I had duly hoped that the first blog post I would make about my time at Teach for India would be a positive one, full of hope and magic. But as realities go, this one is starkly opposite to what I had in mind. But I need to write this and I need to put this across.
It has been over a month since I started teaching in Malvani, Malad at a low income school as a part of my Fellowship with Teach for India. For those of you who do not know Malvani, it is an underdeveloped area in Malad West with a low everything. Low Human Development Index (HDI), low Public Housing (PH) ratio, low on civic amenities, low on health care, low on sanitation. You can read up more about Malvani and its current state here. Or you could just look it up on Google. I teach Grade 6, with a total of 54 students. I had 54 students, till Monday.
My class is now a class of 53, because we lost one of our kids recently. I am not naming him because I still can’t accept the fact that he is no more. I will be referring to him as ‘my kid’ henceforth. The reason? Fever. Sounds ridiculous, right? A boy of 11 years, seemingly fit and fine, who has hardly ever stepped out in the world. When my co-Fellow and I found out about his demise, we were stunned. We still are, we haven’t been able to wrap our minds around it. Since it was late in the evening, we decided to wait a day to visit his parents. All I did on Tuesday was to recall every moment that had him in it. We saw him on Saturday, just before the school broke for Ganpati holidays. We gave him holiday homework. He nodded his cute little head like he always did, and happily wished us happy holidays.
On Wednesday, I went to visit his parents who live in Ambojwadi. It’s a slum near Malvani. I do not want to go on to describe Ambojwadi at this moment because it will soon crop up. His parents told me that he was fine till Sunday night. He had dinner with his older brother and his father. On Monday, around 6 am, his father as usual began to wake him up for school. He smiled in his sleep and reminded his father that he had holidays at school. He went back to sleep. An hour later, his brother sensed that my kid’s body had gone cold and he was spitting out spit from his mouth. His heart beat had shot up. They immediately took him to ‘Hindu Hruday Samrat Balasaheb Thackerey Trauma Care Municipal Hospital’, which is in Jogeshwari East, just off the Western Express highway. My retelling of what ensued there is a roughly patched series of events that his parents narrated to me.
His first report that came out, apparently was normal. The doctors assured the family that everything was alright and the situation was under control. Time-check: 11 AM. His mother then showed up, because she was at Chembur till this time, nursing a cancer-afflicted brother. They weren’t allowed to see my kid, and they started to get suspicious because things did not seem “normal”. Soon they came to know that my kid wasn’t conscious. The hospital doctors said that once he gains consciousness, they will get an MRI done. The mother has been working with Child Care Helpline for three years, so she is a bit informed. She immediately called up another brother and asked for a second opinion. By the time the external doctors come, it is 3 PM and they assess that my kid is in a very delicate situation and his chances of survival are pretty thin. I cannot even imagine the disbelief his parents must have experienced at that moment. The parents were aghast, and couldn’t even voice out their shock at not being warned in advance, so that they could at least shift him to some other hospital. No sooner than this happened, my kid slipped into a coma. The only communication which came from the doctors was that they couldn’t say anything for certain. At 6 PM, the doctors (both the hospital and external ones) had lost hope. And within a few hours, my kid breathed his last.
Now coming to the cause. Officially, the doctors said that my kid had fever since 5-6 days and that the parents neglected it. His post-mortem report has come normal. I saw him in class on Friday and Saturday and he did not have fever. Yes, he did complain of a constant headache but he had said that he couldn’t see clearly and his mother had taken him to an eye-doctor. Everything was fine. Or at least seemed fine.
The area which he lives in- Ambojwadi, is inhabitable. I do not mean to sound judgmental but I am sticking to the facts. The place has open drains, has narrow, jammed, make-shift houses crammed up together. Animals and humans alike, roam in a deplorable state. Fleas and mosquitoes are permanent members of the community. I am sure we have all seen chawls once in our lifetime. This has been the most unhygienic one I have ever visited or will visit. (More about such areas here, and this article has it mellowed down compared to what it actually is like.) This made me think hard. My kid and another thousand people who live there, are denied of basic health and sanitation which results in some disease or another. I met quite a few of my students while I was in Ambojwadi, and everyone has some problem or another. One father had his hand cut in an injury, one kid has low platelet count. One kid’s father is bed-ridden due to an accident, one kid’s parent lost his battle to Malaria. They have had limited access to formal education for the longest time and whatever percentage is educated, is not enough. The generation that currently goes to school consists of almost 50% first-generation learners. The families fall under the Below Poverty Line segment of the society and can hardly make both ends meet. I gather that much of their expenses go in treating one ailment or another, which further worsens their living conditions due to limited cash availability. What vicious cycle is this?
I am very new at matters that fall under the municipal corporation and have negligible knowledge about it. I am at a loss of actions. I have lots of words in my head, which are even pouring out on this page right now, but I do not even have one concrete action to begin with. All those articles you read one day on the Internet about how municipal doctors take it casual, started to make sense. Maybe there was some truth behind it. You start thinking about the value we hold for the value of one life. The worst part is, I cannot say anything with absolute certainty. Was it the doctor’s fault? Was it the parents’? Was it the unhygienic conditions? What was it?
I only know one thing. We lost one of our students. And I would have never been bothered by these things, had I not experienced it first hand like this. But now, I am bothered. I am restless. Makes me feel incompetent and useless, the knowledge that whatever I am doing, is such a nano unit of whatever needs to be done. In an ironical way, it also reinforces the importance of what I do. Perhaps, even if one student can grow up to be a problem solver and can help change the community from within, there is hope. As they say, to solve a problem, you need to be a part of it. You need to get your hands dirty. I wonder how useful I am, sitting comfortably in my chair and writing this. A lot to consider, but little to do.
What do I take out from all this? I remember one of the Directors of TFI once saying:
“We struggle for the kids who have no choice but to struggle”.
I think it is time we all became just a bit more socially conscious. Try adding and creating value instead of stressing over bank balances and the next luxury. I am not saying money is not important; how can I, after all that I have just written. But just look at the distribution, is it equitable by any standards? I am not saying leave your comfortable job, or do not travel by auto-rickshaws. What I am just saying is to be a bit more aware. Just look around you when you are travelling, and you will know what I mean. This time, focus on all the details you ignore by default. Just look around. Responsibility is not that bad, it is just doing your bit and through it, experience and unravel life even more. Yes, life is beautiful and all this sounds a bit depressing. But think about this: doesn’t everyone deserve to call life beautiful? Why is it beautiful only to some? Do think about this and it might not cause any waves in your life; that’s okay. But if it caused even a ripple, I am sure it will go a long way.
Thank you for reading, and hope that my kid is in a much better place now. 🙂