When Preeti Kumari wakes up at 3.30am every morning, the first thing she does after bathing is her puja. And then, it’s straight to the books to prepare for school.
“She doesn't let me sleep,” complains her mother, Munni Devi, 37. But the gleam of pride in her eyes betrays her.
This devotion to books has ensured that Preeti has stood first in her class consistently at South Delhi’s Laxman Public School (LPS). Last year, she topped all 4 sections. “I am going to get a scholarship in November as a result,” she beamed.
“My friends Divyanshi, Sakshi and I love Taylor Swift,” she declared. Her favourite actor? Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame. Clearly, choices she shares with every other 12-year-old.
But Preeti isn't just any other 12-year-old. She was admitted to LPS under a quota for children from the economically weaker sections. Her father passed away when she was just 4 years old, and her brother, Sonu, a worker in a factory in Okhla, earns Rs. 4,500 per month. Barely enough to sustain a family of three, let alone provide for a good education.
The three of them share a small space — all of 2 rooms, in the inner lanes of Delhi's Govindpuri basti. Small, but organised — a little kitchen on one side, a sofa, even a little space where Preeti has put up a number of pictures of Asaram Bapu, her spiritual guru. It is remarkable how, despite having so little, Preeti is excelling at school.
“She is well-versed, communicates well and prefers to converse in English while other students mix languages,” said Neelu Kapoor, her class teacher.
When the school made an offer to enroll students from their area, the family was reticent. “Her father was initially against it, but eventually agreed to let her apply. Mann mein ek umang thi,” said Devi. When she was accepted, he treated everyone to Pepsi, she said.
At Preeti’s school, each child spends approximately Rs. 1 lakh per year on fees, books and other activities. So, does giving free education to these students pinch? “We have been believers in social equality for a long time. Yes, 25% reservation is a big number, it pinches. But it is for a good cause, and we manage,” said Usha Ram, principal, LPS. “We hold remedial classes for English for the students,” she added.
Despite the fact that Preeti is one of the best students and finds it easy to mingle, at times, differences do arise.
“Sometimes kids ask her why she brings roti-sabzi every day,” said Devi. “They say, ‘why don't you bring fruits?’ ”.
Preeti doesn’t bring her friends home. She usually celebrates her birthday in school itself. “She works ten times harder than others. I tell her she needs some entertainment,” said Gopa Banerjee, who taught her in classes 5 and 6.
“Students from this background face many hurdles. They dress, talk, look different. They get easily branded. Just think of the clothes needed for school — where will they provide for these things?,” added Banerjee.
Preeti suffered from chikungunia a few years ago. “I wanted to get a proper check up, but that was too expensive,” said Devi. Since then, she occasionally suffers from knee and back pains and isn’t able to play for long.
The 12-year-old doesn’t let any of these dampen her spirits. She even teaches other kids of the basti. “I have 6-7 students who come,” she said. The extra money helps tide over household expenses.
“People say that only boys have the qualities to become IPS officers, but I want to prove that it’s not about girls or boys, it’s about hard work,” said Preeti, talking about her future plans.
What does she want? One would expect to hear a laundry list of items. But Preeti surprises us.“Nowadays, I feel I’m lacking in height. Everybody in my class is becoming taller, but I'm still short!”