Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Leslie writes about Mamta Kumari, Khairma Village

The first memory I have of Mamata Kumari is of her maintaining startling calm amidst a screeching bunch of close to 30 school going children - between ages 6 and 12. When I first visited her in her modest study centre, she ran in one of the bylanes of Khairm a, in Bihar’s Jamui district, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to drink from the glass of lemonade she had offered me. For most of the two hours that I had spent at her place, I had only observed Mamata drag herself along the two lines of kids who gather every evening between 2 and 5 pm in two batches - calming a crying kid here, tidying up a messy one there, solving simple math problems on the black slates of a dozen of them in between. Sandwiched between the rickety ceiling fan and the littered floor, keeping the lemonade aside, I made a dash for home.

But even as I shared the auto ride back, I knew my metropolitan-high handedness had got the better of me. The feeling of missing out on a possible story of strife and success, was way too strong. I decided to head back to Kumari’s study centre at the next available opportunity. 

In its four year long stint at Bihar’s Jamui (and grassroots recce that easily predates by another year or so), i-Saksham has arguably managed to, among others, instill a sense of ambition in the localites here. ““Aspiration here, is almost nil,” says Shravan Kumar Jha, one of the co-founders of i-Saksham, when asked about what the organisation is trying to do in a place like Jamui. “We’re trying to instill some sort of ambition in these people.”

I happened to meet Mamata again, a couple of days after our maiden interaction. This time, she had come to i-Saksham’s Jamui centre for the i-Saksham Fellowship weekly session. She seemed a lot at ease here, at the centre. Though an ex-Fellow of the fellowship, having passed out last year, Mamata has continued attending the sessions to build on her English language skills.

The following Monday, I hitch an auto ride to Thakurwadi, to Mamata’s residence. She warns me, over a phone call that I had made to announce my plans to visit her again, “ There’s no electricity here sir. You might feel uncomfortable.”

She’s right. For the first part of the statement. Making do with just the generous rays of the sun shining through the open window of her home, Mamata’s bending over the notebooks of her students, making minor corrections. This time, I reach her place a little before the kids head home for the day - to sit Mamata down for a quick chat in her ‘me-time’. 

“I took up teaching when I was in class 6 itself,” she says. “I needed to fund my own studies.”

Kumari, the third of four siblings - two elder brothers and one younger sister, lives with her parents, one of her brothers, his wife, their daughter and her eldest brother’s son. Her father runs a vegetable stall. 

“My father had an accident, because of which he couldn’t work. Since I really wanted to study, I started taking tuitions,” says Mamata, who started with barely three to four neighbourhood children. Slowly, women who’d pass by her house, would inquire about the classes, sit even, for a couple of them and enrolled their own children for the classes. 

Mamata has never attended school on a daily basis - breaking tradition only on the days of examinations. 
Mamata lives with paraplegia - a form of paralysis where function is impeded, waist down. 

Kumari’s younger sister would assist her on her rare trips outside her house - undertaken by Mamata only when push came to shove. She’d barely even step out of the threshold for an evening stroll. According to her own confession, anxiety about what people would say about her and her disability, contributed majorly to the her self-impose house arrest. And once her sister got married, the light of social movement, seeping  through the tiniest peephole seemed to die down too. 

“For me, passing my class 12 examinations was all I wanted to do. That was my limit. Post that, I wanted to simply continue with my tuition classes,” she says.

I hit up an i-Saksham core team member, Golden, about Mamata and her condition. “We did apply for an electric motor-cycle, the one with four wheels. But her name didn’t feature on the final list of beneficiaries, issued by the local Government office,” he says. 

Couple of months after graduating from class 12, Mamata spotted on of the residents of her neighbourhood, named Manoj, loiter outside her house. For a number of days at a stretch. Finally, giving up on not being able to meet Mamata the traditional way, Manoj is reported to have shouted out her name from right outside the open doors of her house.
Manoj, who was briefly associated with i-Saksham initially, wanted to talk to Mamata about the training at offer, especially for local tutors.
Part of the reason, Mamata didn’t want to pursue a graduate degree was the possibility of colleges in Patna being assigned subsequent examination centres. 
“I’d hardly attended school mostly because there was no need to, but also because I couldn’t keep going to school because of my physical condition.”

“Since I was very keen on learning and increasing my knowledge base, I didn’t think much before taking it up,” says Kumari. The training promised to help her in her individual endeavours to study as well as to equip her better to teach other children as well. But charting the 7 km long trip to i-Saksham’s study centre was a challenge. 

Trainers at i-Saksham however, started training Mamata for the next three months at her residence itself until one day, when one of the trainers proposed otherwise. 

“They told me I’ll have to take the test, henceforth, at the centre,” recollects the Khairma resident. Boon, what seemed initially like a bane - the task of travelling all the way. 

What proposed itself to be a major deal-killer initially, turns out was in fact, hardly an obstacle. In fact, a day before she was supposed to head out for some work - one of which was visiting the i-Saksham centre - Mamata had a short platform built next to the entrance door of her home. 

The last of her the children she tutors is for some reason quite restless today. Mamatatried her best to get Adarsh to sit next to us, but for some reason the boy stays put next to the door, eyes on the street, waiting for his grandmother to arrive. 

“We’ll drop you across the street if your dadi doesn’t come along. You can go home from there, can’t you?” affirms Kumari. 

But how reluctant or willing were you to learn teaching methods different from what you had adapted at your own centre, for nearly six years before joining i-Saksham, I ask her as I sip into the lassi I’ve been offered, made using the water pumped out of the neighbour’s borewell. 

“To be honest,” reveals Mamta, “the first thought that hit me was, what’s wrong with my own technique? My kids were doing quite fine and the number of students in my classes had also increased over time.”

If not learning the correct way of teaching as opposed to her ‘incorrect ways’, Mamata learnt a number of ways she could better her teaching. For example, earlier she’s straight away teach math tables to her kids. But later, she realised teaching numbers and basic counting was fundamental. 

“It’s quite difficult to learn tables otherwise,” says Mamata as she plays a poem on her tablet to keep Adarsh distracted. 

Each of the i-Saksham fellows have been given a tablet each. This gadget serves a number of purposes in the training process and after - such as assigning tasks to fellows, helping them learn English on language applications, sharing the collective progress of all the fellows on common Whatsapp groups, updating the i-Saksham team on a daily basis on the strength of their classes, to name a few. 

“This tablet is my pathway to knowledge,” says Kumari. 

As I get things back in my bag to leave, I catch sight of a long, plastic book rack, dangling on a nail. The books in this collection, a mix or poetry, stories, colouring books and so on, find themselves in the study centre of nearly every Fellow associated with i-Saksham. In its association with Pratham - a well known non-profit in the education sector, i-Saksham has been able to source book kits, as described above. The organisation also conducts Pratham’s baseline assessment tests under the latter’s ASER (‘impact’ in Hindi) to understand the learning levels of the enrolled students in the study centres, rather than simply teaching them on the lines of the classes they are enrolled in, at school.
As I leave, Mamata says that about two years ago, she wouldn’t even think of looking at other people in the eye - forget talking to them. Shocking, especially when I’ve spent the last hour talking, laughing and introspecting her the 24-year old tutor.

 But throughout our conversation, I just can’t shake off my mind, the fact that city-dwellers like me often taken everything for granted - from the switch of the button that lights up our homes, to the water in our taps. Getting an education comes at a close second, more so because of how we crib about it. 

Mamata is in her final year of pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Jamui’s K.K.M College. It wasn’t until she met her mentors at i-Saksham, that she realised that her home centre can also be assigned as her examination centre. She is now preparing for competitive examinations. These include entrance tests for further studies and for Government jobs. 

What’s the one thing she does without fail as part of her prep?

“The first thing I do after waking up every morning, is watch the current affairs videos on YouTube, on my tablet,” she smiles. 

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