A Report from Our Volunteer at Nathupur Pahari

This summer, my friend Mahir and I had decided to do something worthwhile with our time. Last summer, I had interned with another NGO, but that had been routine ‘boring’ office work. This summer, I wanted to do something that really did make a change. My mother managed to put me in touch with the people at Ritinjali, and Mrs. Anju Dhar seemed to have the perfect assignment for me. The NGO ran a small school in the Aravali Biodiversity Park, which happened to be only ten minutes away from my house, for the less fortunate children who came from the nearby village of Nathupur. At full capacity, the school teaches about sixty children, but since most had gone home for the summer, the school only had about twelve kids during the month of June. Since there were very few kids, Mrs. Dhar told us that we shouldn’t try and over-focus on their academics, but try and do some fun & interesting stuff with them, that would still add to their education. It sounded perfect.

When I set out, along with my friend Mahir Virmani, to meet Mrs. Anju Dhar at the school for my first day, I was nervous, with all sorts of questions springing up in my mind. Would the kids like me? Would they be too young or too old? What interesting activities could I plan for them? How would I keep them entertained? It was typical June morning for New Delhi - hot and sultry. Along with Mahir, I met Mrs. Dhar at the gate of the Biodiversity Park. We all walked about a kilometer into the Biodiversity Park, before I caught my first glimpse of the school. As I had expected, it was just a shed, with a thatched roof made of mud, with mats laid out on the floor for the children to sit on. Although the weather was terrible, the school itself was quite cool, as there was always a wind blowing, and the mud roof managed to keep the heat out. As soon as I went inside, the children, in perfect chorus, recited a loud ‘Good Morning Sir’.

After a brief round of introductions, we sat down to begin working. As it was our first day, we didn’t have much planned for the kids. The kids’ ages ranged from a little boy who was 6 years old to a boy of about 13-14 well into his teens. Since they were all studying at different levels, we just helped them out with whatever they were already studying. The children were a little shy at first, hesitant to ask us their doubts. However, after a little prodding, they displayed a willingness to learn and a curiosity that surprised me. Whether it was Amit, to whom I just about managed to explain the concept of prime numbers, or Monica, who was repeatedly writing the alphabet in her notebook, they were all doing their best to learn, a feat in itself on a hot June morning.

As the days continued, Mahir and I worked to plan something interesting for the kids every day. On one of the days, I took my laptop along, and showed them an animated movie by the name of Bal Hanuman, a children's movie that showed the adventures of a young Hanumanji. The children enjoyed it immensely, prompting us to plan for another couple of movie 'shows' for the next week. One of them was Stanley ka Dabba and another was a Hindi version of the movie Madagascar, which had the children in laugher throughout. But the teachers over there added an interesting dimension after all these movie shows. They initiated a discussion, where the children gave us their opinions on what they learnt from the movies. And in between all the laughter and frolic, they always did manage to catch the message. The values of listening to your friends, of always staining loyal and of not falling for trap of greed were all captured by the children.

On the days where we didn’t have too much planned, the kids continued to work on their academics. And I was always pleasantly surprised by their efforts. Although I admit that a couple of times, the heat beat all of us, and even the children would just drop their books in exasperation, I would like to believe that I managed to help each of them in a small way. We always encouraged the children to read aloud, and let us correct their pronunciation, in the hope that their confidence while speaking English would increase. I can only hope that it was as enriching an experience for the children, as it was for me.

On another day, I sat with the children and we all made paper bags with old newspaper. After the bags were made, the children all decorated them with various pretty patterns, and wrote their names and proudly carried their own creations home. Another time, I showed the children an Atlas, and showed them the different countries. On one memorable occasion, we all played ‘Antakshri’, the singing game and everyone loudly sang along to Bollywood music.

On one day, we had a few games of Chinese whispers, where we all tried to recite the names of various fruits and vegetables. I fared terribly at this game, never able to remember more than 2 or 3 names, and was the subject of much laughter among the kids. But nevertheless, I couldn't fail to notice how happy the children were to help each other out, especially the little 4-5 year olds. They always made sure that the game started with the younger ones, so that they wouldn't have to remember too much, and yet could be a part of the game. I, on the other hand, was placed last, which might have been the cause of my terrible performance.

Through all these days, one of the things I enjoyed the most was just my discussions and conversations with the kids. It was a small group, so it was easy for me to develop personal connections with all the children. While I'm absolutely terrible at remembering names, I managed to build a friendship with each one of them, based on their faces. On the first day itself, I had made sure that they addressed me as 'Bhaiya' and not sir, since I was only a few years older than them, and didn't want them to perceive me as a teacher.

Through all these conversations, I learnt about their lives. They told me about their hometowns and their friends. They told me about how they all used to wait desperately for the electricity to come, so that they could all gather around and watch their cartoons. They told me stories about their families, some sad, and some very heartening. I learnt how Amit was extremely proud of his elder brother, who had just managed to get a job as a plumber at a recently opened five-star hotel near their village. I learned how many of their friend's parents in the village didn't allow their children to come to school, believing that their children would be better off working, a traditional Indian mindset that lies at the heart of our education problem. But these cases were few, and for the most part, these children were encouraged to go to school and learn. Their parents understood the value of an education, despite never receiving one themselves, and these children were always inspired to learn more.

They also told me about many of the other experiences they had with the school. Ritinjali had organized many interesting experiences for these children, ones that would definitely add to their knowledge, while being enjoyable. They told us about their village to the Rail Museum, and to the Delhi Zoo. Each of them told us their favorite animals, and they all were fascinated by the models of the dinosaurs they had seen. These stories were personally an extremely humbling experience for me, because I remembered my visits to the zoo and the museums from the school, and remembered how we saw these visits as 'boring' and just an opportunity to get out of school. I made a personal commitment never to waste another such opportunity again.

My last day was a sad experience, as goodbyes are wont to be. We had planned a special activity for them on the last day, where we had collected old cans (I drank almost 10 cokes over 24 hours) and had planned for the children to paint them and turn them into pencil stands. It was great fun, and all the children ended up making their own different patterns and experimenting with colors, to end up making a set of about 12 pretty pencil stands. While we were doing this, I noticed that a couple of the older children seemed to be working on something else. As I was beginning to say my goodbyes, the children handed over two cards that they had made themselves, one with an intricately painted rose on it, and another with an equally well-made bird on it, for Mahir and me. They both just said a simple ‘Thank You’ from Ritinjali. We took some photos, and said our final goodbyes to the children. I made a promise that I would find time on a weekend to come and meet them again, a promise that I am sure that I will not break.

It was one of the only times that I have wished that my summer had gone on a little longer, only so that I could have spent another few weeks with the children. I started the summer looking to do something worthwhile with my time, and Ritinjali gave me exactly that, and so much more. I set out to teach those children, and I can only hope that I taught the children something that will stay with them for their lives, and made their summer a little better than it would have been. But the truth is that I have learnt as much I have taught. And as clichéd as that statement may sound, those are the only words I could find. I learnt about myself, and about the world around me. And I can only thank Mrs. Dhar, along with the rest of the Ritinjali family, for turning a regular summer vacation into an unforgettable experience.