Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chennai, Jan 26, 2011: Ever tried having a conversation with those
kids selling yellow cleaning cloth and ear-buds at traffic junction?
Next time try asking your questions in English. Ask any of them ``What
is your name?’’ or ``Where are you from?’’. There is a good chance
that the kid will reply in full sentences, in English.

And yes, if you are surprised and bother to pull over ahead of the
traffic signal to prolong your conversation, you may well
be prepared for more. Some will tell you capital city names of far flung
countries and even solve simple mathematical problems. If you get
personal and ask any of them, ``What does your father do?’’ the child
will most probably come up with a straight-faced reply - `my father is
a beggar.’’

10-year-old Gopalakrishna’s father and mother were beggars. As an
infant he used to be lying on the pavement while his parents were at
work bothering car and bike commuters at traffic lights. The concept
of begging was not alien to Gopalakrishna’s parents as they were doing
what other migrants from poverty stricken villages of Andhra Pradesh
were doing at that time.

In all the hurry to jump on to the roads while the lights turned red
and start tapping on window panes of swanky cars, they forgot about
the kid they left behind crying. But not everyone turned away from the
abandoned child as much as they loved to ignore or detest his begging
parents. About a decade ago, Uma, on her way to college thought there
could be a ray of hope at least for the next generation that was
struggling to embrace life from the chaos of traffic junctions.

She started a school for children born to these beggars. Her friend
and like-minded companion - Muthuram decided to give up his career for the
cause too. He not only joined her in the mission but they went on to
become a married couple in the process of nurturing their dream.
Interestingly, the school – Siragu Montessori - now has over 300
students, almost all of them are children of extreme conditions.

Clusters of families of these children have come up at Shastri Nagar, close to
this special school. They get education if their parents manage to
make ends meet with their business. But during weekends the children
may have to join their parents for work and at times end up begging.

``My husband abandoned me and I am not left with much choice but to
send at least one of my children to work,’’ says 35-year old Chinnamma
standing outside her 200-sq-ft house in Shastri Nagar. Chinnama was
badly injured in an accident while working at a traffic junction a few
years ago and ever since has been sending her two elder daughters –
Lakshmi and Madha to earn for her family. Lakshmi went on to get
married and moved out, while Madha who is now 19 years of age
continues as the sole bread-winner of the house. Thanks to Madha’s
ability to make anything between Rs 150 to Rs 200 a day selling at
traffic lights, her three younger siblings – Murugan, Poonkodi and
Priya are now among the brightest kids in school.

But Chinnamma knows she cant go on like this. Her accident has left
her immobile and the income her daughter brings in is good enough for
a one-meal-a-day life for the family. But the principal on the loans
she had acquired earlier does not seem to be diminishing. ``I have to
repay about Rs Three Lakh, which I had borrowed for hospital expenses
and many other reasons along the years. AS of now it is just
the interest I have been repaying. I don’t know how long I can go on
like this and wonder what will happen of my daughter who is continuing
to struggle for our family,’’ Chinnamma says with tears in her eyes.

She musters all the courage within her and beams when asked if she
thinks there is a solution to her plight. ``If I could set up a petty
shop, I could sit in the shop and do business. I even know some areas
where toys and accessory business could do well and fetch me good
profits,’’ she says.

But that costs money. The best that Uma and Muthuram can do is
to identify three other women in Shastri Nagar who were fit enough to
walk and provide them with hand carts.

``They have given us Rs 2000 to paint our carts, be careful with the
paint,’’ screams 31-year old widow - Egathamma at the painter who was giving
finishing touches to the cart. She says all the three women are
hopeful of making more money by selling plastic toys on the hand-cart
given to each one of them. ``But I still may have to take my children
along with me for earning that extra buck,’’ mumbles Egathamma. Her
ten-year-old son Anand Raj is a very bright student at class.

``But he may not last for too long because we see him skipping classes often
and accompany his widowed mother to the traffic lights,’’ says Binish,
a coordinator of activities at the Siragu school.

``If we earn better, we would probably not even think of interrupting
the education that our children are getting,’’ says 28-year-old
Kuppamma the other widow who is keeping her fingers crossed about
taking the new hand cart for business.

The hand carts do offer a new lease of hope to these three women.
There are others who reluctantly point out to the
condition of their rain-dissolved mud houses at Shastri Nagar. They
sleep on the streets and look up the bright stars every night counting
on the brighter things that may bring more than just one bowl of
porridge a day. They are more scared of their money-lenders than the
wild dogs in the bushes made invisible by the night. They have
forgotten to smile, but haven’t given up hope.

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  1. Stuff like this ... sure! Good piece: journalism, storytelling, local ... I like.

  2. sure prem i would like to contribute. and good work man.

  3. Dear Prem,

    Inspiring story depicted clearly the reality. Can you change the
    school students count from 300 to 400, present strength is over 400
    and from classes LKG to 8th Grade.

    Would you like to mention email IDs of Suyam with contact nos.
    Pl mention
    to reach Uma and Muthuram mail to &
    Contact Nos.: Muthuram - 98403 65819 & Uma - 9444404822