As the final bell goes off in my daughter's school, a ripple of anticipation runs through a group of children waiting at the gate. Tiny hands stretch through eager to touch those on the other side. For an instant, a single handshake seems to bridge an insurmountable distance, the meeting of the children of the two Indias: one that is elite, entitled and exclusive and the other that is deprived, marginalised and often invisible. Then the gates open.
Like many private schools, this one runs an outreach programme where children from the neighbouring slum come and interact with the school's senior students. Most of the children are enrolled in government schools: some want help with homework, others want to paint, the boys head off to the football field. But first, every single child rushes to the toilet.
"It's amazing how we take things for granted," the school's headmistress tells me. "For these kids, running water is a luxury." So is a clean available toilet.
At the clay moulding class, objects of desire and of everyday life take shape: Mobile phones and cricket bats; a chula and a birthday cake. Rani tells me about her school where her father, a daily wage labourer, drops her off every morning. "We study Hindi-English-counting," she says. And art? Music? There's a blank. Akbar does not go to school at all. He attends tuition classes and most evenings, goes off to the masjid to learn the Koran. His father, he says, is ill and unemployed while his mother cleans, dusts and washes dishes in the houses of the affluent. He cannot go to school. In the mornings, he must line up and wait for the water tanker to arrive.
For Akbar and Rani the outreach programme is an opportunity to do the things that children in a democratic nation must take for granted: play, read and have fun. But just as important, the outreach programme gives the children of privilege a chance to glimpse into a world they might never otherwise encounter. It's a sobering peep outside their sanitised bubble of malls, multiplexes and McDonald's. "I learn just by talking to them," says Ishaan. Adds Arushi: "It's important to give back."
I'm confused: who's the giver, who's the receiver? Presumptions of 'charity' vanish. To me the most remarkable feature about this programme is the insight it gives these children into each other's worlds. Who knows what aspirational trigger it sets off in which heart? Who knows whose conscience is awakened to injustice and a flawed world?
Change happens in small, incremental steps. The outreach programme is not some grand social engineering experiment. It's an earnest effort, one of thousands, by hundreds of private schools across the country. This week, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) that makes it mandatory for private schools to reserve 25% seats for the underprivileged and reignited some of the criticism against the Act. Why should unaided minority institutions be exempt? How do you implement RTE when 95% of the country's schools lack infrastructure (10% do not have drinking water; 40% don't have toilets). What about the responsibility of the government to improve quality in its own schools?
These are valid questions. But integration in an increasingly fractured nation is crucial. Education must go beyond teaching prescribed curriculums. It must include compassion, understanding and inclusion. It must provide opportunity. For all its faults - and the RTE has many - integration is not one of them.
As the hour draws to an end, I hear the strains of a violin in the classroom next door. I peep in and ask the schoolchildren in the music class if they will play for the children of a bleaker India. Yes, they say. And they play 'Edelweiss'. The cultural references to the Swiss Alps and The Sound of Music are too alien to explain. But the music doesn't need explanation. I look at the round-eyed wonder on every child's face and realise that reaching out doesn't always need words.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.