With Diwali round the corner, I wanted to do something worthwhile, so started on my pilgrimage. It had been a long time since I stepped into the school which I loved visiting when I was in Chennai.
Two years back, I moved to a new city and a new portfolio in the job. It felt like being caught in a whirlwind in unknown territory and I was busy, confused and lost in solving my little irrelevant problems and feeling extremely important. Deep in a dark, dull corner of my soul, was haunted by the thought that I did not do much to Siragu.
Located at Palavedu Pettai, in Palavedu Panchayat, near Avadi, Chennai, SIRAGU Montessori School was started in June 2003, especially for children of pavement dwellers and mendicants. Traditionally carrying on the practice of begging, this community never had any real opportunities for breaking out of their situation. Siragu was started with the objective of providing quality education to first-generation learners.
Today, 8 years down a difficult but successful road, Siragu provides education to 400 children of pavement dwellers, street workers, brick-kiln workers and beggars to name a few. With over 125 first generation learners, the school also conducts bridge courses that assist and motivate underprivileged children to join mainstream schools.
Standing tall are Uma and Muthuram, the couple who are married to each other and their ideals, and their team of teachers who are dedicated and committed. The anxiety of meeting the next month’s expenses looms large over their head, like a grim eclipse ready to devour them at a minute’s notice. Providing food, electricity, paying the staff, administrative and maintenance expenses, all dependent on charitable contributions that may or may not come in. Nevertheless, what strikes me most about Uma and Muthuram is their determination that seems to silently say, “I will sustain Siragu, no matter what perils are thrown at me.”
Smiling at the tiny silent face that looked at me, I asked a random question, “What does your father do?”
“Oh, he left us long back”, pat came the reply, from a tiny 8-year old who barely looked 5-years. I was shaken. If life is cruel you grow up fast. Father abandoned her, her brother and a lonely mother, who was slogging somewhere out there. Ragini was going around the school, quiet and hopeful of wanting to become something.
She was not alone. There was Tara whose parents were dead. Tara and her siblings stayed at school. Bright but forlorn, she was walking beside me with characteristic grit, showing the classrooms. I looked at Tara and thought, “Do stars shine? If so, will they shine in her world?”
Bubblu came to school tiny, so very tiny that two years back when I visited them, I kept asking if he was not too small to be left in the school. He was like a pale shadow, almost lifeless, all the time occupied with searching for something on the ground. When asked what he was searching, I was told that he was addicted to chewing leftover cigarette butts and drinking alcohol. Like a ghost, he was on his pursuit of happiness, the cigarette butts; aghast, I stared. There was nothing to say, was there? Today he is a brighter, smarter and a different child, thanks to Siragu who nursed him to life.
Ramu’s parents are dead. His fragile old grandfather, a day laborer, tries to support him. As the grandfather closes the school gate and steps out, Ramu is standing there, not knowing whether he would be able to meet his old, shrunken grandfather again; or Death, waiting around the corner, will beat him to it.
Stories of broken homes, bruised souls, shattered dreams, busted lives; they are aplenty – an image of what went wrong or can go wrong in the lives of children.
But what is good and going right for these children is a school and home called Siragu. In the hope that one day they will get out of poverty and live a life of abundance. They are learning to smile. Education is the only hope for them, and they are clutching to it like a lifeguard, a dream that will carry them to the yonder of future. Away from the bleak, grey chronicle of past and present. Everyone in the school has a dream – I want to become president, engineer, doctor, scientist, want to be like Uma Akka… – dreams and hopes to scent the air with their fragrance.
Of the 400 odd children, 120 stay as boarders in the school. A day before Diwali, when I walked in, there were 40 children who had no one to come and take them home, or whoever there were as family, were so busy earning and surviving that they forgot these children whom they brought to earth. Yet the smiles were lighting up the Diwali eve like countless stars on a clear night.
To me, Siragu is a nightmare and a dream. It is the side of life I want to forget, not recognize that it exists. It also is a side that I can contribute and make a difference to. And if I do not stop and remember it’s existence, I will be the child of a lesser God foregone and forgotten, for the children of a greater God are inside the dilapidated walls of Siragu, trying to fight all odds and survive with or without me. Today I have a chance to reach out and make a difference and be a part of their hope – a chance to redeem and live and move away from bare existence.