My Experience in Dakshindari

Recently I got a chance to visit an NGO called Mantra who work in a slum called Dakshindari in Kolkata. They offer free tuition to children in the slums and they also offer healthcare facilities to the residents five days a week. I was excited as I had always wanted to engage in social work and I felt it would give me a chance to see a side of India that I knew very little about.

It was on the day of Ganesh Chaturthi that I first visited Dakshindari. It turned out that it was the perfect day to visit, because, as I walked down the dusty road lined with shacks on either side, I got to see a number of Puja’s taking place. Little wooden platforms that had been constructed as makeshift temples for the Puja dotted the road side and in them sat beautiful idols of the Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. The idols were draped in colourful cloth and garlands and people had come out in numbers to pray to them and to chant along with the priest as he recited hymns.

As I walked down the street I saw a little temple made of beautiful white stone, in which a group of young women dressed in colourful saris sang and clapped rhythmically as an older woman danced in front an idol. There was no perfection in her movement or in their song, but together, they looked perfect. I would have stood there all day if I could, but unfortunately, I had to keep going, and so I kept walking down the road and past many other wonderful temples, including one constructed to pray to a tree!

The people of Dakshindari seemed like a devout bunch and each temple had a large number of people worshipping and placing incense sticks in front of god.

The smell of their incense sticks however couldn’t mask the stink that filled the air around them. In contrast to the myriad places of worship that lined the street, there was not a single garbage bin on the street. One would imagine, given the number of people that live in Dakshindari, that the lack of garbage bins would be a serious problem. The people of Dakshindari however, have found a simple solution for the problem. They just dump their household waste on the roadside. The road is lined with litter throughout as a result of this. Worryingly no one seems to be aware about the effects that such open litter can have on their health.

Soon I ran into a little boy with a kite in his hand. He asked where I was from and I told him. He then showed me his home, a ramshackle hut on the roadside. He agreed to let me take a picture of him with his kite, which was made out of plastic wrapping sheets instead of the cloth like the kites I had seen growing up. It didn’t have any designs or any fancy colours and had cost him three rupees. He told me that he had had it for a year and that he fixed it himself when it broke so that he didn’t have to buy a new one.

When he left I took a closer look at the hut he had pointed to. There was cloth curtain at the entrance that had been drawn to one side, probably to let some air in. Through the opening I could see a little room almost completely occupied by a bed. There was nothing else in the room except for a calendar with a picture of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, and a few cracks on the wall. The sight of that barely furnished room without a fan and without a bulb seemed incongruous with the 21st century world that surrounding it. There were many such sights throughout Dakshindari.

Soon I came across another one of those makeshift temples with a particularly large Idol of Ganesha. Most people walking past it were stopping to pay their respects. Those who weren’t were heading to the mosque right next to the temple. It was clear that while the residents of Dakshindari took religion seriously, they didn’t let it create barriers between them. Everyone seemed to be very respectful of everyone else’s religion.

“They are true Indians in that respect”, Mrs. Pratishta told me when I mentioned this to her. She founded Mantra fourteen years ago and has been running it ever since. I met her in a modest room that serves as Mantra’s classroom and healthcare centre. The children were seated on mats spread out on the floor. Some of them giggled on seeing me and some of them waved. One little girl however didn’t seem to like me. She looked down at the floor as soon as I got in and refused to look up. “Let her be”, Ms. Razia told the other children as they tried to get her to look up. Ms. Razia is a local from Dakshindari and she is one of Mantra’s teachers. Most of Mantra’s other staff are not from Dakshindari, and every day they travel from different parts of Kolkata to get there.

“Our doctors come every day irrespective of the number of patients there are”, Mrs. Pratishta told me with pride. “There are so many negative stories about doctors on the news nowadays. I think the media should tell these stories as well, so that the people realize that not every doctor is an enemy of humanity”, she added referring to a growing distrust of doctors amongst the people of West Bengal due to a number of high profile scandals.

The children watched us as we talked. They were munching on the biscuits and chocolates that they had been given as a special treat for Ganesh Puja. The Puja had started outside and loud music blared out from the speakers near the temples. We waited for the music to be stopped so that class could begin. After a while however it became clear that the music wouldn’t stop and that it would be impossible to hold classes that day. So, we decided to have some fun instead. We played songs and danced with each other. The children seemed to know a lot of Bollywood songs and I was amazed at how well most of them danced. It turned out that they had other talents too. One boy had a painting book with him and when I asked him about it he showed me some of the paintings.

Soon the clock struck six and it was time to go home for the day. Before going home though, there was one more thing to be done. The children lined up in front of a wall decorated with Indian flags and sang ‘Jana Gana Mana’ the national anthem of India.

Next evening, like every other evening, these children would again gather in Mantra’s classroom to be given free afterschool tuitions as a supplement to the education they receive in School. This is essential, as, for most of the children, their parents aren’t educated enough to help them out with studies at home. The teachers at Mantra provide basic lessons to children up to class eight and test their progress regularly with graded tests. Along side their lessons, the children are also taught basic points about hygiene and health. They are given pamphlets with instructions regarding what they should each day to maintain good health. These include things like brushing, bathing, etc. which might seem very basic, but which most people in the slums neglect. Mantra also takes steps to encourage parents to send their children to school. They regularly hold meetings with the children’s mothers to keep them up to date with the children’s progress.

I gathered from talking to Mantra’s staff that the educational situation in Dakshindari has improved a lot since they started. More children attend school now and parents are more eager to get their children educated, with many even paying for private tuition classes. Some students from Dakshindari also attend good colleges now, and it is clear that Dakshindari’s children are, without doubt, better educated than their parents. They might soon get a boost in the educational process with a new initiative that Mantra is in the process of implementing, through which free computer classes will be offered to Dakshindari’s children. “We are in the process of moving to a bigger classroom which can support our computer classes”, Mrs. Pratishta told me. The introduction of computer classes will be immensely beneficial to the children of Dakshindari given the increasingly technology oriented nature of life and work in today’s. Mantra’s efforts to introduce the computer class has been delayed however, by the reluctance of the local politicians to give them a larger classroom.

“I would love to learn about computers”, Shubho, a little boy who studies at Mantra told me when I asked him about it. When I asked him if he had ever seen a computer he nodded no. Another boy, also called Shubho jumped towards me on hearing our conversation and told me eagerly that he had seen one in a photocopy shop. “It looked like a TV”, he said.

In spite of Mantra’s efforts however, problems persist. Just last year one of their students was pulled out of school and tuition classes to be put to work by his parents. Some of those who do attend classes are irregular in their attendance. The situation is unlikely to change unless there is economic development to complement Mantra’s efforts to spread awareness. “It has improved a lot. When we started, there was not even one ‘pucca’ house here. Now almost every house is pucca.”, Mrs. Pratishta told me. There are signs of economic progress in other respects too. The local shops seemed to be doing brisk business and there are even some new multi-storied buildings in the neighbourhood. Despite the improvements however, the vast majority of Dakshindari residents continue to live in shacks.

On my second day at Mantra, the children were being given lessons. The older children were being given mathematics and literature lessons while the younger children practiced the alphabet.

As I sat in that classroom and watched the children learn I could not help but be filled with hope. I could see that a community which has long been hampered by ignorance, illiteracy and poverty had now, through the efforts of Mantra and other NGO’s in the area, slowly began to climb out of its vicious cycle. I knew that the little children in front of me would one day grow up to be educated men and women who will create businesses, establish clinics and improve hygiene and sanitation practices in Dakshindari. They will ensure that their children can study free from the hindrances that they are having to face, and that garbage is no longer thrown on the streets of Dakshindari. And hopefully, at the end of it all they will ensure that they leave Dakshindari a far better place than the one they grew up in.