Ravji is your average student: energetic, likeable and cheerful. It’s his smile that’s shocking: the row of reddening teeth tells you he’s a veteran gutkha addict.
Sakina’s breath reeks of gutkha too. When she sheepishly opens her mouth there’s no gutkha in her mouth right now, but the smell is unmistakable. She grins and lowers her gaze.
Naturally, their teacher Taksh Mishra is mad at them. Big time. And sad.
You’d be too, if you knew Ravji is just 11 while Sakina is not yet 10.
Ravji is a gutkha addict. And so is Sakina.
Ravji is 11; Sakina not yet 10.
Taksh turns to me and asks me, “Who do you think introduced these kids to such vices? Take a guess.”
I stare back and respond with the ‘obvious’ answer, “Their friends?”
He shakes his head. “Parents.”
My jaw drops in disbelief. Parents?
“Yes, it’s the parents who shoved the first grain of gutkha in their mouths, mostly to stop them from wailing.” he says.
His kind eyes remain fixed on the chattering of the children around us – his students – as he explains. “Don’t be in a hurry to judge the parents. They are fighting their own demons. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Social Discrimination. Unemployment….”
I follow his five-eleven frame from his verandah – where he runs his evening class 365 days a year – into his drawing room. Inside, his wife, his son and some slum-children are preparing for the daily agnihotra pooja. His short-cropped hair is mostly gray, though he’s just 44.
He motions me to a sofa, pulls a chair and for the next hundred minutes or so treats me, in his soft voice, to chaste Gujarati so delightfully laced with a barely discernible Lucknowi accent passed on by his parents.
When Taksh founded NIMIT (National Institute of Management and Information Technology) in 2000, growing his business through franchising was the only thing on his mind. He was dreaming of challenging the then-giants NIIT and Aptech.
Nothing remotely similar to social service was on cards.
In 2002, he was looking for someone to flag-off a major marketing campaign of NIMIT: computer courses at Rs.99 per month. Fate led him to Swami Jitatmanandji of Ram Krishna Ashram Rajkot.
Swamiji agreed in return of a small help: co-ordination in a philanthropic activity. ‘Some simple leg-work’ was all that Taksh had to take up. Eight hours the next day and he was done.
But what he saw and experienced changed a lot of things.
“I was drawn to what people and organizations were doing to help others. I realized what it meant to truly help and how much happiness was out there, waiting to be unlocked,” he recalls.
He started chatting with Shiva, 9, who used to sell trinkets outside a temple Taksh often visited. He asked Shiva if he would be interested in education; Shiva said yes and Taksh found his first student.
He started visiting the slums where Shiva lived and began teaching Shiva. In a week, the class-size grew to three. Taksh knew he had found his calling: serving the under-privileged.
“I sometimes suspect Swamiji saw something in my destiny and so he shrewdly asked me for such a small help!” chuckles Taksh.
Today, the Pragya Education and Charitable Trust (PECT) that Taksh founded works with over 300 slum-children, at a level most of us cannot imagine. Whatever little time he gets outside of PECT, Taksh focuses on his computer training institute.
So what were the early challenges, I ask.
“Well, lack of trust – born out of exploitation – and vested interest are some of the things we tackle as a routine.” Taksh ponders for a moment and then recounts an incident.
In the early days, Taksh decided to take the slum-children out for their first picnic. He arranged for a bus from Jyoti CNC, a Rajkot-based corporate that actively supports activities like that of Taksh’s.
Just as all the children were seated, a woman from the slums appeared from nowhere. She shouted the children out of the bus and picked a fight with Taksh. Bewildered, he asked why she was doing so.
“Mane khabar che tu aa chhokrao ni ‘kitli’ kadhi ne vechi deshe ! (I know you’ll sell their kidneys (kitlis)!)” she thundered.
Today, 14 years later, PECT’s scope and scale of activities have grown beyond his own imagination. His ‘morning class’ alone, held at an unused shed near a railway platform from 9 to 10:30 in the morning, has about 200 students. The ‘evening class’, held 4 to 7 at his own home, has about 130 students.
And who are these students? All are children from the surrounding slums. Many of these are children with single active parent – the other parent is often dead, missing, absconding or in jail. A large proportion of active parents often fall on the wrong side of law.
At home, a tarpaulin overhead defines their ceilings and discarded publicity banners mostly constitute the walls. Poverty is their common denominator. Most families have four or more children so the vicious circle continues. Two square meals a day is a mostly unknown concept; often it is each member fending for himself or herself.
These children are no strangers to addiction, poverty, child-abuse, petty crime and other social evils. Education and literacy is nearly zero. No one in their families or surroundings has a steady source of income. Family support is minimal. Most have nibbled on gutkha before they turned four.
It is these students which constitute morning and evening classes. All these 300+ are trained for basic hygiene (cleaning teeth, washing, oiling and combing hair, cutting nails etc.), civic sense, basic computing and so on. Games and athletics too are on the list.
A number of times, these children are actually bathed by PECT and team.
Children are given snacks in quantity that’s closer to a meal: khakhra (thin-bread), sprouted pulses, jaggery, a banana and a glass of milk. The children are divided in four groups for functional purposes (the groups are named Mirabai group, Narsinh group, Tulsidas group and Kabir group). Every week, a different group manages everything. They verify attendance, check if the students have brought their plates (courtesy donors), ensure students finish their serving (including the glass of milk) and help everyone carry out whatever activity is designated for the day.
The morning class students have either never been to school or are school dropouts so they are helped with fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. Most of the evening class students are currently in school so they are helped in various subjects.
Most importantly, they are given unconditional love, a safe helping hand. They need, and are unfailingly offered, a lot of counselling and emotional support.
“Sadly, these children have not had a benchmark with which to separate the good from the ugly.” Taksh tells me, “Their personal compass doesn’t have much, except that the children are almost perennially cagey.”
Last Sunday, I had reached the morning class some twenty minutes ahead of the PECT team. About fifteen children were playing there. A few minutes later, an auto carrying about 150 bananas arrived. These children, without any guidance or instruction, started helping the driver unload and stack the bananas.
I stood at a distance observing them. A couple of children were around 5, so I expected them to start eating the bananas, considering the high probability that they might have gone to bed hungry the previous night.
Nothing of that sort happened.
The youngest ones threw a longing glance at the stacked bananas and resumed prancing around. A girl and a boy, both around 10, stood vigil, guarding the stock – only from stray cattle.
In one of my previous visits, I was a little late and all the children had already arrived. They were chanting their morning prayers which start with Hanuman Chalisa. Gradually, the prayers move on to Sanskrit shlokas.
I had wondered how these nearly 200 students, many of them barely literate, were taught Sanskrit.
Later I was introduced to Pannaben, a retired award-winning teacher who taught them these Sanskrit shlokas and prayers.
“We have evidence these prayers and shlokas have brought about massive changes in the lives of these children. Their moral standards are in place, they are fully trust-worthy now.”
I turn into a condescending individual who nods but discounts those remarks as kind words from someone who’s deeply involved. (What evidence, I mutter in my head.)
Cut back to Taksh’s home where I am sitting right now. And suddenly the truth explodes in my face.
I see the 100+ children around me at Taksh’s home. They freely move in and out, unchecked, unattended. These children are fully trusted. Fully.
They use the washroom, go into his parents’ room and greet them, take and place back things from the kitchen, bedroom and everywhere else. Neither Taksh nor his family bats an eyelid.
“Except for one solitary, forgettable incident many, many years ago, there hasn’t been a single instance where these children broke my trust. No pilfering, no damaging, no wastage.”
Taksh mentions casually, tearing down my ‘what-evidence’ stupidity in shreds. This is the kind of morals he was referring to.
As I observe the children of both genders, aged 5 to 20, I sense they treat Taksh’s home as their own. The seniors firmly ensure there is no littering or wastage, and errants, mostly younger ones, are made to toe the line. Taksh doesn’t need to tell them anything.
He shows me around. The big room on the 1st floor is converted into a computer lab where I see – no prizes for guessing – similar children in groups of two working on every machine. The next room has three mattresses and a few pillows neatly stacked up. Guest room, I ignore.
“I have, with special permission, some students living here, studying for their exams.” Taksh nonchalantly explains. I am stunned.
I’ve met, and have heard of, many social workers, but nowhere I’m aware of anyone whose beneficiaries from the slum roam around and even live in the home of their benefactor.
Taksh excuses himself to take a call from a leading private Gujarati TV channel that wants Taksh to be on one of their shows. It requires him to travel to Ahmedabad; Taksh politely declines.
But why, I ask.
“Schools have vacations, not tummies. So even on days when we don’t teach, we still need to feed the children. Sometimes, ours is the only meal of the day that reaches their stomachs,” he explains, “and so I’m always wary of travel.”
Turns out his is not a two-hours-every-Saturday sort of social service. It’s full-time, in every sense of the word.
He turns and asks a young girl, around 13, why her elder sister Teena was absent. She’s out grazing buffalos, he’s told.
“What’s the best part of what you do?” I ask.
“Well, this is often cathartic. It is from these children that I learn how to keep smiling and stay unfazed no matter what surprises life throws up.” he candidly says. He goes on to describe an incident: the local authorities had pulled down the ‘homes’ of these children. When he met the children within the next 2 hours, the children betrayed no anguish.
“They have this indomitable fighting spirit, something I’d like to emulate.”
“And besides, you meet some really nice people when you set out to do something for others. I get to meet such wonderful people, apart from the amazing children.”
He goes on to name the various individuals, managers or owners of enterprises, go out of their way to support PECT: Marwadi group of institutions (now Marwardi University), SNK School, Funworld Amusement Park, the multiplex Cosmoplex, Sanjha Chulha, Motel the Village, Arham Group, Rotary, Pasand Soap Factory, …. he says the list is endless.
“But you are the centre of all this.” I point out.
He shrugs and then says with profound faith “All I want is to feed them – with food and good thoughts. The almighty takes care of the logistics.
Funds are not always easy to come by, but Taksh assures me he always receives help, often at the eleventh hour. Yet, I sense, more funds can bring better change.
* * *
“I knew a lot of people distribute sweets, biscuits, food to these children, so I thought they should have some change too.”
PECT uses music and dance in their activities. Himself a tabla visharad, (his son Pranat, all of 5, is learning tabla too.), Taksh strongly believes in the soothing power of music. These kids regularly choreograph dance sequences.
“And where do they perform?” I ask.
“Oh, these children are learning not just to be happy; they’re on their way of making others happy.” Taksh answers,
“At PECT, we take these children out not just for picnics but also to old-age homes, and government hospitals.” he continues.
At old age homes, these children entertain the residents with plays and dances. At government hospitals, they meet every patient – yes, every patient –talk to them, comfort them and pray for their speedy recovery. One thing that’s common at both places, he says, is that inmates need someone who’ll hear them out.
The existing old-age homes around Rajkot are unable to take in senior citizens who cannot take care of themselves and need constant assistance. PECT has a secret dream: to establish an old-age home which can accept senior citizens no matter what their physical condition.
It’s a mammoth task that will require a lot medical and paramedical staff, apart from resources, but yes, that’s the next thing on Taksh’s mind.
All dots now begin to connect:
Three of his students are participating in the Khel Maha Kumbh.
Eight girls are now studying at Kadvibai Highschool (a school of Rajkot, well-known for the overall development of its students). All expenses are taken care of by PECT.
At least one ex-student found a government job last year.
A girl has cleared her written exams for recruitment in public sector banks.
Out of the 330 students under PECT, 308 students have either successfully de-addicted themselves or consciously not gotten into the habit in the first place (the remaining 22 are almost pathologically dependent on tobacco, so they will need some special attention).
A few of them hold paid job at PECT itself.
Just as our conversations ends, his wife brings in the prasaad of the puja. I think I know why the prasaad tastes so delightfully sweet; after all, the offerings were no way close to ordinary.
* * *
Taksh Mishra can be reached at taksh.mishra2012(at)gmail(dot)com or +91 99980 41053. Log on to www.pect.in for more information and updates.
Note: Names of some students have been changed to protect their identities.
Photo courtesy: www.pect.in