Mujawar raised the school fee two years ago but as it is still not enough to cover all expenses, she has to dip into her own kitty. Munish Byala/HT
The boundary between ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Pakistan’ has been erased — at least in Harinagar area of Mumbai’s Jogeshwari suburb.
The communal fires that engulfed the city in 1993 emblazoned a virtual border in this slum. Hindus were ‘Hindustani’ and Muslims ‘Pakistani’.
But two women, Irfana Mujawar, then 30, and Mughal Gazala, then 32, had a different idea. They opened a school in 1999 and invited children from both communities to attend. Both teachers in the Hydari English School in the same area, they had realised the need for another school in the neighbourhood, as the school they taught at could not cater to all.
It wasn’t easy, but the Young Indians’ School has inadvertantly become an instrument of change. It also illustrates how education can build bridges. “In the first year, only three of our 35 students were non-Muslims,” says Mujawar. “Today, we have more than 350 students and the ratio of Muslims and non-Muslims is 60:40."
When they opened the school, Mujawar and Gazala were sure they wanted to impart secular education — in principle and in practice. “But parents were sceptical about our intentions. Hindu parents would say, ‘Hamare bachche yahan surakshit nahin hain (Our children are not safe in that school)’. We had a tough time convincing them,” says Mujawar. Eventually, however, they prevailed.
The school opened on rented premises before shifting to another building in 2000. “There was no toilet, and I was determined to build one,” says Mujawar. “But as everyone in the locality uses a common toilet, people raised issues and even filed a police complaint. Fortunately, police supported us and we were able to construct a toilet for students.”
Dealing with such problems has brought students together. Today, they celebrate Eid and Holi with equal fervour. The school, too, has grown in time. It now has 20 teachers.
Academic performances have also improved. The Young Indians’ School has delivered a 100% pass-rate in Class 10 examinations for two years now. And following in Mujawar and Gazala’s footsteps, girl students have taken the lead. When the school opened, 30 of the 35 students were girls. The premises continue to have more girl students even today.
After Gazala got married and settled in Hyderabad in 2006, Mujawar ran the school on her own. She, too, got married last year and shifted out of Andheri to Nerul. Now, she undertakes a two-hour journey every day to come to school.
It has been 13 years, but she doesn’t fall short on enthusiasm. “I want to give these students a better environment, shift the school to a bigger place that has a playground. Children still have to do their physical training exercises in a small area in front of the school,” she says.
Shortage of funds, however, remains an impediment. Mujawar raised the annual fee from R65 to R200 two years ago, but still has to bear some expenses. She also offers free education to those who cannot afford to pay. Currently, there are 20 students being taught for free. Akshay Kodum was one such student. “Eight years ago my husband died, and I couldn’t afford to send my son to school. Mujawar enrolled my son for free. Today, he has cleared his Class 10 exams and now studies in a nearby college,” says Akshay's mother Geeta Kodum, 35, who sells vegetables for a living.
The school has attracted some good samaritans. After reading a report about it some years ago, a Mumbai-based architect Keki Unwalla and his wife Keerti decided to support the school. Their help allowed Mujawar to construct the second floor of the building.
“When I learnt about her work, I wanted to do whatever I could to support her," says Unwalla, who has also helped Mujawar deal with some administrative matters. “I will continue to support Mujawar, who has given a true meaning to education.”