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The Children




'In the smiles of these children I have found life'

Fifty two years ago to the day, India marched bravely on to its tryst with destiny.

 The future lay before it, burnished with the brass polish of hope, of promise.

Fifty two years later, the hope has been corroded by despair, the promise anulled by mass negligence.

Or has it? Is the mood of mass cynicism, of all-pervasive despair, really justified?

Is there -- really, truly -- no hope left?

That seems to be the consensus -- but we disagree. Because to yield to despair would be to forget one basic truth of that long ago day when India grasped its destiny with both hands.

And that truth is this -- it may be true that the Gandhis and Nehrus and Patels and Ambedkars and others led the nation towards the goal of Independence. But what really made it possible was the selfless sacrifice, the commitment, the belief and faith, of hundreds of thousands of citizens as ordinary as you and me.

That was our biggest strength then -- and it remains our biggest asset today.

For every corrupt politician and apathetic bureaucrat, there are a hundred citizens working, in their quiet, unassuming fashion, to put a smile on someone's face, to improve the quality of someone's life, to take Life by the hand and lead it one step forward towards the light.

And it is those little people we focus on here, in Project Hope. On them and their little lives and little achievements. Because it is there -- in these little people with big hearts -- that the real promise of this country rests.

Uncle, uncle," the little boy ran into the rainy night, "even I want to study." Syed Firoze Ashraf -- who had just finished telling a slum resident he could not add any more kids to his class because of lack of space -- turned around, bent down to ruffle the child's damp head and said: "Accha beta, Monday se aa jana (Okay son, come from Monday)."

Syed Firoze Ashraf The child, like the rest in that suburban Mumbai slum, lives in a one room tenement. His parents, like most of his neighbourhood friends, never went to school. He belongs to a large family with a monthly income up to Rs 3,000. And lives in a suffocated home which can barely accommodate his family, leave alone a table and chair for him to study.

Table-chairs. Note books. Pencils. Biscuits... getting past their homework. It is these that Uncle Firoze and his wife Arifa provide the kids. Some children, most of whom are girls, come straight for the evening classes after school. Some go home, wrap up their share of domestic chores -- washing clothes, cleaning, making chapatis -- and then join the class where Ashraf, Arifa and two teachers spend the evening helping them with their studies.

A few months back, at the intervention of Arifa, a Bombay Municipal Corporation employee, the shanty got a municipal water connection. "It was only after that that we could spare our daughter Anjum to study. Who else would stand in the long queues and fill water for the household chores?" asks her mother Shamim Bano whose family migrated from Jalgaon over two decades ago.

It has been eight years since Shamim Bano's husband lost his job. Her two sons have picked up small time jobs and run the household. Anjum and her younger brother have been attending Firoze Ashraf's evening classes for two years. And like the 70-and-growing group of children who come every evening, they too dream of conquering the squalor of their lives and hold respectable jobs some day.

The kids, between 6 and 16, go to nearby Urdu or Marathi medium schools. Since their parents -- most of whom are domestic workers, cart-pullers, tailors, sweepers, dairy workers etc -- are uneducated, the Ashrafs have taken upon themselves to teach the children.

"They help us with our weak subjects. Aunty is strict. On holidays, she has sat with us for 12 hours at a stretch. If not for them we would not have been able to do well in our class X exams," says an articulate Raeesa who secured 63 per cent in the SSC exam. Raeesa, with Rahimunissa and Niloufer, are the first ones in their families to have ascended this academic pinnacle. The girls, whose parents work as tailors, workers in buffalo sheds and domestic helpers say their families support them and have recently enrolled themselves in a local college.

"It is shameful that fifty years after we attained Independence we have not been able to educate our people and change the quality of their lives. The children who come here are all so bright. All they need is some guidance," says Ashraf, a freelance journalist and former Indian Oil employee. Ashraf and his wife use the living room of their small two room apartment for the class while Rahimunissa's parents provide the use of their small house for another class.

"This is a progressive age. We want our daughters to be independent," says Rahiminissa's mother Zaibunissa, "I have told my son's fiance that they will not get married until she studies enough to be able to teach others. My daughter takes the evening class, what will happen when she gets busy with her college studies? I will need someone from my house to replace her," she continues. Though her two sons did not study much, Zaibunissa is determined to see that the next generation in her family is not deprived of education.

While Ashraf and his wife are eager to teach as many students that are willing to learn, shortage of space has remained a constant hindrance. "Please look for a place where I can teach your kids. That way we can accommodate many more children" is his constant refrain to people on his way to the masjid nearby and to the parents he meets.

Till some time back Ashraf received a small amount from the Vikas Adhyan Kendra, a local non governmental organisation, for the salary of the teachers and for the other smaller needs of his class. Now Ashraf maintains the classes on his own. Since the three girls are in college now and the next year's session has just begun, they have time to see the younger kids tackle their home work.

"At present we are taking their help. But we need to hire teachers. And the girls? They need to be paid too. How else will they be encouraged to be independent?" explains Ashraf. Then patting their shoulders, he says, "Don't worry beta, I will give you a salary."

Syed Firoze Ashraf "Ashraf chacha has changed the lives of our children. He is like our God," says Lakshmi. Ten children from her joint family come to Ashraf's class. "They have been motivated so much that they sit on their chatai till 1 am and study," she continues. The only Hindu family in the area, her family moved from Rajasthan to Bombay four decades back where they found a living as sweepers.

"The Muslims here have always helped us. And now our Ashrafsahab is helping in the education of our children. Who would have taught them otherwise? Without help the children would have fared badly in class and we would have been compelled to withdraw them," says their old grandmother.

Caught in the grind of eking out a livelihood, Ashraf says these parents do not have the time to bother about their children's education. "They just about manage two meals a day. Education is not a priority for them, so we have to motivate the parents as well." Meanwhile, Arifa has already started preparing them for the future: the advantages of being financially independent, monetary savings and small families. "I tell them that they and their mothers have suffered because of large families. They should learn from this example."

Ashraf often has to provide more than just educational support. Children in his class often take ill. Three of them were recently diagnosed with tuberculosis. "How can you turn your face away from their problems? We help them with medicines, in whatever way we can," he says. A doctor friend has been kind enough to treat them free of charge, but they help the kids buy the medicines.

Children also borrow newspapers and magazines from his house. In the last couple of months, Ashraf has been telling the children about the conflict in Kargil. "Like him, I too want to become a journalist," says Raeesa. Neelam, a class IX student, is seriously pursuing her studies and wants to become a doctor. "You know something," she says, "After the Kargil conflict, I want to join the army."

With the three older girls attending college, Ashraf has been digging out material on philosophy from his stack of encyclopedias at home to explain certain topics to them. He has also enrolled them in a typing class and plans introducing them to computers subsequently. Karate coaching features in his next set of plans for the girls.

"My father was against sending me to college because of the boys that crowd around at the entrance," says Rahimunissa, "But I am more confident now." Still revelling in the euphoria of passing the class X exam, both she and Raeesa took time to wear some lipstick before rushing off to buy text books from across the railway station.

A small teaching job -- when the building watchman requested Ashraf to help his child with his studies -- went on to become Ashraf's mission. Other parents in the vicinity heard of him and brought their children. Since then the numbers have been swelling, Ashraf has tried to sustain it from whatever his freelance writing fetches him. "There has been no one as dayavaan as sahab," says another parent as Ashraf politely refuses tea or thanda in their humble houses.

Walking past the masjid he visits five times a day, Ashraf says: "People talk about our kaum (community), but hardly take any constructive measures to build it. They don't know what they are missing. In the smiles of these children I have found life."

Syed Firoze Ashraf can be contacted in Bombay at: 91-22-6791416

-The Rediff Special/ Archana Masih

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Last updated: February 22, 2000.