Free school

Under a metro station in Delhi, underprivileged children get their first taste of education

Sometimes even the background of a picture speaks a thousand words. In one of my rapid-fire photography sessions, my lens captured a strange scene in the background. A few blackboards painted on the sides of the overground Yamuna Bank metro station. When I zoomed in on the blackboards while editing the photo on my computer, I could see English grammar lessons, arithmetic formulae and other scribbling on them. Since I had clicked the picture in the dead of the night, obviously there was no chance I could have caught students and teachers on the camera. But which school was this? And who were the students? Places like these normally house the underbelly but here was hope being nurtured in this corner hidden beneath a metro station. Curiosity stirred, I raced against time the next morning to match my long-forgotten school schedule and make it to the place sharp at seven. There was no one. Not even the sun. Morning dew had washed off the last day’s lessons. Metros were zipping over the open-air school I longed to see. Eight o’clock and still nothing. It wasn’t even Sunday. What school schedule was this? Around nine, I saw a lone kid, quietly walking in and taking the foremost seat in a nonexistent class. I could talk but chose my lens to do the talking instead. The boy took out his slate and a few tattered books and arranged them, perhaps in order of the subjects to be taken up for studies in a class which was still not there. In the next 10 minutes, the class came as if out of a magic wand. A plain-looking man in his forties had begun teaching them in a professional manner. I had chosen a position which allowed me a cover intending not to shock them and disrupt the class. Now I had the chance background of an earlier picture developed into a full-blown picture taking shape in my camera. At eleven, the teacher finished his last class and began to leave when I accosted him. The Good Samaritan turned out to be Rajesh Kumar Sharma, a resident of Shakarpur in east Delhi who owns a grocery store at nearby Laxmi Nagar. Taking a bus daily from his residence to the shop, he used to see children living in a nearby slum loitering around while their parents laboured in construction sites in the area. On occasions, he tried persuading these people to send their children to school. They did not. That is when Sharma first thought of introducing them to the benefits of schooling — by starting a makeshift pre-school here. This year, he has sent 70 children to a nearby municipal corporation school after they were trained here. Sharma still has an enrollment of 62 kids who are charged nothing. He breaks his journey and teaches them English, mathematics and science for two hours daily. It has now been two years now since he took up the cause of these children. Sharma stays away from donations as he feels that he will otherwise lose the independence of teaching the kids his own way. Lakshmi Chandar, a private tutor in the area, assists him voluntarily. And when I tell Sharma that this land belongs to the government and he can be labelled an encroacher, he smiles wryly and says: “We all belong to the government, and so do these kids.”