After my first full day back in India I’m thinking that so many new and interesting things are happening that if I were to count them for 52 adventures, I’d be done by the end of the week. So let’s dig in.
After a breakfast of parathas, yogurt, chutney and pickle, I drink my morning coffee. Two sips in and I’m already restless. Good thing I have a task or two to do. I head in to the bedroom and crack open the box my bike is in. After a few false starts and about 30 minutes, it’s fully assembled and in full working order. I take a few minutes to psych myself up during which I remember SO MANY THINGS I must do before going, none of which is essential. I might be a little nervous. But finally there are no more excuses. I carry my bike down the four flights of stairs and set it on the road. The time has come.
I start off easily, riding around our little gated community. The traffic is nonexistent and I can practice riding on the left-hand side of the road. It doesn’t take long to figure it out. I come to some pedestrians walking side by side in the road and reach down to ring my bell – but it does nothing. Clearly I have an errand now. It’s time to go to the main road – Sri Aurobindo Marg. This is a street so busy that it took almost 7 minutes to cross each way when we walked to dinner last night. I pull in to traffic after a few minutes, using a slow autorickshaw as a buffer and I ride a few hundred metres – until I find a bike shop.
Everything I need is done on the sidewalk. I ask for the bell, they bring it out and install it, and I learn something new: While my bell is on my left hand side, the replacement goes on the right because the bells are all designed to be operated by the right hand – the opposite of back home. I’m done in 5 minutes and out Rs.200 – less than $4.
I merge back in to traffic and before long I am comfortable with the bikes, autorickshaws, buses, motorcycles and cars. Everything is flowing and it feels like everyone is paying attention. Something that I realize is that once you’re in the traffic it is easier because it’s not like sitting on the side of the road and watching. On the side of the road you see cars everywhere – in front, behind, seemingly non-stop. When you’re in traffic you just have your neighbours to worry about. And so it is that I end up going for a ride of about 8 km. By the end of it I feel good and excited about tomorrow.
When I get back to the house I put my bike in my room and head out on another mission. I walk to the metro and take myself about 90 minutes away to the Yamuna Bank Metro Station.
As our train approaches the station, I see crumbling buildings to the north. Inside some of them people have set up tents in which to live. When we get to the next station, I can see I’m no longer in the midst of the city. I’m somewhere different. Instead of buildings, there are fields. The air seems a little cleaner, and it is definitely quiet.
As I walk I see that I have effectively taken the subway to farmland. There are many fields, and even some horses. There aren’t so many people. I know the thing I’m looking for but I still don’t know where it is. I come to a set of stalls selling snacks, tobacco and cold drinks and ask the man “School kahan hai?” and he points in the direction I’m already heading, saying “Jo building piche hai” – it’s behind that building. Five minutes later I’m where he said but I see nothing. The road ends at an official looking building. I ask another man and he gestures to the left of the building. This is not new information for me. Seeing my confusion he says “aaye” – and walks me to the edge of the road and there, in between the bushes, is a path leading under the bridge the trains run on. He points down the path. Down I go.
I come out the other side and I’m on another road – and now I can continue to the east. And two minutes later I find it:
Here, hidden underneath a metro bridge is a unique place: The School Under the Bridge. I arrive and ask one of the two adults there his name. “Rajesh,” he says. As he’s between classes he has a bit of time to chat with me.
Since 2010, Rajesh Kumar Sharma has been here. At that time he saw many children in the neighbourhood – sons and daughters of rickshaw pullers, labourers and farmers idle during the day. Not content to just watch, he decided to do something himself. Starting with twelve kids, he started teaching them lessons.
Now, nine years later he isn’t alone. There are six teachers. They need six teachers because there are now 300 children being educated here. They’re split almost evenly between boys and girls with boys being taught in the morning and girls in the afternoon.
He tells me about four kids who are going to go to college, and one student who has just entered university and wants to study engineering.
We chat for a while but soon he needs to get some work done so he asks me to join him while he works. He unlocks a large chest and shows me his “supply closet”.
“In the beginning we had nothing, not even pencils. Now we have more things.” Still to this day he supports much of what he does with funds earned from his grocery shop nearby.
I go back and talk to his friend who has been quiet the whole time. He is a taxi driver but comes by often to relax with his friend. He tells me of the importance of education and the difference it makes here. He shares a story of going to Bangalore and looking for work. He went to apply for a job as a security guard and filled in the application. When he turned it in, the person he handed it to took one look at it and said “Only English or Tamil. No Hindi”. This, for a job that paid only the equivalent of $150/month. He then tells me that school fees for good schools can be huge – up to $20/month per child. Government schools aren’t always available. And so, with families having to literally choose between food and education, there is an obvious choice to be made. And this choice literally affects the lives of millions of kids around the world.
As we chat the girls for the afternoon class start filing in the space around us. Hula hoops come out of nowhere and they’re all playing while they wait for class which starts in just a few minutes. And so I say my goodbyes and head out.
As I leave, watching more and more girls, all in their uniforms headed for school, I am lost in thought.
Mr. Sharma has done something amazing and yet simple at the same time. Many of us say “This problem of our society is terrible. Somebody should do something.” Back home often there is often an expectation that surely some government organization or charity will step in to help. And yet that’s not always the case. And there is one thing for certain, individuals have the power and agility to do something right now. We don’t need a committee to study a problem. We don’t need to have a vote. Wherever we are, we can go in to our communities and help.
Often we rationalize doing nothing by saying “What difference can I make? I am only one person.” While I was there, Mr. Sharma pointed out that if we overcome this even our little bit can make a difference. “If everyone in India gave just 1 rupee to help,” he points out, “that would be 135 million rupees.” If one person starts helping others may join them and make a difference. This has certainly played out here.
Often, especially in the west we downplay the difference we could make. We see a problem with kids not having a school and imagine needing to buy or rent a big building, maybe get school buses to drive kids in, pay an army of teachers for the thousand kids who would come. We calculate the costs for this and stop before we start. “I’m not rich,” we think, “Only a person with money can build a school and hire teachers, I don’t have any of this so there’s no point in helping.” But clearly, a school needed to happen, and instead of making that imaginary balance sheet, he looked at what he had and did what he could with that, only worrying about today and helping who he could. And this enabled a regular person to do something that a host of committees and government-funded studies couldn’t do: It put a school under a bridge. Wherever you are, what problems are in your community? What can you do today, with what you have to make a difference? Can you bring warm socks to someone living on the street? Can you give some food to a food bank? Can you volunteer your time to tutor a student?
The second thing I thought about was that if we are in trouble – whether homeless, living in poverty, in an abusive relationship, or living in an alcoholic family, it isn’t always easy to see the way out. All we know is what we have experienced and heard about and we don’t know anything about what is possible because that story hasn’t even been written yet. These stories we tell ourselves about what is possible in our future are some of the most powerful things determining our future. And now, under a bridge near Yamuna Bank Metro Station, 300 kids are learning new stories about what is possible in their lives – and now that can include going to university to study Engineering. This is how individuals can create change in the world.