Article published in The Statesman
24th April 2004
By Kastuir Basu
The chatter of hundreds of tiny tots neatly attired in clothes that have seen better days, clutching books and bags, comes across as a grotesque anachronism in a dingy lane that reverberates to the sound of hammers, tongs and iron rods. At another time it would be hard to distinguish the dilapidated red building of the Samaritan Help Mission in Howrah from the others around with the usual carts laden with sheets of aluminium and the drain in front overflowing with putrid factory effluents. But it’s eight in the morning and yet another day for Mamoon Akhtar, Noor Alam and Shah Azam. And for the 300-odd students of the school, it’s another opportunity to get a step nearer to those dreams that saw the light of day almost accidentally three years back.
“It seems like it all happened yesterday,” says Akhtar, founder member of the Mission, sitting amid the strangest assortment of files, a computer and about a dozen children who’d gathered around him for their quota of sweets. “I was sitting with my sister when a child from a nearby slum approached us. He said this father was beating his mother mercilessly. I’d known the child and his family for quite some time and I knew the father was a drug peddler. We went with him immediately and found the man was forcing his wife into the profession and was beating her up because she refused to obey him.”
Kasturi Basu reports on a school in a Howrah slum that is doing wonderful work on a need-not-creed basis
He was able to save the woman from not only the clutches of a brutal husband but also from being thrust into perpetual hell, but what haunted him from then on was the traumatic effect this brutality would have on the child’s psyche. The boy wept and later told him he wanted to study. This was no isolated incident in this slum. Children of almost every slum in the locality are confronted with the same situation day in and day out.
Samaritan Help Mission was conceived with the dream of pulling these children out of the quagmire of drug peddling, addiction, prostitution or destitution that would transform them into delinquents. With about 60 children and just one motto – help people in need, not by creed – the school started in Akhtar’s house. Friends Alam and Azam joined in enthusiastically and are now an inseparable lot.
In the four years since February 1999, the school has come a long way and is now not just a rehabilitation centre for the children of lesser parents. Their smiling faces and proud voices reciting, “Twinkle twinkle little star”, “Sare jahan se accha”, or “Hattima tim tim” speak for the camaraderie, contentment and, above all, a secularism that has replaced the insecurity with which they first stepped in.
Akhtar’s secular outlook has been the inspiration for the teachers as well. They work here for a meagre Rs 100 honorarium – most of them college students driven by a passion to do something different by infusing these children with an outlook they would never have got from their own families.
This school has no source of income. So we really don’t accept any payments. We come here for the honour. Anywhere on the road a child will suddenly stop to greet us,” says Tabassum Riyaz, whom drops in regularly after her classes at Narashimha Dutta College. Resham Rashid, a housewife, teaches here after finishing her household chores. She explains the difficulties of dealing with these children from various problematic backgrounds and various levels of mental development and the curious pleasure she derives from their being able to overcome problems and work towards what can only be called “national integration”.
Plagued by the lack of space and funds, there is only provision till the third standard. Besides, the space constraints demand that two classes often be run simultaneously, which calls for extra effort by the teachers as well. While one batch of students is busy with the verbal regimen, the other batch is entrusted with writing work.
The school runs in three shifts – morning, afternoon and evening. The toddlers of the morning and afternoon give away to the adolescent labourers who come in the evening after work hours. Sarita Kumar, Ashok Pandey and Shamina Khatun, who started here some three years ago as school dropouts, are ready to resume studies at a formal school, thanks to the Mission’s effort.
Under the guidance of the teachers and particularly Akhtar, the dropouts are soon back to formal study. “We are also thinking of vocational programmes, especially for girl students, so that when they leave school they can lead respectable lives without begging anyone for help,” says Akhtar.
But the hard work doesn’t end here. The real work, according to Akhtar, starts when the students are deemed fit to graduate to a formal mode of education. They are taken to nearby government schools and, most importantly, enrolled in a medium that would suit them.
“We also appeal to the few people we know to shoulder the responsibility of their education for at least a year, if not more. But what is made clear in the first place is that need and not creed should be the basis of help. It should be of no consequence whether the children are Muslim, Hindus or Harijans. If they have the academic competence they have a right to aid,” says Akhtar.
Having initially faced the ire of various religious communities, his obviously secular outlook has now managed to convince even the local goons and fundamentalists. He has even managed to enlist the help of the local imam to hard sell government programmes to dispel the religious aura associated with this and try to make people aware of the benefits of small families. We have special programmes for communal harmony as well,” says Akhtar, explaining how special attention is paid to the participation of women in these programmes.
When it comes to the success of his projects, Akhtar doesn’t hesitate at indulging in a little blackmail here and there. For example, neighbours coming to complain about the lack of proper drinking water facilities or the electricity problem are coerced into sending their children to school in return for his promising to remedy these ills. But a lot remains, says Akhtar.
The dream depends largely on the availability of funds and of course he admits receiving some aid since the day he started, “I earn a meagre sum as a librarian in a school nearby and it wouldn’t have been possible to do everything by myself. I am indebted to a lot of people who have contributed after visiting the school. I want to especially mention Lee Alison Sibley. She has visited the school many times, spent time with the children and gave them a lot of advice. I still remember how pained she was when she visited the first time and realised that there was no toilet in the school. She immediately gave us money to build one.”
But a mission being just that, Akhtar isn’t one to flinch.