Highway drives have the rare ability of becoming opportunities for journeys within. A recent trip on the NH-24 was just that: it was the start-line for a journey into the educational aspirations of the average Indian.
As someone who deals with education for a living and routinely finds life in it, it is generally hard to miss a signboard of an educational institution. So, there it was the -- St. Bhanwari Public School -- peeping onto a busy crossroad of a non-descript NCR hamlet, a two-storied building painted in the light off-white, cream colour so favoured by the north-Indian middle-class (probably for its perceived 'royal-ness'!).
Right across the street was another two-storied building, this time a departmental store with ceiling-length glass and unabashedly jazzy lighting. The signboard read 'One India'. The two visuals taken together formed a miraculous corollary of a question posed and an answer given in the same instant.
I term it miraculous as the general perception about issues concerning education and the eons of policy formulations that have attempted to address these issues have all strengthened the belief that questions in education need long-winding answers and still longer gestation periods for action. In everyday experience too, it is not uncommon to face a mindset which proclaims that an answer easily posed is probably 'not scholarly enough' and lacks the depth of a worthy intellect. Yet here I was, lucky to have a question and its answer come to me in such close spatio-temporal succession. The question was simple to begin with.
"St. Bhanwari Public School"? Really ? The exclamation was soon replaced by a chorus of hearty laughter. “I mean who keeps a name like that,” another question followed: “What must they be thinking to keep a name like that ?”
For the educationist in me who was always taught to ask “why” and “what for”, this question began to assume intriguing proportions. It reverberated, “What must they be thinking…”
In that instant, I found myself cancelling the possibility of the name being a tribute to a certain St. Bhanwari. Even if there was indeed someone somewhere like that, my journey abandoned that route of reasoning. Searching for a solution in a sea of possible explanations, my blank gaze fell on the other building; it read “One India”.
Of course! St. Bhanwari was an absolutely justified name for a school which sought to appeal to the all-uniting aspirations that drive the average Indian. It was also an apt indicator of what she expected of education!
In that moment, a kaleidoscope of hitherto disjointed images, each independently an ode to these subliminally expressed aspirations and played-out expectations flooded my eyes.
From the sight of the two school-going children of the colony security guard sitting outside their Jhuggi trying to read English newspaper religiously every morning, to the sight of three children of my maid going for tuition to an English speaking didi who has agreed to teach them for free. Their walk to the said didi's house in the unbearable afternoon heat of Delhi summers is made bearable by the books they hold over their head to find some semblance of a shade atop them. Then there is the provocative image of the beeline that the parents designated as belonging to Economically Weaker Section (EWS) make at the imposing gates of the upmarket 'Private' schools in order to submit their ward's candidature for an E.W.S category seat.
In a moment all these sights melted and merged into a steady stream of children from the middle and lower economic strata of society, shooed away on one or the other pretext from one or the other designer schools, entering the narrow but “open” gates of St. Bhanwari Public School.
In that moment I reckoned that the lure of a 'Public school' named after a Saint despite being a bad imitation of a St. Thomas or St. Francis or St. Columba, lies in its unarticulated but well-understood standing as 'an English medium school'. That the two-storied school promised to be infinitely more accessible socially and financially must have added to the magnetic pull it exerted on certain sections of aspiring parents and their wards.
It is irrelevant that the Madam's in the two-storied St. Bhanwari may not be speaking Queen's English, because any English is awe-inspiring for those who have been left behind and labelled backward on account of their complete unfamiliarity with it. The desks may not have Cinderella and Winnie, the pooh painted on them, but for those accustomed to live in a 8feet by 8feet 'house' with three siblings and a set of parents, any semblance of a private space designated as 'my seat' must be a liberating and empowering feeling. Then again, what if the school did not have smart classes with state-of-the-art smart boards, because for children who are more familiar with books and newspapers as a parallel currency in the form of 'raddi', to have a crisp-papered, un-faded, vivid coloured book at least at the start of session is an occasion of great excitement and curiosity.
These images taken together pointed to a much more poignant reality: That the promises of Free and Compulsory education along with Mid-day meals are no more enough to compete with the 'promised land' that the Public schools point towards. When compared to the run-of-the-mill Government school, this land promised a hope of getting greater respect, an enhanced social standing, a better job and as a result an increased sense of self-worth.
These two-storied schools stand testimony to the reality that the common women and men stand united in their struggle for eventual dignity in education and an equality of promised opportunities that may be theirs someday. The hardships on way to this promised land are all embraced with a silent but firm, unflinching resolve.
The beeline for the EWS category is the most indelible and profound illustration of this resolve. Knowing well in advance the psycho-social struggle her ward may be forced to put up with in the prestigious 'private school' on account of belonging to the E.W.S category, the parent still queues up for the form. The 'English Medium School' seems to be an eventual panacea for all wounds of marginalisation and discrimination ever received.
When one repeatedly sees the hunger for upward mobility in terms of educational opportunities among those who have traditionally been have-nots, the phenomena demonstrated by the St. Bhanwari Public School no more remain unfathomable.
The India inhabited by these parents and their wards is united by the history of slights coming their way on account of the off-white colour of their school uniform when it should actually be white. They are united by the unchanging smell of their lunchboxes as they open day after day through the week in the school, and they find solace by sharing a hearty laugh when others around them fumble while attempting to read an English signboard or textbook. They truly inhabit “One India”.
Of course, and it is only to be expected that, the topography of this One India is strewn with St. Bhanwari Public schools. Till we, all of us in Education are able to pull up our socks and make our government schools the stuff of their dreams and aspirations, it only seems fair that the inhabitants of this India are allowed to find a hope in the two-storied off-coloured building on a busy crossroad of a non-descript hamlet on one or the other national highway.
(The author, who teaches at the Department of Education, University of Delhi, is a Commonwealth Scholar in Education to the University College London's Institute of Education for the year 2015-16)