Sunday, October 10, 2010
Magic Realism: how a teacher can make all the difference.
Two identical-looking buildings house the Soshit Samadan Kendra, a fully free English medium residential school for Musahar children. This community is possibly the state’s most oppressed and disprivileged community of rat-eaters who have been living in conditions of abysmal and degrading poverty. Most work as bonded labourers and live at the edge of villages defined by demeaning social cartography.
Soshit Seva Sangh is the brainchild of its founder and Chairman, Mr. J.K. Sinha, who after a long and distinguished career in the Indian Police service, returned to Bihar to make a difference to this uneven state. SSS in partnership with Samadhan, a Delhi based NGO established Shoshit Samadhan Kendra that provides students education, boarding, lodging, clothes and healthcare to the two hundred and twenty students. Aside of the school curriculum, there are other activities that define the transformative miracle of this project.
An economist by training, Mrs. Geetha Prasad volunteered to teach communication skills to a group of students drawn from the sixth to the ninth grade and this is what she has been pursuing with meticulous determination for twenty months. Both Mr. J.K. Sinha and Mrs. Geetha Prasad had invited me to visit the school over some months. Mrs. Prasad wished that I could evaluate the work that her students had done and the progress they had made. On the 6th of October, a day that turned out to be unusually busy for me, I decided to put my conscience to rest and visit the school. Mrs. Prasad very graciously picked me up from home and explained the kind of language exercises that she had devised for the children while we drove to school. On our arrival, I was taken to a room with many computers, an LCD projector, a white laminated board and paste-boards that displayed charts with phonemic symbols. Here I was greeted with choric cheer ‘good-afternoon Sir’. I greeted them in turn and told them by way of an introduction that I taught at the university and that I had come to learn what they had learnt. Once the ice was broken, I was amazed at the confidence with which they spoke during a communications exercise, the kind of vocabulary they used, the logical sequence of thoughts they were able to articulate and their desire to learn.
Many of the university students I know would come a distant second to their skills and we must bear in mind that twenty months ago they knew no English.
We in India, most ironically, have been gifted with an accessory of colonialism: the English language. For Macaulay, it was an instrument of subordinate recruitment to aid colonial governance. Today it is an instrument of empowerment; of liberation; of global access to knowledge and technology. Sadly our politicians in the name of linguistic chauvinism have equated English with colonialism and sought its ouster because of the fatuous belief that it had compromised national pride. Aijaz Ahmad most appropriately questions the propriety of some of the other things that came along with colonial rule such as the Indian Railways. Should we throw that out as well? I knew that the children of SSK were beneficiaries of a very special gift. However it ought not to silence the cultural traditions of their unique experience. And so I told the children that the next time I came, I would listen to all their folk tales. Time seemed to race by and the session of fun learning came to an end. I shook hands with each of the students and left the room to the choric resonance of ‘thank you Sir’.
As we sat in the library leafing through books and flip-charts, I said to Mrs. Geetha Prasad, ‘you have worked magic’.