About 4-5 years back, my friend Urvi was kind enough to enroll me along with her in a volunteer program to teach 9-10th standard underprivileged children through this NGO called Prerana. What made these children “underprivileged” was that they were all born to sex workers or prostitutes in the red-light district area of Kamathipura in Mumbai, India. To be honest, more than opportunity to teach those children, I was truly fascinated with the idea of visiting Kamathipura on a weekly basis and may be getting a chance to talk to these women just out sheer banal curiosity.
First a bit about Prerana. I am always a bit cynical about NGOs. Don’t take me wrong, they are doing something that we all just probably will be fortunate to even be a small part of. But I am apprehensive of the holier than thou images of NGOs. Anyhow, I don’t want to justify this by any means. Prerana is probably the only NGO so far that I respect from all my heart and soul. They do some absolutely incredible and solid work in one of the most difficult spaces to deal with. They provide education, stay, guidance and most importantly, an alternative lease of life to the children of sex workers. I truly respect them.
Urvi and I used to go there post work about two times in a week. We would usually go while there was sunlight and come out from the school when the night was beginning to open its eyes wide awake. Over those few months, we had heard some despicable, some incredible and some absolutely life changing stories from those children. We both had our favorites. We both were fan of this one girl who defined what having potential meant. She was the brightest of them all. And on a few days she would come with all her signature enthusiasm but tears in her eyes. After maneuvering one day, she told us “they” were going to get her married off in a few months or so. Urvi and I looked at each other and wondered was there any way we could kidnap her out of there. This other 13-14 year old girl who was also quite good in studies was way too happy to be engaged and just wanted to finish all this off and settle down with her would be husband. We often thought she might actually be sad about it but she really wasn’t. Some of the students used to come with this fire in their eyes and some couldn’t be bothered. There was this one boy who, after days and days of tutoring and frustration, I realized was dyslexic. I actually figured out for the first time what dyslexic was. I started giving him more and more attention. He made a sincere effort while other boys in the group laughed at him.
The room was always lit up with a white tube light and there were chatais on the floor. We would often have to wait for at least 20 minutes before the children started pouring in. Sometimes there would be just a couple of students and sometimes as many as 15 would land up in that tiny ghostly room. After we would get done, they were preparing the night beds and food for some of the smaller children who spent the night in the schools while their mothers were working. A couple of times, some of the mothers visited the school while we there and they would have this look of awe and pride in their eyes.
We only taught there for a few months till their final exams which we were told that everybody cleared. Yay!
Early this year, someone from the NGO got in touch with Urvi and invited her and me to an exhibition that was taking place in JJ School of Art and Architecture. They were portraits of the kids (shadows/backs etc.) and some of the inspiring stories. After seeing the exhibition, we asked the woman (Preeti Iyer, Project Director) who has coordinated with us for everything about the girl we thought was probably the most intelligent girl we had ever met. Had she gotten married? Where was she now?
She didn’t get married. She was selected in this scholarship program to go and study medicine in another city.
And you thought there were no fairytales in life.
This was it. Magical. Real.