Twelve years back, I remember my maid having a happy day. She had admitted both her daughters to a government school. "I want my daughters to have a better life than the one I've had". Each year I saw my mother give her a full year's supply of notebooks for her girls and whatever else that we could afford. This went on for six years.
Then suddenly the maid stopped working. An alcoholic husband, four more children and a hysterectomy had completely drained her of energy. Life went on and she became a memory.
Then sometime back, her nineteen-year-old daughter came to meet us. She had finished high school. I thought she needed help going to college. I was wrong. She wanted to work in my house as a maid.
"What about college?" I asked.
"I don't want to go to college. My family needs money."
"A degree could get you a job that would fetch you more than I shall be giving you."
"No! That will never happen," she was adamant.
Why was she so against education? I asked her this. Then she spilled her heart out.
Everyday she had been going to school on an empty stomach because they never cooked breakfast at home. They could not afford it. From seven in the morning till one o'clock in the afternoon she was in school where hardly any classes were held.
The teachers sat in the staff room chatting, knitting and eating snacks with tea. It was always some student who was sent to buy the stuff and serve them. The students were not expected to pay for the eatables because none of them had money.
The tests were a formality in which marks were given at whim. For the final exams they were asked to buy guides and keys from which to memorize answers. Private tuition helped them through these times. If you took these lessons from a teacher at home, that teacher would be liberal with the marks. English was introduced to them after the sixth grade.
Again no one would teach it. Private tuition was needed to clear the exams.
If some 'guest' decided to visit the school, the students were made to wait after school. A group of girls were made to stand in lines opposite each other with plates of flowers in their hands which were to be showered upon the 'guest'. Sometimes the girls used to wait for as long as two hours.
"I have remained hungry from morning to evening so many times that my haemoglobin (she knew that word) is very low. My head spins frequently and I have very little physical strength. All this would have been worth it if I had some hope for my future. But my education is so bad and my knowledge of all the subjects is so little that I cannot even think of going to college.
Memorising answers and regurgitating them in the exam hall is all that I did. I remember nothing of what I had studied. I shall not be able to cope with the level of studies in private colleges and what would be the point of joining a government college? If the school could teach me nothing what is a government college going to give me?"
The girl was answering her own question. There was no pain in her voice, no anger just complete resignation. I did not argue with her and employed her. She took to the job very fast. Being literate and more aware of things than her illiterate mother, she worked more efficiently.
She could turn the pages of the calendar, stack up the newspapers date-wise, answer the telephone politely, learnt to use the vacuum cleaner and the microwave.
Despite the fact that my life became more comfortable, I could not erase the uneasy feeling that nagged me constantly. Her indifference to her own life or maybe the fact that she never complained about it bothered me. Could a person feel so let down that even the will to uplift oneself could die? I realized that she had found some succour in my house but there were children like her all across the country who were growing up on false hope. In a few years time we are going to have millions of young people who are going to feel, and rightly so, that they have been deceived in the name of education.
Not everyone is going to take to menial jobs and hard labour quietly. An antipathetic government and a very sympathetic criminal world could easily push countless youngsters into the labyrinth of crime, prostitution and drugs. India will then turn into a haven for anti-social groups who will exploit simple people into becoming exploiters of simple people like themselves.
I don't know what can be done to ensure that this nightmare does not turn into a reality but if nothing is done then we will become people who have not just given up on the government but on ourselves as well. A nation becomes a land of opportunity when its children are nurtured into becoming productive assets and not destructive liabilities.
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