to education and opportunity. In Mumbai alone, low-caste children number in the millions. Half of India’s billion plus population is under 25 years old - that is 600 million people ready for a change. By removing the obstacles (low-paid labour, illiteracy, early arranged marriage and childhood pregnancy) that defined her parent’s generation and generations before them, Sneha’s generation, armed with knowledge of the world around them, the power of the internet, low-cost cell phones, and a modernizing India, will still have immense challenges, but with education they will have the opportunity to write their own stories and change the dialogue for themselves. The shoeless will have shoes and they will use them to march to a more prosperous future. Sneha and her school friends can read the giant billboards that promise glamorous carefree living in high-rise apartment buildings and they are too bright not to wonder why this lifestyle seems unattainable for them. The billboards, discarded on the road when the construction is complete, are dragged home by families in the community to be used as a covering for slum huts, especially important in the monsoon season. Giving them an education would be a better way to keep out the rain.
A week after her project was completed, Sneha was excited to tell me, “Cindy Mam, we received an A for my project.
School fees: $150 - $200 per child per year. (8500 - 11,300 rupees)
8 years of school fees paid on Sneha’s behalf: $1,300 (74,000 rupees)