“Their zest for life, their capacity for hope, their will to survive enables them to triumph over all the maledictions of their karma.”
– Dominique Lapierre, The City of Joy
Kolkata, Feb, 2015: I was being a part of a college team participating in a social entrepreneurship challenge. The problem statement required us to develop a sustainable business model for early childhood education and we were visiting a slum in Kolkata to interact with the parents for a preliminary market survey. A few of our associates from CRY- Child Rights and You were accompanying us as they had first-hand experience with that particular community. Co-incidentally, I was wearing a CRY tee on that day. I didn’t really expect that it would catch attention but to my surprise, a little girl with gleaming eyes came up to me & tugged at my sleeve sporting the CRY logo:
“Aap log yahanpe drawing competition karaye the na? Maine 1st aya tha, fashion designer banaya maine!”
You guys organized a drawing competition here, right? I came 1st, I painted fashion designer!
The little woman-wannabe-fashion designer was referring to a drawing event organized by the volunteers for the kids in the adjoining areas where they were asked to sketch their dreams. Perhaps her wish would never come true. But there she was soaring high above the murky reality!
Kolkata, May, 2011: We were three, including me, sitting in a small meeting room of an equally cozy office in the fringe of Kolkata. That was my first summer after joining university. Normally people do look out for internships in the long summer break. Since the first year doesn’t offer many specialized courses, I decided to try something off my core discipline. I started working in parallel for a start-up and CRY, an NGO working with child rights. As I said before, two other interns joined with me. In the next couple of days, our genial volunteer manager (later I forged a close personal association with her) introduced us to the modus operandi of the organization, various aspects of child rights, condition of children in India and a lot of relevant case studies in order to make us appreciate the nuances of child rights advocacy. Later, she stuffed us with enough workload to keep us busy for the duration of the internship. 🙂
That summer was an enriching one. Not only did I learn working in an environment where people from diverse background bring their skills on the table but also to question any solution to a practical problem with the rationale of sustenance. However, a doubt still bothered me; that which haunts every volunteer worker. Am I truly making a difference? With that confusion, I returned to my campus.
Kharagpur, (2011-2015): Once I started my sophomore year, I realized that what began with the idea of a casual exploration has roused a genuine interest in me. And to address my earlier confusion, what I really needed was actual field work instead of doing academic social research. Fortunately, we had a college chapter of CRY at IIT Kharagpur (KGP) and I decided to be a part of it.
The CRY KGP chapter mainly used to work in the rural areas of Kharagpur. It dealt primarily with the school going children and amelioration of the condition of the public schools by mediating with the administration. As we visited the homes of the community people periodically, I was stunned to note the stark difference between the living condition of us and these people who used to live at a close vicinity of the campus. I started to appreciate what I had, and made fewer complaints about the ‘lousy’ facilities back in our university.
The journey of past four years with CRY wasn’t a smooth ride at all. It was a gruelling test of patience, perseverance and optimism. We quickly realized change doesn’t come so easily. We had to meddle with the juggernaut of bureaucracy constantly. We observed the limitations of funds which didn’t trickle down to the level of the schools we catered to. We had to win the trust of the people who had grown cynic of the ‘elites’ who visited them often and made hollow promises. And once we earned their faith, we had to stand up to their colossal expectations, while in reality we were student volunteers with limited ability.
Things were quite frustrating at times. We were putting efforts but couldn’t really see it taking us anywhere. Drop-outs were being sent back to school only to see them drop out again due to lack of funds and to serve as a financial help to their parents. We really didn’t have a back up solution. We were scratching our heads over displacement and rehabilitation of child workers from the eateries of the campus while running the risk of pushing them to more hazardous lines of work. It was a thankless job and we didn’t have anything to stimulate us but our sense of personal gratification. However persistence bore us fruit and with constant intervention, we started getting results gradually. Unfortunately however, my stint at KGP came to an end and I couldn’t see through the rest of it.
You might wonder what made me write about my experiences of working with CRY! An easy choice? Probably yes! But more so, because this experience helped me to see the world around me more empathetically and rationally. I made associations, forged uneven friendships, came to have a much better understanding of the world around me. As I sit quietly in my home nowadays in the junction of the impending future and the haunting past, the sparkling eyes and the vigorous enthusiasm of the kids I came across at different times helps me to forge the bridge over my troubled waters. I draw my spirit and vitality from the brightest of the smiles those faces cast, the determination they reflected, nonchalant of the troubles in their life.
In the previous days, when I used to see a child begging in the streets, I used to feel sorry but then shrugged off thinking I wasn’t really able to change anything. But today I have a better realization of where I stand. I appreciate my role as an individual. While an overnight utopia is unrealistic, we can each do our part. We all are individual entities in the theory of everything. And in the end, everything does add up! 🙂