A letter from Kanika Gahlaut
A little girl about 4 or 5 years old, with fine, delicate features and bangs that fall on her face …shortly after our arrival at Deepalaya, the children’s school at Sanjay Colony slum in the backstreets of Okhla, she gently reached out to hold hands with me. And for almost the entire two -hour visit, she would not let go. And neither would I. My hand got sweaty, I couldn’t really take many pictures and I missed some of the tour. But I decided not to let go until she did.
With a group of ladies from Australia on their maiden visit to India, this was the most awaited segment of our itinerary. We were doubtful how well it would go, to be honest, I was unsure after getting down from the bus as to how most of these ladies from the developed climes of Australia, take the walking to the school in between the dirty alleys. I could see them cover their mouth and whisper to each other on the way.
As we finally reached the entrance, we were welcomed by this glad face of the head of the school, Ma’am Shikha. She is such a pleasant personality and instantly made us so comfortable. We moved further, continuing with the buzzing of the children and rhymes being sung all along. Actually surprised and so pleased to see the spotless premises of Deepalaya. The building may be very old but there is this fresh appeal to it because of the shining floor, colorful posters and the unending smile of the tiny tots. We were made to feel like celebrities, the children would rise from their seats as we passed every class and waved continuously.
We were then shown a presentation, an extensive list of programs and projects that Deepalaya runs. With about 10 -12 employees and many volunteers, the organization under the smiling Ms. Sangeeta, which is dedicated to providing direct aid to children in need, free of religious or ethnic bias, essentially gives all of the children in the near slums, a lifeline. The programs have grown in response to need and they are able to attract support and funding from a wide range of people and organizations, one of them being LPTI.
After our meeting, we were taken on a tour of the different classes adjacent to each other. The kids got so excited knowing they were going to be treated with candies. They sang for us and the ladies by now were relaxed and blended well. As we reached the class of special children, we were preparing ourselves for some moment of truth. These kids reached out to us in the most inexplicable way. They hardly made eye contact but knew we were watching them. We made connection when we unwrapped the candies for them. For the first time, I saw the ladies go weak, they tried hard escaping the tears but couldn’t. Most of them had kids but they were new to this kind of association. One of the kids cried to be let free since he couldn’t bear the noises and too many people around. I was told he is autistic and given to such behavior.
Watching these small kids who have been handed such huge life challenges, play on the trampoline, pose like film stars for the camera, and of course reach out and hold my hand, I couldn’t stop thinking maybe we are too novice to understand the bundle of joy, maybe their visions are beyond our visible horizons, maybe we are looking at the cloud and missing its silver lining. It is just something they are born with, no words for the strange thoughts in their head, they were meant to be but didn’t know who at all. A child so different from me and yet they and I are the same. I lost the will to talk too because I could sense how much they wished to and the words eluded them.
We bid goodbye after handing over stock of colors, pile of books and some games that the guests had brought from their country. We had all expected it to be a sad experience but we left contented. The kids are looked after well, the teachers are affectionate and put in a lot of effort to bring out the best in these children. And most important the children looked happy. They are proud of their uniforms, the English words they use and so many things that we as a child did not even care about.
While leaving from the place the thoughts that continuously raged my mind was that there are boys and girls that nobody invites to birthdays. There are kids who want to belong to a team but never get selected because in our society it is more important to win. My grandmother would often tell us this when we would wish for what we wanted to become when we grow up - In a world, where you can be anything, be kind. She too must have heard it from somewhere but that is what she practiced.