Tag Archives: jaipur

If You Think Education Is Expensive, Try Ignorance

When Covid closed down Jaipur’s teeming streets, Harmendra Singh, like many other daily wage laborers, panicked. How would he feed his family of six? For Harmendra, a blacksmith who makes INR 300.00 per day and lives in Jaipur’s Dhoongri slum, the shutdown in India was particularly brutal–he needed his income for his family’s basic daily survival. The government took its time stepping in to fill the gap created by a cratering of daily wage incomes, and it was left to local charities to help desperate people like Harmender and his family. 

The charity that came to his rescue was Edu-GIRLS, whose school his daughter, Riya Kaur, and her younger sister were enrolled in. Like other charities across India, the suddenness of the    Corvid lockdown transformed Edu-GIRLS higher mission goals of educating and mentoring girls living in some of India’s poorest slums into more immediate, lifesaving ones.

We adapted fast,” says Anand Seth, who founded the non-profit in Washington DC, in 2012.  (Since then, it has expanded out of Jaipur and taken its successful model of educating slum children to three other locations–Bengaluru in India, Saraswati in Nepal and Kohat in Pakistan).

“From the first day of the lockdown we gathered basic rations and made packets of essentials which included atta, dal, rice, oil, salt, sugar, chai, etc. and distributed them. The girls were put in charge of identifying families in need, and they went around the slum delivering supplies. If there could be a silver lining to something as awful as Covid, it was the way the girls began to be viewed. They were the source of the family’s survival because of their enrollment in our school, and they’ve become a prime asset for their community. 

 As of May 2020, Edu-GIRLS has provided 600,000 meals to 1000 families.

Vimkuti Teachers conduct on-line learning on borrowed phones for 400 girls, 3 hours a day

“We haven’t slowed down,” says Shubhra Garg, the Secretary/Treasurer at Edu-GIRLS, and a hands-on volunteer who communicates regularly with Edu-GIRLS partner school, Vimukti, in Jaipur. “We’ve innovated.”

“In the beginning of the Pandemic we got the girls to make and distribute masks. They made over 4000, with donated cloth. After basic needs like food were provided for, our next emphasis was how to make sure educational time wasn’t lost. The girls had no access to laptops or computers at home and the staff had to innovate to provide virtual learning to them. A teach- by phone- program was initiated during the shutdown––students had to borrow their parents’ smartphones for three hours every day and teachers posted lessons and activities and homework which they were accountable for. This has been quite successful.”

Another consequence of the lockdown has been the urgency to push the digital learning program into high gear.  Edu-GIRLS had already partnered with Khan Academy and the digital education provider BYGU to bring online learning to its upper grades. It now aims to push for a faster evolution to digital teaching for its lower school as well and has begun a Facebook campaign to raise funds towards that goal.

Chatting with the team of Edu-GIRLS board members and volunteers in Washington DC, I see that they haven’t lost any of their pre-pandemic enthusiasm for continuing fundraising and expanding programs, even if they can’t make the supportive visits to the schools in India which used to be a regular feature before COVID. They have gone into high gear with virtual and paper mail alternatives for communicating with the Edu-GIRLS family, and are innovating new formats for fundraising drives.

We were not sure what to expect from our donors when faced with a highly unusual catastrophe like Covid. In fact, we’ve had a surge of interest from our donors—many new ones have stepped forward after seeing the havoc Covid is wrecking on the poor in India. I think the fact that we kept donors extremely well informed throughout of how we were continuing to serve the slum community and on how we had innovated during the Pandemic, contributed to their support.  We raised almost 30,000.00 immediately for Covid relief from 100 supporters,” says Anand. 

Edu-GIRLS goals for 2023 include educating 1450 girls with a 100% pass rate and placing at least 110 in jobs which will double their family’s income.

“We feel vested in these girls,” adds Sangeeta Agarwal, who contributes her skills as a filmmaker towards designing the organization’s media offerings 

We support them from primary school to higher education and, eventually, financial independence. What’s the point of all that education if the girl can’t become financially self-sufficient? So, it’s a particularly satisfying connection from a volunteer point of view because we follow the same children for their whole educational life and beyond.  We look at all the factors that might limit their access to education—transportation, family attitudes, even basic hygiene, etc.”

“Yes, even basic hygiene can be an obstacle to a girl’s education,” Sangeeta says in response to my surprised expression.

 “Many girls drop out of school when their periods start because they can’t afford sanitary pads and they’re ashamed.”

Edu-GIRLS has adopted a Ten-Mantra program that addresses all the invisible obstacles to a girl’s education like the monthly menstruation cycle and safe transportation to school.  There are 10 things they focus on as goals—these include a free, quality, English curriculum, with short school days and a long school year, safe transportation to and from school for the girls, nutrition health and hygiene training, community outreach, exposure to science and math, vocational and college scholarships and performance incentives.

Priti Jain, who organizes outdoor walkathons for fundraising, is currently working on the next one. “I was attracted to the charity by their focus on girls’ education,” says Priti, whose Facebook tagline says, ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.’

 “At least walking is one fundraiser which will involve time away from a screen.  Since we must emphasize safety, we are looking into holding a virtual walk-a-thon. Participants walk on their own at an assigned time and post their miles and contributions online.”

The team is all really pleased with how the girls have risen to the crisis in their communities and have made masks and distributed food while mentoring and teaching the younger children, whether it’s proper COVID hygiene or other lessons.  

“They are the true heroes of their community,” Shubhra concludes. 

Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.


Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Image credit: EDU-GIRLS
Riya Kaur  (10) lives in the Jhalana Doongri slums, Jaipur. and is a class IV student.

 

The Henna Artist Empowers Women

I had been looking forward to a book event planned for March 31st at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park. Author, Alka Joshi, was to speak about her debut novel The Henna Artist.

And then of course, like numerous other events, it was canceled. As March began, it became increasingly clear that life as we know it was changing.

With this cloud hanging over all our heads, I welcomed the opportunity to pick up The Henna Artist. The image on the cover is attractive and inviting. A woman walking under some decorated arches in what may be a palace in Rajasthan, with ornate chandeliers visible above. In the inner flap, the picture of the author is lovely – a striking composition of gray, red, and blue.

This eloquent, engaging novel is the story of Lakshmi Shastri, a strong woman who seizes her independence out of an abusive marriage and a life of poverty, by slowly climbing the ladder of security with rungs built by hard work, creativity, and determination.

Born in a village in Uttar Pradesh to an educated father turned alcoholic after being slighted by the British and a helpless mother, Lakshmi reluctantly leaves her home when her marriage is arranged to an abusive and violent man. She grows to love his mother, her Saasuji, who teaches her how to heal with herbs. 

Eventually, she cannot bear it anymore and runs away, bringing shame upon her parents and the village where she grew up.  Joshi has an eloquent passage on this concept of family honor.

From UP to Agra to Jaipur, Lakshmi finally settles and is embraced by Samir Singh, an architect, and his wife, Parvati, who become patrons of her art (henna) and healing. Through Parvati’s introductions, Lakshmi meets members of the royal family – two maharanis. Lakshmi’s success with herb treatments also captures the attention of Samir’s friend Dr. Jay Kumar, a doctor trained in Western medicine.

One day, a 14-year old girl, Radha, arrives at her doorstep – a sister she never knew she had. Radha’s arrival complicates Lakshmi’s carefully constructed world. As with any teenager, Radha’s eagerness to absorb all the new experiences combined with her innocence leads to complicated circumstances.

All through the book, Joshi’s detailed descriptions of the characters, their appearance, surroundings, and their state of mind are evocative and paint an engaging portrait. The high points in Lakshmi’s timeline bore captivating descriptions of lavish lifestyles, elegant homes, palaces, and extravagant parties. When her luck turns, the places she frequents are increasingly dreary, with poignant descriptions. 

Here are a few lines of what she sees on her way to the palace for the first time.

The descriptions of nature, birds, and their movements are quite lovely.

Motherhood is a theme that permeates the book. There are many mothers in the story. Lakshmi’s helpless mother in her village. Her mother-in-law, Saasuji, whom she loves and reveres, having learned about healing from her. Once discovering that Lakshmi has run away, Saasuji checks her money and herbs, and discovers that they are gone. “Shabash,” she exclaims. “Well done,” capturing in a word her wishes and aspirations for her daughter-in-law, to build her own life.

There are women longing for motherhood, who seek Lakshmi’s help following one miscarriage after another. There are women who wish to avoid motherhood, using Lakshmi’s herbs to prevent conception or terminate a pregnancy. There are women who become pregnant by choice or by accident, unintentional/accidental mothers, whose circumstances make it impossible for them to keep the child. There is a mother whose child has been removed from her due to the father’s superstitious fear that the child would cause his death. All the characters are portrayed with compassion and varied as their circumstances and choices are, nobody is demonized. Not even Hari, the abusive husband.

The book is sprinkled with quotes and references to English literature. Lakshmi’s father was an English teacher and both his daughters, Lakshmi and Radha, have absorbed his love of books. We interact with Shakespeare, poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Eyre, and even Lady Chatterley’s lover. Dr. Jay Kumar quotes Dickens in one of his letters to Lakshmi, from the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities: “…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.” Perhaps the Anglophilia is representative of the post-Independence era in which the book is set; it was, after all, only a few decades later that Salman Rushdie would burst into the literary world and plop Indian writing in English firmly on the literary map.

I was thrown off by the transliteration of some Indian words. The words for daughter and son are ordinarily written as Beti and Beta, but here they are written as Behti and Behta. The core of Hindu philosophy is the Bhagavad Gita; oddly, here it is spelled as the Bahagvad Gita. Twice. In my experience transliteration is tied closely to pronunciation in the original script. These transliterations are not drawn from the Devanagari script with which I am most familiar. For me, these were odd choices of spelling and gave me pause. I wondered if they were typos but they appear a few times throughout the book.

This is a story of two worlds: one of the immensely wealthy, who move in clubs and palaces, with numerous staff to cook, clean, shop; and one of the service class, the ones who cook, clean, shop, apply henna, dye hair, offer herbal home remedies. The Henna Artist brings both worlds to life, allowing the reader to move between them and glimpse into both with ease.

There are a few interesting, informative, and even amusing sections provided as appendices – henna and its history, a henna recipe from Radha, and a Rabri recipe from the royal palace. 

There is also a section on caste. While the characters are described as belonging to various castes, the daily injustices and injuries of which Joshi writes, struck me more as socio-economic. The difference between the haves and the have-nots. Except for a passing mention of caste regarding the installation of WCs (water closets/toilets), it isn’t woven into the narrative. 

Also, while the story is set in the 1950s, post-independence Jaipur with historical touches add flourishes to the story, it is not a historical account. The strength of its book lies not as much on historical accuracy or any in-depth portrayal of caste differences, but in the engaging story and the well-developed characters.

Joshi thanks her parents in the Acknowledgments section, and notes that her mother, married at 18 and a mother of two by 22, inspired the story. A beautiful tribute indeed. I’m sure her mother is proud.

When we get out of this COVID-19 crisis, I hope Alka Joshi and The Henna Artist get the book tour they deserve. I sure look forward to seeing her at Kepler’s someday.

In the meantime, Kepler’s of Menlo Park is hosting an online event with writer Alka Joshi on her book “The Henna Artist” on Wednesday, May 27th at 7:00pm. Learn more about the event and sign up here to listen to Alka Joshi in conversation with journalist, Angie Coiro.

Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area, and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published.