Right in the middle of Jahangirpuri is the government-run Industrial Training Institute (ITI), a vocational centre that offers livelihood skill development courses for youths and adults alike. Established in 1985, it operates with a mandate to give “technical training to the backward and weaker sections of the society”.
Yet, nowhere in Jahangirpuri will residents find access to colleges or any other source of higher education. There are two government-run primary and secondary schools, but nothing beyond the twelfth standard. When I asked a local public official his thoughts on this, his reply was telling: “Let’s be realistic about what’s possible with this community, shall we?”
The school, which Yasmin and more than half of Jahangirpuri’s children attend, has an ominous feel that envelops the entire building. A big, rusted metal gate greets you at the entrance. Past the gate is an open, barren field surrounded by concrete multistorey buildings on every side. As I walk past the field and into one of the buildings, I immediately hear a shrill scream in the distance, to my right.
A tall, slender man in his early thirties is standing in a corner of the corridor. Dressed in a neatly-pressed, beige button-down shirt, he wields a belt in his hands. A child, no older than thirteen, is next to him, his hands tightly grasping a desk in front of him.
The man is raising his hand so high that it seems like he’s in a bar fight. With every raise, he brings the metal part of his belt down on the child’s bottom. And with every hit, the child wails. I begin to walk towards the man until he sees me and stops.
The man wielding the belt is Manoj Kumar, the headmaster, and he promptly rationalizes his actions. “I know we’re not supposed to hit children. I know it’s wrong,” he says sheepishly. “But I have a weak spot. I just can’t tolerate evil.”
“What do you mean evil, sir?” I press him to say more, hoping he’ll clarify.
“Some of these kids, they are evil indeed. They are just plain notorious. Look, how old are you?”
“Hmm. Listen, I’ve been doing this since you were in diapers. I’ve worked in schools where kids would bring cans of alcohol and drink out of them first thing in the morning, where girls were fighting, stealing and doing drugs every day.”
You can tell that Headmaster Kumar is used to being taken seriously. His position is a badge of honour he wears with pride. “Why do you think these schools are in such bad shape?” I ask him.
“The parents just don’t care,” he replies, his voice growing louder and sterner. “They only send their kids here because it’s free – because the school gives them free lunch.”
“Hmm...Well, how do we make this school better?” I ask. “How do we make the state of education better? How do we give these students better futures?”
Headmaster Kumar is clearly not used to being interrogated. Growing slightly agitated with my lengthy questions, he sits down and takes off his glasses before responding. “You want to know what we should do? We should get rid of everything. Get rid of the benefits. Get rid of the schemes. Get rid of the reservations. Get rid of the RTE. We’ll fix this when people realize that the only thing that will save them is hard work.”
Headmaster Kumar brings the same sense of bravado to every interaction. When we’re sitting in his office that afternoon, two children walk in because they’ve been caught loitering in the halls.
“What have you done?” The headmaster’s question is directed as much at the boys as at the staff member accompanying them. One of the boys looks down sheepishly and begins to answer.
“I was in the hall –” begins the boy.
Before he can finish, the guard next to him – a tall, sleepy gentleman –interrupts, “Sir, he threw a rock at a light bulb outside and broke it.”
The headmaster shot me an “I told you so” look. He looks back at the guard and declares: “Call his parents. Tell them to bring 300 rupees to the school by this afternoon. They’ll pay for the light. If they can’t, he can’t come to school.”
He looks back at me, feeling fully justified in his agitation. “Get rid of the free ride. That’s how you fix it. There is no free ride.”
The parents of Jahangirpuri hold a similarly bleak view of Yasmin’s school. They convey the pain and frustration that’s built up over the years. “It’s violent and disgusting,” exclaims a parent during my conversation with him. “There’s just no discipline, so the kids get away with everything. They don’t learn. They just run around in that school.”
Perhaps the most hard-hitting are the reflections of a shopkeeper I met while exploring the community. Old, frail and in her sixties, she wears an expression that is both pained and tired. She and her husband have been running a vegetable shop for fifteen years that, occupying about 14 square metres, is smaller than any business I’ve ever seen.
Inside it are trays filled with onions, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, garlic and an assortment of other vegetables. Hanging above the vegetables are blackened jars half-filled with candy. Between the jars and the vegetables, hordes of flies swarm so voraciously that I find myself hesitating to walk through. Fortunately, she hurries through and leads me upstairs.
We’re sitting in the middle of her dimly-lit, single-room home situated on the second floor of a run-down pukka construction. “You’re talking about an excellent education but you just don’t understand. This school can’t even give us the basics. They can’t enforce discipline. They can’t keep kids out of fights. They can’t ensure that kids learn. Are my kids better off in that school or at home with me?”
I realise I’m apprehensive of my own answer to that question.
She and her friends nevertheless hold Headmaster Kumar in high regard. These parents see him as a disciplinarian that the community and the school need.
For them, he is someone with the authority to bring order to an otherwise lawless situation: a brave, glorious lion tamer in a circus of unruly children. They pause every time I mention his name. And all of them echo the shopkeeper, who says, “I’ve heard that things are changing because of him. He commands respect. Maybe he can fix this school.”
The parents – like everyone else in Jahangirpuri – are starved for hope, and they have reason to be cynical. Statistically, about four out of every five kids are destined to drop out before they even get to the tenth standard.7 They will continue living in the cycle of poverty, just like their parents and the many generations before them.
Feelings of resignation and despair permeate Jahangirpuri. Some families have simply lost the will to dream because they’ve stopped believing that a better life is possible.
Others have never known anything else and, as a result, believe that dreams of greater opportunity are nothing more than fairy tales. For some, like fourteen-year-old Arbaaz and his mother, the pain of their current reality is so overwhelming that any effort to change it seems futile.
Arbaaz is a diffident little boy who attends the same school as Yasmin and lives right next door. His voice is excessively soft, to the point of being inaudible, and he rarely makes eye contact.
“What do you want to do after you finish school?” I ask.
“I just want to get a job.”
“What kind of job would you like to do?”
“Any job. I just want to be earning when I get out of school. I need to earn.”
“Okay. What do you like to do in your free time?” Arbaaz stares at me blankly. “You must have some interests? Do you play any sports?”
“Then what do you do after school? School ke baad kya kartein ho?”
“Nothing. I’m just here at home.” I look at his mother for some kind of explanation. “I don’t let him go outside,” his mother jumps in. “Three years ago, a local boy pulled a blade out on Arbaaz and threatened to kill him if he ever saw him again. Since then, I refuse to let him out of the house. He walks to school and then comes right back home. Along that 500-metre path, he is to keep his head down and avoid eye contact with anyone.”
“What about your time in school? Do you like it there?”
“Ha!” Arbaaz’s mother exclaims, speaking for him again. “The government isn’t interested in D Block, so how do you expect the kids to take an interest in school? The government knows the kids here can’t get anywhere. So they send us the worst teachers in town.” Her voice bears no trace of emotion. Instead, she offers an explanation that is both direct and clinical.
“Why do you send your kids to school, especially if you know it’s so bad?”
“I send Arbaaz to school because I don’t want him to be exploited. I want him to learn. I want him to have a better life than I do. You don’t need to tell me that the school is bad. I know that. But what choice do I have? What’s the alternative? I’m lucky that Arbaaz is a boy. You know, my sister had to pull her two girls out after the fifth standard. It was too violent. Arbaaz may not talk much, but he can handle the fights. He has to. As long as there’s a school, he’s going to have to put up with all of this so that he can finish his education.”
Arbaaz’s mother talks with a sense of realism and logic that is jarring and depressing. I notice that she looks far older than a woman in her mid-thirties. Over the next few hours, we discuss Arbaaz’s battles in Jahangirpuri: the dangers he’s faced, his fights with local Bengalis, the simmering tension between Hindus and Muslims and the apparent bleakness of his future.
She does most of the talking, and as she speaks, my mind drifts to the afternoon I spent with Headmaster Kumar. I think about his declarations of “hard work” and his conviction that parents “just don’t care”.
Excerpted with permission from Grey Sunshine: Stories from Teach for India, Sandeep Rai, Aleph Book Company.