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Saroj, a pale 23 year old, used to come to our place everyday to help me with the Household chores. This was when my husband was at PGI Chandigarh and I had a little one who was all of 10 months. She was accompanied by her 3 year old daughter who unlike other kids would just sit in a corner. Despite Jayant, my son, crawling to her and cajoling her to play, she would not interact much and looked blank.
I would give Mona things to eat which she accepted at times but more often than not shied away and ran to her mother.
I found the little girl’s behaviour rather abnormal and asked Saroj.
She told me the rather sorry tale of most women in her part of the world – Drunk husband who doesn’t work, drinks continuously and beats her and the little one too. While she toiled all day in multiple households to make ends meet only dreaming about her children doing well. There was nothing unusual – we all do it everyday but what got to me was that they didn’t have the pedestal to stand up and do something about the dreams she was dreaming and probably her life would remain as shackled forever.
I imagined, much to my horror, had this been the case with Jayant. Not providing for him and imagining him with the blank stares that Mona gave me shook me up. Soon I started babysitting Mona as Saroj had no one else to turn to and within months there was a visible change in the girl as she got the nursing and nurturing that every child deserved. Mona also started playing with Jayant and in no time they were friends!
We soon moved to Delhi and Sana, my daughter, was born in the winter of 1995. I then had my hands full, with two children to look after there was little time for anything else.
Bu Mona stayed … lurking in the deep recesses of my mind and I knew had to do something for children like her. I knew the problem was too monolithic for me to handle but I knew had to start. Somewhere.
I wanted to provide these children with a play-school, tell them stories, poems and make them play interesting games … and most of all – let them STAY child-like and retain their innocence. Just small, little things, we take for granted but these children were completely stripped of these things.
I knew that the NDMC school nearby took children aged 5+ and that all kids in the area would be going there soon as the school provided free education and meals.
And on Sep 18, 1998 I did just that… after dropping Sana at the AIIMS crèche I went to meet these children. To my shock, there were 45 children, in the age group of 3-13 waiting for me!
We used to sit under the shade of a large banyan tree for two hours every day. While some would bring a notebook and a pencil; others would take loose sheets from me and scribble on those.
I would teach them the Hindi alphabet and also make them draw and color a few pictures. They loved to colour … little fingers handling broken crayon to color their imagination!
Fridays were the most sought after days – after all that day the Rajas and Rani’s come together, under the shade of the Banyan Tree in the story sessions that I regaled them with.
But I knew this whole endeavour was no fairytale and so in January 1999, I started talking to a few people about the school. A friend of mine introduced me to Prerna, who was working for the NGO Vidya.
Prerna came to school and told me that most of my children could get admission in Vidya Bal Vihar — a school for the underprivileged. We fixed up a date and soon 32 children along with their parents were set to go to Vidya. So excited were these children that on the said date, the school bus was to come at 9.30am, dressed in their best, were at my door at 8.00am!
Finally Twenty six of my children took admission in Vidya. While another 22 went to NDMC school in Ansari Nagar.
And I got another batch of 28 from the Balmiki camp and Arun Dass camp, and we moved our school to a place in the slums.
Everyday children would clean this place up for us to hold the classes. The days it rained – it was chutti !
Then came a meeting with Mr Amod Kanth of Prayas in March 2000. He assured me of all help while, Jyotiji and Geeta started visiting the school.
I named my school Udyam. Help soon started coming in the form of stationery, toys and clothes from friends and relatives. With help from Prayas, I also got a teacher from the community.
While the Rotary Club South Delhi Cosmopolitan gave the children bags and sweaters, Prayas helped us get permission to use the NDMC school premises, after school hours.
The school was rechristened Udyam Prayas. Few volunteers came through Youth reach and Pravah and we managed to keep the children occupied, learning and interested.
Circa 2005, We now have 80-100 children, in the age group of 3-15, come to Udyam everyday
They have been divided into groups as per their current learning level which is more often than not much different from the class they are in. This depends on the child, his/ her background, the kind of support he/she gathers etc. Volunteers look after the day to day activities of the centre, keeping in mind the basic aims and goals of Udyam Prayas that are:
I have come a long way from the where I started … but the drive has intensified – the drive to help and work towards the better future of the children I teach … the children I love.