Road trip. That’s what did last summer. We decided we needed to meet and see every one of the young entrepreneurs we’ve supported. We knew they were role models for kids, we just now, needed to know how.
Ruchi and Nitin set out on a 40 day trip.
One day, they went to Yavatmal and discovered something that everything was a little bit upside down (in a good way). There seemed to be women driving everywhere.
Kalpana, drives a red tractor, while just around the corner, Savita drives a school bus to take girls to school.
Why? Because men didn’t get around to doing it. Kalpana realized her farmer friends were in trouble because there was only one tractor. During harvest season, this meant crops could not be harvested fast enough to make it to market. So Kalpana decided she’d learn how to drive a tractor. She made a plan for getting a tractor. And now she’s helping all the farmers where she lives.
Meanwhile, Savita was looking after her children, her brothers children, and she was worried about the girls. They all went to school 5 km away but the bus service was erratic, sometimes when it was overloaded the bus would leave kids to walk home alone, through the forest. Savita would not put up with it. She too learned how to drive. She made a plan for a school bus service. And today she takes 12 girls to school, back and forth, two school trips a day.
We were so excited by meeting two new women drivers that we thought about it a little more deeply.
Why do hundreds of thousands of girls bicycle to school and then once they finish school, they stop cycling?
Before, farmers were tilling their fields manually, spending four days for work that can now be finished in one hour. Kalpana’s services are on time, cheaper than the competitor’s from the other village and have a special offer of allowing paying in installments. The farmers are happy with her services. And the women think that Kalpana is a superwoman, “I had thought that she would not be able to drive the tractor. It is such a big vehicle and how can a woman drive wearing a saree. I am amazed that she did it”, Renukabai observed, she’s Kalpana’s neighbour.
Savita’s School Bus
Savita, the sole earning member in her family works hard to sustain a family of eight – and those eight are her mother-in-law and seven children! Savita is not new to stirring things up, she’s well known for working for the empowerment of women, before we met her, she’s already organised a group rally to shut down the wine shop and worked with the women to save money in a self help group. She wanted to do something which would help everyone and most importantly girls. Everyone was taking the bus from her village in the forest to reach to the school five kilometers away. Children would walk one kilometer to the bus stop and then wait or miss the bus which was never on time. Parents would not allow the girls to go to school because it was not safe.
Now 12 girls from her village go to school in Bittergaon and dream of going to college too. “I am so satisfied now, my daughter is with Savita and I know she is safe”, says Kavita Bhimte whose daughter travels in Savita’s school bus.
Women drivers can change the world
We know Kalpana’s and Savita’s story will inspire more girls and women to take the challenge and start driving their own vehicles to bridge the gap of accessibility for women. This is a key indicator for the changing values in our society by learning the skills of taking initiative and breaking the rules.
Here’s the preview of their graphic novel going to print, to be released in our 2015 Design-thinking skills@school program.
What is it like to go to school in India? As important it is for a child to go to school, learning has to be fun for kids and nothing engages a child as a good story. If children read stories in school, it will impart values, skills and will increase their reading habits. When children read stories, they are given the liberty to imagine, create and envision the story as anything they want to. Stories impact their young minds and these stories help them solve problems they confront in their lives.
We believe in the power of stories to change the school systems. The stories we write for children comes in beautiful colours, with detailed illustrations and graphics. With every story come a skill they learn and a skills challenge they complete.
As India innovates, we are taking stories to the next level to be accessible to kids around the globe. We are going digital! Storytelling has been an effective tool to teach kids from years. Children relate to the protagonist and care for matters that affect their community. Deepanshu Prakash Soni, a grade 9 student reads skills stories every Saturday and is learning a new skill every week.
She says, “There are too many road accidents taking place nowadays. I think the local municipality who is at fault because they cut down so many trees to build the roads, and they didn’t put any speed breakers. They have not put any signboards and the roads have very sharp turns”.
It’s time for kids globally to read these stories and identify the problems existing in their communities and be the problem solver who comes with a plan. Find a range of stories on our online library and learn a new skill every skill! Are you ready to get aboard on the digital journey and bring a change with one story at a time? All aboard! It’s time to visit the library. www.goingtoschool.com
“I don’t like being dependent but without people with you it’s very difficult to go far.” Rupal, age 13 years
Vaishali, 3 pm
Rupal is sitting on the wall in front of her house. She’s staring at the broken road. On the way home from school shefell off her bicycle at the same spot where her sister had tripped and broken her shoe. Rupal dislikes where she lives, she can’t stand her neighbors-truth be told, shehatesherslum. Five years ago she moved here and for five years she’s seen broken roads, garbage dumps and overflowing sewers. Nobody cares enough to do anything. Her neighbours are not friendly, nobody says ‘hello’when they pass on the street, not even a nod. Everyone is too self involved to do anything else but step over the trash, step over the pot hole.
Rupal had to fix the road. She would start now. She jumpedoff of the wall and picked up the first empty bottle. Then she walked two steps and picked up two empty packets of chips, a plastic bag. Her hands were full, she dropped her collected garbage and came back with a green dustbin. It wasn’t long before the little dust bin was full. She walked back home to empty the dust bin in the waste bin in her house. With a clean dust bin she walked out again. Two hours. Finally the dust bin in her house was full. She would start again tomorrow. As she walked home she saw new trash in the street. Her eyes fill with tears. She climbs the stairs to her house and her sister is sittingthere, watching.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not going to stop till the roads are clean, then I will figure out a way to fix the roads, so that I don’t fall off my bicycle and you don’t break your shoe.”
“Right. And you plan to do this alone?
Tomorrow is Sunday. Rupal repeats her steps. She feels that she’s cleaning the same street she had cleaned yesterday – the garbage is the same. By noon, she was tired. Her little brother comes running up to her.
“Do you need some help?”
Rupal rolled her eyes, “Isn’t that obvious.”
“Not really. You should have asked.”
Rupals’ brother races home, and hollersto his other sisters. “Rupal needs our help!”
And so it was that five girls and one little boy cleaned up the dirty streets of Bank Men’s colony. They were at work when the sun set dusk. By evening they had cleaned a lot, but there was still so much to do.
Rupal did a quick assessment. Honestly, there was no way she could fix the broken road, she did not have the equipment or the strength. She had to go to Municipality Administrator’s office to understand what could be done. The security guard outside did not let her in. She looked too young. So she returned the next day with her two older sisters. The guard respectfully let them in. The girl had returned with adults.
“You want me to send my engineers to fix your road because you think there is something wrong with it. Why should I believe you? And even if there is such a problem, if other people in your colony don’t think it’s problem then why do you?”
The Municipal Officer was not very helpful.
On their way home, Sarita, the eldest sister asked Rupal, “Maybe we should tell our neighbours about your plan. Maybe if everyone agrees, the administrator will agree.”
Rupal was stubborn. “I am not asking anyone for help. Lakshmi Aunty walks past me picking up garbage every day, and she’s never asked me if I need help. So why should I go ask?”
“Sometimes people do care but like to keep away and not interfere. Others feel that you may not want to include them – that is why you haven’t asked them yet. Still there are others who need a push or a nudge or sometimes even a drag in the right direction,” explained Sarita encouragingly.
Rupal frowned. “But they all saw me work, they saw us work, why didn’t they say anything. This is their road as much as mine, they also fall, they also get hurt, but why don’t they care?”
“Remember last Sunday, when you were cleaning alone, and then our brother saw you cleaning. And he asked us to come help you?”
“It’s not that none of us saw you. We all saw you clean the day before and clean on Sunday morning, but we did not feel the necessity to help you. We thought you must be doing something for a school project. We were busy with our own work, thoughts. None of us took the initiative you took or felt responsible for all this mess. But then once you explained what you were trying to achieve we came to help you. Remember how quickly we worked as a team, and how much faster we got the street cleaned together?Maybe our neighbours are so used to seeing this neighbourhood this way that they have begun to think this is normal. They don’t have the privilege of seeing new problem solving techniques and reading stories about that they way you do in school. Even your three little detective friends needed each other to solve their mysteries. They spent so much time with other villagers, asking the so many questions. You can never take on a mission by yourself, you will always have to involve others. And here you must remember that no one will come to you first. You need to take that step. To ask for help. Asking for help, will never make you a smaller person or a less determined person. Everyone needs a team, and many people will always work faster and better than a single person. Don’t you think so?”
Rupal nodded. Sarita was a teacher, she knew what she was talking about.
Next day after on her way back from school, Rupal passed by Lakshmi Aunty again.
“Lakshmi Aunty, Hi! I am Rupal and I live in that pink and yellow house down the road. I have started a LET’S CLEAN BANK MEN’S COLONY PROJECT – to clean our neighborhood and get the Municipality Administrator to bring some engineers to fix our roads. I was wondering if you could sign my petition?”
Lakshmi aunty frowned and then smiled. “Is that what you have been up to? I assumed you must be picking up things to stick on your scrap book. My son used to do that. Why didn’t you tell me before? Of course I’ll sign your petition. In fact, I’ll ask my husband to speak to his boss about this. He is the Municipal Administrator’s best friend.”
Rupal was awestruck. Slowly she walked back to her house. Tomorrow she would draft a a petition and knock on every door to tell them her plan. She had given up on her neighbors so easily. They were just different people, minding their own business. They did not have her drive and determination, but that did not mean that they did not want to help her. They were just waiting for someone else to take the first step. All she had to do was begin.
“I am determined to the make the world safe for women and girls, that’s what drives me – we can’t live in a world that’s not safe for girls, we just can’t.” Alisha, age 15
Patna, 8:07 a.m.
Alisha’s fatherpulls on his uniform looking for his rickshaw keys. His is momentarily stalled by a pair of soft palms clasping his worn hands to request, insist, “Hurry, we’ll be late Papa, I have to interview an entrepreneur to make a newspaper at school.”
Mr. Khan smiles. Alisha is excited to go to school on Saturday. He’s given up his morning auto-run to take her to meet Ochu, a sweetshop owner. Alisha wants to interview him, and he didn’t want to her to go alone. He’ll lose RS 1,500 today by not working. That worries him. It will cut into his savings. He’s been saving for two yearssince the day Alisha turned 13. There will be a wedding reception. He will apply for a personal loan this afternoon, after dropping Alisha to school. He’ll mortgage his rickshaw, hundreds of people will have a feast, Alisha a new sari, her groom, surrounded by laughing friends and family, and he, a proud father watching.
Alishawill have to stop school of course. He can’t afford to send her next year. Higher secondary school is intermediate college – the fees are higher, the prices of books increasing – her uniform is too small, her shoes too – she wants to pay for extra classes to be able to study for the civil services exam. Mr. Khan frowns thinkingabout her plans. She’s always wanted to become a police officer. Mr. Khan and his wife were shocked when she told them this: a young woman policeofficer, who had ever seen that? There’s no way he would allow Alisha to wear those clothes and risk her life like that. But Alisha’s was determined – she told him that she wanted to show the world that girls could become anything they wanted, especially a police officer who would ensure that other girls like her were safe. Mr. Khan loved his daughter, but what could he do. She had turned 15 last year, and people had already begun to talk at her father’s inability to find her a suitable groom.
“I am ready and you are not,” she breaks into his thoughts, hurrying down the stairs he climbs into his rickshaw. Alisha sits in the back, wearing her her school uniform, bag on her lap, a press card with her name pinned to her dupatta, and a smile. Her in-laws probablywon’t let her go back to school. He drives to Ochu’s sweet shop.
Alisha is tapping her foot, the only sign of her ebbing patience. She and her father had been waiting for over an hour at their table at Sadhu Hotel. Ochu, the sweet shop owner was giving them odd shoulder raising motions. The girl had initially annoyed him with her questions, driving away customers, but now he was curious – why was she here? She had said that he was a good entrepreneur to interview and that she wanted to interview him for her newspaper. He wondered who an entrepreneur was and why he was a good one as he weighed out half a kilo of his famous kala jamun to the customer before him.
It was afternoonby the time Ochu had made a receipt for his last customer, swatted the flies away from his halwa and jalebis, wiped his counter clean and made his way to the waiting girl and her father.
“An entrepreneur is a problem solver” Alisha explains, “You are the best of all entrepreneurs because you are solving a problem with a business.” Ochu’s face asks, what problem am I solving? “You provide food at very reasonable prices to hungry people don’t you?” Alisha answers at speed. “Students like me come to you, the rickshaw puller comes to you, my father comes to you when we have guests at home, and I’ve even seen the headmaster stop by for your samosa after school. So, you see you’re solving one problem already. Of hunger. Then, you pay Dinesh-bhai to sweep the floors and clean the utensils, you pay Ila-didi to help you make the samosas in the morning and you pay Geeta and Zulfi to hand out plates of food to your customers. You’ve built a team and you’re employing three women! You started a business that solves problems – that makes you an entrepreneur- a problem solving hero.”
As he watched Alisha skip away, her arm locked in her father’s, Ochu’s face was glowing.She called him a hero.
Mr. Khan had sat quietly and watched his daughter all morning. His earlier worries about not making enough money today or reaching the bank on time disappeared. He had watchedAlisha’s intelligent questions, the kindness with she explained her project to the irritated shop owner, and finally how her words and actions had changed Ochu from a grumpy man to melting sweetie.He started to see her in a khaki uniform, doing her best to make her country a safer and better place, rather than silent in a marriage hall.
Alisha chatted at speed as she clung on to his arm and they walked her to school. As they approached the school gate, she stopped and looked up to him, “Papa you now how I knew who was an entrepreneur? I thought of everything you do and told him.”
Ten minutes later Mr. Khan walked into the bank. The loan officer was just about to clear his desk. Mr. Khan placed all his documents on the table, and then said, “I need to mortgage my rickshaw for my daughter’s education loan.”
Bhojpur. 6.14 a.m.
“When you are born and survive as a girl, you have already taken a risk. I take risks every day by not thinking about the future, by thinking I will come back to school tomorrow to read stories with my friends, I take risks because I know anyone at anytime could stop me.” Anshu, age 13
Bhojpur is waking up to tinkling cow bells and a sleepy farmer is walking towards his cattle. His unhurried footsteps are no match for the pair of flip-flops that fly past him, school bag spilling open, papers fluttering and a white dupatta struggling to escape – waving in the wake of a running girl.
6.15 a.m. Anshu is late for her coaching class. She knows her teacher must have already begun talking about the rise of the grand Mughal empire and she doesn’t want to miss it. Once, with her family, she had travelled to Delhi where she saw fort ruins, they were giant. The largest and oldest thing she had seen until then was the 200 year-old banyan tree that stood behind her school. Her mind is wandering again, slowing her down she scolds herself. She has to focus on running. But harvest season has begun so she has to help around her house. Help her mother and her aunts bring in the grain, help her brothers pack it into big sacks and store it around the house. She has been asked to stay back from school and help – not just today, but many days.
Anshu’s father lives in Jaipur and so she’s been left in charge of being responsible and taking action- addingweight and force to her thirteen years. Several years ago, when her family had decided to move from Madhya Pradesh to Bihar, Anshu had been separated from her family at the Patna railway station. In the whirl of sounds, smells, people, and suitcases, she remembers being afraid realizing what loss was. However, with measured footsteps she had found her way to the railway officer’s chambers and waited patiently until her father came to get her. Once she realized that she could take care of herself she realized she did not need to be afraid. Thoughts are distracting her, she knows her classmates will have moved on to Humayun after learning about Babur. Her teacher understand that girls are expected to miss school and help at home, that’s why they were usually late for class or did not turn up at all. But Anshu thinks maybe he does not understand that some girls really do want to come to school to learn new things. If girls can’t tell their parents they want to go to school – perhaps teachers could try? Parents might listen to them.
She nods to Doctor Uncle who is swiftly walking in the opposite direction. He must be late too. He usually opens his door to patients at 6 a.m. every morning. Harvest season is slowing everyone down. There are five doctors in the village now. Two years ago there were none and everyone had to take a bullock cart and two buses to reach the nearest hospital. Anshu still wants to become a doctor. She always feels needed when she is able to help relieve other people’s fears and worries. For reasons she does not understand, she wants to treat bones. Bones that break so easily while you run and bones that are the building block of everything we do. She wonders if doctors who treat bones could also be interested in the Mughal Empire. Maybe she can study about the bones of the emperors – there are actually people who do that. Archaeologists they are called. But they cannot cure people.
Anshu has been reading stories about people who do unbelievable things – like a man who builds bridges in South India, a woman who makes solar lamps, and a boy who opened a tribal medicine centre. She reads these stories on Saturdays when she goes to school for skill story school. This is the only day of school she really likes, her teacher says he likes it too. Saturday is three days away.
Anshu runs the last ten steps to her coaching class catching her flying dupatta. As much as she wants to see the world, she loves her village and her people. She will go to Patna and maybe even Delhi to study, but she will come back to home. There are five doctors here already, but she could be the next one – she’ll be theonly doctor who will build a hospital and will treat bones and tell stories of Mughal emperors. But her big dream depends on tomorrow. If her family will let her go back to school. Her dream for every tomorrow to go to school school is the risk she takes every day.
“People must understand that girls should be allowed to play just like boys. Games have to be part of school, I’m going to make sure games become part of our timetable again.” Neeru, age 15
Bettiah, West Champaran, 3.22 pm
Neeru and her friends can’t wait for the last bell to ring. Their legs are stiff from sitting in the same position for over two hours. Neeru has been looking at the last postcard her brother sent her. It’s a photograph of him playing football with his friends at his boarding school. She looks at field outside her classroom. Their school had a beautiful field within its compound but grass and weeds had grown making it impossible to play. The shed in which all the games equipment was stored was home to cobwebs and creepy-crawlies. The footballs were punctured and the cricket bats chipped and broken.
The field had once held two football nets and a cricket pitch but ever since the games teacher left there was no one to teach games. Since they were in a girls’ school, they could only have a female games teacher. There were no applicationsfrom women games teachers.
Neeru thought that no one realized how important games was. Playing was as important as studying, it made you strong. Neeru felt free when she used to run, like she was flying.
The last bell of the day rang cutting into Neeru’s thoughts. She passed the boys playing their usual game of cricket on the streets. For as long as she could remember they’d always played cricket just there. But today, she stopped and watched. None of them wore shoes. They had no equipment. Their cricket bat was a broad stick, their ball was a chewed tennis ball and their wicket was a three legged chair. If the ball hit a tree stump you were awarded four runs, if it broke a window, you got six runs. They did not have an umpire or a coach. They created, broke and judged their own rules. They were very happy.
Neeru realized she had spent six months being sad about a problem instead of solving it.
First, she would speak to the gardener and ask him to mow the school lawns. She did not know who the gardener was, she had to find him. Then she would speak to her friends and together they would take an appointment with the principal and request her to allow them to play after school hours. Once they start playing after school hours, she was hoping that the principal would begin to notice how good they were and then the next step would be to speak to her about including games in their curriculum next year. Yes, she would make something out of nothing, just like the boys playing cricket.
Neeru turned back to see the ball sailing through the air and crashing into someone’s window shortly followed by jubilant cries from the winning team. Maybe she would become games teacher one day. There were doctors in the town, but no games teacher and that was who her school needed most right now, and who girls would need later to be able to play.
When asked what would you like to learn at school that you don’t yet, 59% of girls said overwhelmingly: NCC games. Games win. The World Economic Forum cites a healthy diet + exercise as one of the 10 skills you should leave high school with be work-ready, knowing how to be healthy, exercise and eat properly is imperative to have enough energy to work.
When we asked girls how they spent their time after school, 78% said studying [though we know realistically with transport and family demands they don’t have this much time], 15% said household work [while only 9% of boys said they help at home] and playing, sports, only received 5% for girls, and 9% for boys.
Giving girls space and time to play at school is imperative – when you exercise your body you open your mind, and in organized sports you learn other skills – team work, leadership, communication and negotiation – imperative life skills. Longer term, if there is NCC games in your school and you complete the tasks to receive a certificate, you get extra marks when you are applying to be a police officer, in the railways, army or police force.
Neeru is inquisitive, a problem-solver and is taking initiative to bring games to her school for girls. Neeru identified that her social connections can help her achieve her goal. 97% of girls in our program are curious about new things that can happen in and around them and once they are curious, the next step is finding out how to make that ‘new idea’ a reality in your school.
“It’s difficult to make a budget for 10,000 rupees. It’s easier to keep track of the amount of money you earn, spend and save when you have very little to deal with.” Ajmer
Siwan, 6: 15 pm
“Ajmer, keep this 10 rupees.”
Ajmer shook his head. He wasn’t going to accept money from someone who was poorer than him. Khala’s wall had begun to develop cracks and a large section of the bricks had fallen away. Neither Khala, nor her aged husband, who was a daily labourer like Ajmer’s father, could afford to fix it. Ajmer had painted a beautiful peacock with its feathers spread wide open over the broken wall.
Ajmer collected his paints and brushes and walked home. His bare legs shivered a little in the cold. As is in the winter months the sun was beginning to disappear and the evening sky was bursting in colours – purple pink blue and orange were flowing into each other, as though Ajmer’s paint brush had designed the sky.
It was a long day. He had woken up at 5 a.m. and painted a new section of his house. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find a spot that his paintbrush had not touched. Peacocks, elephants, flowers and detailed paintings of gods and goddesses occupied all walls of his house leaving little space for new occupants. After a new addition of birds flying out of a tree, Ajmer left for coaching class and from there cycled to school. After a tiring day at school where he read about emperors who had fought bloody battles, particles that had broken up into smaller atoms, and numbers that had added up to bigger numbers, Ajmer reached home to pick up his brushes again.
After a quick lunch, he completed his homework and left for Khala’s house. It had been many weeks since he had promised Khala that he would paint her house. But class tests, household work, painting classes that he took and painting classes he gave, were keeping him very busy. .
Ajmer feels painting is in his soul – his mother is from the distant village of Madhubani, the home of artists. Though she was never a painter, her son was, and he’s teaching other children who love to dip their fingers in bottles of paint and streak them across walls, trees and each other’s faces. Ajmer had invested a lot of time and energy convincing each mother in his village to send her child to him on Saturday afternoons to paint. No one had agreed. Why waste time with colours when you could do so many more important and useful things like cleaning feeding the cows.
First there was none, then there were two, the twins from next door. Then out of curiosity more children came to investigate the source of shrills and shrieks and colour. For six months Ajmer had given classes for free. Children came and used up all of his colours. But soon he began to run out of resources. To continue teaching he needed paints, and to buy paints he needed money. Ajmer had always known the value of money, his father had broken his back as a daily wage labourer to feed his entire family. But today he understood the importance of earning money, being able use his skill to earn money that would in turn buy him resources to be able to continue and survive. Ajmer knew, and the books on Saturday affirmed this, he had begun to understand how enterprises were run.
Although some of his students left when he brought up the subject of money, many stayed. Their parents did not mind paying 20 rupees a month to Ajmer so that their children could go crazy with colours. When 20 children began paying him 20 rupees each, Ajmer invited those who could not afford to pay him to return and began teaching them for free. He had more than enough money to buy new supplies. He promised himself he would never money from those who could not afford to pay – but just because you can’t pay, does not mean you don’t deserve to learn.
The moon had climbed really high by the time Ajmer reached home. His mother had laid out his food for him and was watchfully waiting his return. She smiled proudly at him as he handed over the 200 rupees that Sheikh Saab had given him yesterday. That would buy two months worth of groceries. Her husband had stopped working from the day Ajmer had started earning. Her 15 year old son was an entrepreneur.
Our data shows us that when it comes to saving money, 28% of boys and 36% of girls have a functional bank account, this is interesting because as minors their parents would have had to co-sign for them to have bank accounts [which means girls parents see value in girls having accounts in their own names]. Boys and girls tell us they their accounts to save money. Learning about money, budgets, cash flows and complex concepts such as compound interest are imperative. We love the fact that Ajmer knows how to value his artistic talent, and is saving what he earns to support his family. Ajmer is an artist and he’s converting his art into a financial literacy skill – he keeps track of what he earns, saves and can invest, but his values and morals are always in the right place, he’ll never charge someone who cannot pay.
Do young people like Ajmer, think work is honorable, do they see value in learning about work at school and do they understand money? Yes. 27% of girls told us that they go to school so one day they can get a job to become independent and 24% of girls want to get a job to support their family, 19% say if they work they know their family will be proud, 15% want to work for a company that everyone respects and 12% of girls say they want to get a job to have a stable income.
“Without my sister I would not be where I am today.” Sanjana, age 12
8:57 a.m Saran
Sanjana loves to read, go to school, read stories on Saturdays and paint. If you ask her who she thinks is great, first, she’ll say, her father who is the mukhiya of the village and has tried his best to develop all five villages under his watch. Sanjana’s father has built temples and bought solar panels ensuring that all homes use solar light. He’s built roads from the villages connecting them to the main road and he’s always liked to think he treats his sons and daughters equally. Well, nearly equally.
Sanjana lives in a joint family with her parents, her sister, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. Her brother works in the Indian Navy and is away on his ship. Right now he is sailing along the coast of Australia. He has sent postcards from the places he has visited. Sanjana’s parents have kept them tucked safely inside their cupboards.
Not once has Sanjana been asked to stop going to school to help her mother and aunts at home. Not once has she been asked to stop studying to prepare for her wedding. She’s never been rebuked by her family when she told them that she wanted to join the police force. Everyone encouraged her. If she made it, that would be the second child in the government service, which meant a permanent job. Nobody had questioned her ability to pass a difficult exam or get a job which is mostly done by men and is considered dangerous and difficult.
It’s been 15 years since then. Sanjana has not only cleared her Indian Police Service exam, but has become a Sub-Commissioner and is posted in New Delhi, the capital of the country. She goes home twice a year and every time she arrives in her white ambassador with a security guard and the Indian flag, in her brown uniform with a cap and a feather, the entire village runs after her car and there is a gala evening with dinner for everyone at her house. Celebrations everywhere for the daughter of the village who has made everyone proud by her determination and bravery.
A beautiful story. But the true hero of our story is not Sanjana. It is her older sister Priyanka.
Priyanka was the first girl born in the family. From the day she was born, her father started saving for her wedding. But Priyanka was not to marry. At least not immediately. Priyanka fell in love with stories. She used to read in Hindi and couldn’t stop reading. She fought to be able to go to college after completing her education so that she could read more.Her parents wanted their daughter to be wed as soon as she finished school. She was the Mukhiya’s elder daughter after all, and expectations from society were high. Her parents finally gave in to her wishes, but said that they would not give her any help or money.
While she was in college she began tutoring children in her village so that she could continue her education. She went to Patna city on her own. It was six hours away by bus and she brought back a post graduation application form for Patna University, the most reputed University in the state. She completed the application form and spent an entire month speaking to her father and explaining her dream to him. Finally her father let her apply. He thought that, there was no way that a girl from the small village of Chappra could get through a Masters’ program in the grand Patna University.
Not only did Priyanka get through, but she got a scholarship as well. Her father had to let her go. She moved to Patna on her own, finding accommodation in a girl’s hostel and taking the bus home every weekend on her own. After completing her Master’s degree she got into a PhD program too. Then she passed her NET exam and started to teach in her village. There were so many girls who were not as lucky as she was, who would not have the opportunity to go out and study. She knew she would have to give them the best education while they were still in school. She proved to her father, the rest of the family and her entire village that girls could do whatever they wanted to do. Because of Priyanka, Sanjana’s father never tried to stop his younger daughter from achieving her dreams.
There is no gala or feast or celebrations for Priyanka, she lives in the village, and has not done anything extraordinary like her younger sister. She’s just aschool teacher. But her sister knows that’s not true. She’s not just a school teacher, she is the sister with the drive and determination to do something different whose actions paved the way and cleared all obstacles and challenges from Sanjana’s path. For Sanjana, Priyanka is the true hero, the one we should be interviewing, the one we should have been writing the story about all along.
“Only when a problem presents itself, do we look for answers and when we do, we find a chance.” Priyanka, age 12
It was a very wet day. Heavy dark clouds had stolen the blue from the sky and splashed it instead with a cold grey. Priyanka walked with the busy traffic avoiding the muddy puddles and constant splashes from the speeding rickshaws, horses and lorries. Her white pajama bottoms were gradually turning brown and her white uniform was streaked with rain drops and mud spots.
School was over for the day. Over before it had even begun. Their teacher had not come. Priyanka assumed she had gone away on election duty. She wished school would tell you when it was not really open so girls wouldn’t have to travel so far to be told that there is no school. What a waste of time.
Priyanka lived close by, so she could walk. But there were 416 girls in her class. Not everyone lived near by. Girlstravelled on buses, on auto-rickshaws, many took the local train everyday to come to school. All Priyanka had to do was walk over the crowded busy road. School was only 4 kilometres away. But she felt terrible for other girls.
She noticed that slowly, over the past year, a lot of girls had stopped coming to school. She did not blame them. When they were younger, teachers used to take classes outside, under the tree, and the only time classes were cancelled was when it rained. They all loved the sudden rainy outbursts. But ever since they built proper rooms, with desks and chairs and a blackboard, school was no longer the same. The classroom could only seat 200 girls at a time. Though no one had told them not to come, not everyone was expected to come to school everyday. Girls, on their own, had made a silent decision, 200 came one week, and the remaining 200 came the next week. The teachers, if they took classes, never repeated themselves.
Priyanka missed her old school. This wasn’t school anymore, they didn’t teach and she didn’t learn. But that didn’t stop her from going to school every day. She realized she was learning from her family. Without intending to ,she was learning more from them than from her teachers. Yesterday, her uncle had taught her how to make a budget. He’s an entrepreneur and he started his own wedding card printing business – making a budget everyday was crucial for him. After he taught her she was able to explain the process to her friends during their Saturday skill and story class where they had just started reading ‘Asha makes a budget’. But there were onlysix girls at school that day.
When she thought hard about it, if anyone had asked her about her problems, she’d tell them for sure: we don’t have working schools in my district, and if you want to do well in exams, that’s quite a problem. Priyanka was scared that she might not be able to do well in her exams. How many questions would she answer if there was teacher was teaching? Would there be no more classes next year? What about Grade 11 and 12?
She swung her bag across her left shoulder to relieve the weight. Some girls were not allowed to go to school, some girls had to come from so far and others just couldn’t afford it. She was lucky to have a family who encouraged her to study and a school close by. But she knew it was a problem. How can you have a school that’s so full there’s no place to sit. A school so full that girls stop coming and no other government school to go to because they did not have room either? Priyanka walked into her house and closed the door behind her. Without teachers there would be no classes, without classes no learning about atoms and molecules, or fractions and geometry or even the tributaries and distributaries of the river Ganga, and without learning how would they write exams and become doctors and engineers and judges that they all aspired to? First thing tomorrow she would speak to her friends and make them realize what she understood, girls were going to have to make their own school a place they want to be.
And that new school, well it opens tomorrow.