I grew up in Calcutta. My father left us when I was only a few months old and my mother raised me and my two siblings on her own. As if that wasn't challenging enough, my family was also one of only two in our neighborhood not involved in prostitution. When I grew old enough to understand what my neighbors did for a living, I realized what a truly remarkable woman my mother was, and the importance of what she did for the community.
Every day after lunch, after she had finished the household work, a group of ten children or so would come to our house - the children of the prostitutes. My mother would sit with them, get them bathed and fed, and teach them various academic subjects. She became so involved in these children's lives that she even helped arrange a few of the girls' weddings into respectable families.
My mother was a huge inspiration to me, and when I grew older I began taking care of the children as well. I even began my own program to teach them drama and dance. I was still in school and the group was in no way official, but it still caught the attention of some bigwigs in the city who offered me funding to expand. However, at the same time, I was accepted into the dance program at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi, and decided to move there in 1991 to pursue what was an amazing opportunity. It meant that my work with the children came to an end, but I would soon learn that it would not be nearly so easy to distance myself from the work emotionally.
After graduating with a BA in dance, I began teaching in a few different public schools, but never found satisfaction. A friend of mine offered me and my husband funding to start a street theater group, so we did and I immediately began to find joy in my work again. For one project, we did a summer workshop with a group of slum children living around the Nizamuddin Railway Station. After the performance, whenever we would meet one of these kids on the street (they were "ragpickers", meaning they collected trash to sell), they would approach us with affection and respect. It was then that my husband and I decided to start a more substantial project for these children with whom we had developed a bond, and Nav Jagriti (meaning "New Awakening") was born.
A Humble Beginning
Begining in 2005, my husband and I would sit at the Railway Station for a couple of hours every day to engage with the children behind the Reservation Office under a tree. Men would be playing cards and doing drugs in the vicinity, and felt uncomfortable with a woman moving in and being a general nuisance. They were able to get our tree cut down, but I didn't let that stop me. We still sat there, under the scorching sun. The same men then complained to the railway police about our presence, but the cops ended up being very supportive of our endeavor. We would bring coloring books and crayons with us, and the children would come, trickling in at first, but then in big groups. Eventually, all of the neighborhood children knew that the two of us would be sitting in our spot from 11 to 1 every day, and they came. Children working as ragpickers or sweepers, children addicted to drugs, they all came.
One day an old friend of mine from the US, Shreya, stopped by to see me at the railway station. She found my husband and me, as usual, sitting in the middle of a big bunch of kids who were painting, drawing, eating samosas and laughing. She was amazed by what we were doing, and upon her return to the US, she circulated some pictures she had taken to her friends. A couple months later, an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) who had heard of us through Shreya came to see our work. The US-based organization she worked for, Asha For Education, agreed to fund our project for 3 years. An exciting new world of possibilities suddenly opened up.
Hitting Our Stride
With the money from Asha for Education, we were able to rent a room in the neighborhood. After getting the center ready, we went about surveying how many children weren't in school and the reasons why. It turned out the reasons were nothing new - the parents had no money for school fees, or the children were sent out as ragpickers (to gather salvage) and were actually depended on to make money for the family. For these reasons, the parents weren't interested in sending their kids to school. The first thing we did was invite the parents to the center to try and sell them on their children's education. Our proposition was simple - if they would agree to send their kids to school, Nav Jagriti would pay for not only their school fees, but for their meals, uniforms, medical expenses, everything. They need not worry where the money was coming from, all they had to do was agree to let their children go. It took a long time to convince the parents, but we finally did.
- We're sending over 100 children to school.
- A few runaway children live at the center full time, and we have reconnected them with their families, even if they remain estranged.
- With both Muslim and Hindu students, a Hindu staff, and foreign volunteers from all over the world, Nav Jagriti students are taught the value of diversity and religious tolerance. The students participated in a protest against fundamentalist Islam's prohibition of women's education.
- We've hired two employees - Rizvana and Laxmi, who teach lessons and care for the center.
The family lives of these children are often perilous. Their parents don't believe in family planning, but neither do they think about the future and how to provide for all of their children. Some parents even have children just to earn money from them. I have always felt that children from families like this need a space away from the worries and tensions of the household, and for these children, that space is Nav Jagriti. Yes, it is a place for study, but we also try to provide an atmosphere where they can let loose and be children for at least a little while in-between school and home.
An Uncertain Future
Although Asha for Education originally committed to funding us for three years, they ended up funding us for much, much longer. Every year, during their annual review of all their projects, they could see that we were having a great impact and always voted to renew our funding. However, in 2019, we received some bad news: the chapter of Asha managing our project (New York/New Jersey), was shutting down. Asha is an entirely volunteer-run organization, and as the members of the NY/NJ chapter grew older, they found themselves no longer able to devote the necessary time to raise funds for their projects. They notified us that they would not be able to fund Nav Jagriti past March of 2020.
Now we must find a new source of funding. I hope that our story has convinced you that we are a worthwhile endeavor that should continue. If you are interested in supporting our project, please contact us. To learn more about some of our students and how we've impacted their lives, click the button below.