Initially, when they came they came in tattered clothes, lice-infested matted hair, running noses with deadpan expressions on their faces. They did not look like children at all.
"The image of a child of five wearing a full-sized blazer with nothing underneath is etched in my memory. Yet another little child of probably three came wrapped in a torn bedsheet. Their life is tough and full of misery from the day they are born. It is a harsh world for them, they did not know what love and caring is.
When the school started with 7 children, I did not know where we were heading. Today as I look back, it fills me with a sense of immense gratitude to God who chose me as His instrument to do something for these hapless children. I have loved every moment of the work done- it has blessed and enriched my soul; it has healed and energized my diseased body."
Over the last 17 years, Prakash Deep has made a visible impact on the underprivileged children of Faridabad. We have touched the lives of many who have come and gone. Many have stayed with us and have flourished right in front of our eyes, and given us hope for the future.
PrakashDeep has given them dreams but there are many who have left us wondering as to where we went wrong- where are they and where did they belong! Here are some stories that could not be forgotten.
It was November 14, 2009. Children from Prakash Deep decided to march to Mathura Road to protest against Child Labour. At least one hundred of them marched near the Badkal Bridge and made a long chain on the divider, attracting the attention of passersby.
Carrying huge banners and placards protesting against child labour, they asserted their right to education. When I heard the students chanting loud and clear without any prompting, that they would never work as child labourers and would never leave school, the resolve and understanding of the students suddenly hit me.
I realized that day that they had crossed a barrier and would never go begging on the streets, would never go garbage picking or go to work as little masons or labourers. They were our little lights ready to light their own path.
WHERE DO THEY BELONG? - PUTUL
Putul, a small built girl could not have been more than six years old, came to the school one fine morning carrying a little baby of a few months precariously balanced on her waist. She had been brought from a village in Bihar where she lived with her grandparents. She must have felt lost in the urban surroundings of Faridabad and the filthy slum-like village of Fatehpur where she lived in a small room with her parents and a newly born sibling. She was brought, I now presume, to take care of the new baby and takeover the other house-hold chores which included cooking, cleaning, washing and fetching water. A good-looking child with an innocent smile, she always came to school in an orange skirt and a faded top which kept sliding down her shoulder. She spoke a Bihari dialect which I could hardly understand.
The next I knew was that she was lost. She deposited the little baby with her friend who daily walked back with her after school and just went away. Nobody knew where. The mother came crying to our school the next day. We went to the police Chowki to file this report. It wasn’t easy- the in-charge wanted a photograph of the child which the parents did not have. He even alleged that the father who was an alcoholic might have sold the girl. With much persuasion, we managed to get him to inform other police stations to look for the girl with whatever description of the child we could give them. Police did not move and little Putul was not found. Scared parents made no noise and the child was forgotten.
Three weeks later when she was brought to my door by an old man who had heard about our free school, the story that came out was that her father had beaten her so hard striking her head against the wall, telling her she was lazy, hadn’t filled up water, cleaned the utensils, cooked or washed the clothes, that she was scared to go home. She preferred to walk into the unknown instead of returning home to the cruelty of her father and the apathy of her mother. She spent the first few days working in a Dhaba and slept out in the open. One evening she was thrown out from there. An old woman took her home where she lived with her family for some days. The old woman who herself was poor with a large family left her one evening in the jungle near Badkal. Sobbing in the night she was found by the old man, who took her home and kept her for some days and brought her to me dusty, barefooted and dazed. She clung to me and cried inconsolably and refused to go home. In the evening when I took her to her parents she would not come out of the car.
The scared look in her eyes has followed me through the nights. She never came back to school.
Where is Putul? Where did she belong?
A FACE LOST IN THE CROWD
He came with two of his little siblings to our school at the young age of seven. In the distant background, I could see his emaciated mother suckling a little baby while trying to manage the other two little ones under the shade of the Banyan Tree. He, as the oldest, spoke for the family asking if I could arrange a place for them to stay in our sector where people have partly constructed houses for which they keep chowkidars to maintain the place. Unfortunately, I did not even know of anyone who would have given them- a family of six children, a place to stay.
I admitted two of them to the school though. Clad in their new uniforms with empty stomachs they came to school every day. The school provided a mid-day snack to children those days, which was hardly sufficient to quell their hunger, but it was something.
The Lions Club Tri-Centenary distributed sewing machines to poor women on the Baisakhi day, so I took his mother along. She was gifted a sewing machine. Soon thereafter, the family disappeared. Months later, on one of my errands, I saw the whole family trudging barefooted looking for a place to dig their feet in. Apparently life in the village was no better than in Faridabad, and they had returned. Again I lost track of them.
Last month he came and asked me again if I could make living arrangements for his family. I asked him where he lived and he told me he lived in a village thirty miles from Faridabad. He had taken a free ride in a tempo and had come to see me. The sewing machine, he told me had been sold by his father who used the money to buy liquor. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to help his family find a place to live. I gave him a banana, which he took gladly and promised to come to school every day. There was no disappointment on his face, but he did not come to school. I still look for the muddy face and a head with ruffled-hair on the streets. He might still come one day.
As we do not have a place of our own, having residential schools is a distant dream.
I don’t know if I can call it transformation, but there has been a definite change from the earlier days. He came to us from a broken household at the age of six, his button less shirt hanging partly out of his shorts. He had an elder sister and three younger siblings. His father was an alcoholic and did not stay with them or make any contributions to the family. His mother worked in a factory on a pittance.
What brought him to our school, I do not know. There weren’t any incentives like food or other goodies during those days. But he came and never missed an opportunity to raid nearby gardens and ransack fruit trees. Owners often came to us complaining. The poor boy was always hungry. However hard I tried to keep him from raiding the gardens and trees, he continued to slip away, making sure to quietly sneak back in time for the two biscuits we distributed those days during lunch break.
He had a sharp brain and a talent for drawing. He could create things out of nothing. He loved making models. He surprised me once by creating a model of Ganesha. He had no religious hassles, though he came from a Muslim household. He sang beautiful Bhajans (hymns in Hindi).
He was not interested in studies. He quietly picked up my purse one day. The truth came out much later when my tattered purse was found by one child in the garbage dump. His younger brothers blurted out the truth. He had spent the money and given some to his mother. When I questioned him, he reluctantly confessed. It came out that his mother had lost her job. He, as the eldest son, felt the need to do something. I tried explaining to him that he could have asked me and that in future if money was needed he should let me know instead of taking without permission. He made many more transgressions as he grew into adolescence. At times I felt he had crossed all limits and I should really throw him out of school but some small voice within me told me to keep my cool. I knew if he was sent away from the school, he would be back on the street exposed to all the menaces waiting to trap such children. His only hope lay in the school. Somehow my faith in his potential also remained unshaken. Somehow we managed to get him through the secondary school level through the open school. He did well in computers- he in fact excelled.
We got him a job and soon he started to work in SAP. He seems settled after having changed his job for more money. I still don't know where he is heading but he is not on the street!
GETTING INTO THE MAINSTREAM - RITESH & TARA
Ritesh is the son of a mason. He was quiet and shy when he came to our school. I found him to be consistent in his work, quick on the uptake and overall intelligent. It was a pleasure to see him ready with the correct answers even before I had finished asking the question.
Tara, daughter of a watchman, came to us as a little baby. Insecure and unsure, she went trailing behind her elder sister like a little lamb. They had lost their father in an accident. In her quiet way, she worked her way up diligently. Both Ritesh and Tara did well in Hindi and Mathematics, but English was another story. When Mr. Kuldip Singh, the Hon. Principal of the Homerton Grammar School agreed to take two students from our school, I recommended their names. Both got admission on the basis of their excellent performance in the entrance test. Both of them worked hard and performed exceptionally well in the final examination in the new school and in their respective classes, even in English: a matter of pride for Prakash Deep!
Subsequently, 13 more students from Prakash Deep found admission in the Gold Field School in March 2010, faring much better than other children coming from the affluent strata of society. Every year the number increased and in 2015, we had 82 children mainstreamed to regular schools. Final number went beyond hundred.
Currently in 2020, Ritesh is in College in the final year of BCA. He has taken up a part-time job as well to support his family. Tara is in college as well studying Home Science and has dreams of becoming a dietician.
THROUGH THE CRUCIBLE OF FIRE - SITA
It was 2003 when Sita and her three sisters entered our lives. They had lost their father who had been working as a watchman in the sector in which we live. Soon they were out of school and had no place to live with no source of livelihood. Their beautiful mother worked hard and, with some help, the children were sent back to school. She toiled day and night to make ends meet.
Sita was bright. She finished secondary and senior secondary from the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) and became the first teacher in our school. In the second half of the day, she went for a Computer Fundamentals Course, an English Language Course and also finished the Nursery Teachers Training over the course of two years. At home, she helped her mother and looked after her sisters. Two of the younger ones were sent to the Gurukul in Delhi where they studied for six years.
Their mother suffered from a rare disease called Moya Moya. Sita stood by her day and night and slept out in the open in the All India Medical Institute. Her mother recovered and came home. Moya Moya attacked again and after a fortnight of struggling, she breathed her last. Four young members of the Prakash Deep family had lost their mother also.
Sita walked barefoot to the cremation ground, shouldering the funeral pyre and lighting it, a task normally done by sons. Her Prakash Deep family stood by her, and our hearts went out to her in her hour of adversity.
Sita and one of the younger sisters are married now and each has a child of their own. The third sister is employed in a factory and Tara- the youngest one is in college studying to become a dietician.
Sita herself has taken over the job of maintaining Accounts in Prakash Deep School.
SLUMS: HELL ON EARTH
On the way to the New Industrial Town of Faridabad’s Sector 4 and 5 near the Hanuman Mandir and the cremation ground, is the slum which has been the target area for us for the last year. There are at least fifty children there who have no access to education or basic facilities like water or electricity. All those who have driven past the slums can only imagine what kind of lives these children lead. Their muddy faces, matted hair and rags clinging to their emaciated bodies speak volumes.
A closer look at the slum is even more distressing. The first Jhuggi that I saw had a small Mandir (temple) at the entrance. Despite the hell-like conditions they live in, amazingly, they can still keep the faith. Before getting to the jhuggis, one has to cross an 8 ft. wide drain, full of muck. There are a few bamboos balanced precariously to form a bridge. I wondered if we could even get across without falling into the slush, but we made it and found hell on earth.
In a cluster of these jhuggis lives a little boy named Vishal. His parents are no more. He lives on the bounty of others who do not have much to offer themselves. One day he was sitting, surrounded by filth, eating some left-overs he found when a dog pounced on him and bit him. This happened on a Saturday when the school was closed. On Monday morning when I saw him, I took him to the doctor. He was given a tetanus shot. It was too late for anti-rabies, but fortunately, the dog wasn't rabid and the little boy healed from the bite.
The boy would walk around the school with his legs bent. We had suspected that he was suffering from Polio, but our doctor friend checked him and found that he is normal. He made him race with another boy and he ran normally. We now know that he has been made to believe that he has polio and to act accordingly to make for better success when begging.
What all goes on in slums!
WHAT WENT WRONG
She came from a large family: four brothers and three sisters. Five of them came to our school.
One of the brothers I had to pull out from a garbage cart where he was made to sit and was expected to jump out to collect the garbage. This he did and deposited the garbage skillfully into the cart where he himself sat. The youngest one snatched things from other children and ran away. At four years old, stealing and fighting was no problem. The eldest girl, though good in studies, was withdrawn from school to cook and clean and wash while the mother went to work. The youngest girl was quite bright and we chose to mainstream her into a regular school. It was the middle one who continued to come to us.
Somehow she was the one who had to be beaten up and scolded for whatever happened in the house. The father was an alcoholic. Whatever money he earned went into drinking. The children were always hungry. Depressed by the way things were, she decided to drink a whole bottle of phenyl in an attempt to end her life. She survived though and came back to school all dazed. Sadly, this is not typical of just one family. This is the story of most poor families struggling to survive. Our best efforts to reason with parents did not help. Sadly one after the other, all the children from this family were withdrawn to go back to their earlier activities.
Where, did we go wrong, I wondered !