Hidden behind thorny bushes and dried up trees was a village spread out across acres of land. Tiny huts, plastered with Mud and Gober, along with decorative patterns of Mandan art. An empty village with empty houses. Migration was a custom in the village of Raikheda and through many seasons, the only occupants in the village were children, who would often accompany their parents and migrate as well.
The Bhopa community comes from a long line of street performers, who would make a living out of performing in trains, streets and villages. With the change in times and the increase in mistrust amongst other villages, their long line of profession came to a halt. They had to pursue new opportunities and occupations. Working in the bottom strata of the community to achieve a basic living standard is a herculean task for anyone. They began working on farms, gathering their food from the forests and migrating for more opportunities.
Their constant migration for opportunities not only affected their economic status but also their social, cultural beliefs as well as their lifestyle. The community could not fathom the ideology of education and opportunities outside their regular lives. When approached with the idea of education for their children, they found it absurd. With a strife to survive on a daily basis, they couldn’t imagine anything more important than their immediate necessities. The women and men of the Bhopa community suffocate under the rule of patriarchy in all forms. It can be noticed in everything, from the time the children are born to their death beds. The impact of patriarchy is more evident in some practices than others. The fact that only men have the upper hand in such societies enforces a need for boys to be born into the family. For achieving this, many women give birth to children on a yearly basis until there are boys in the family or rather, enough boys in the family to “compensate” for the girls. It has many everlasting repercussions.
Girls are married off at a pre-pubescent age and are encouraged to have children since then. There is lack of knowledge on family planning and complications related to multiple pregnancies. Many mothers continue to grieve the death of their young girls even after giving birth to 4-5 children in the hope of having boys. At the same time, they continue to marry off their younger ones to become a part of this custom being followed.
The socio-economic status and the continuous birth of children have defined the lives of many of these children as well. They are forced to become responsible individuals while they are still learning the alphabets of English language.
Rita* is a bright and ecstatic six-year-old who smiles at you in any situation and holds out her hand in expectation of a handshake while she bows with a smile to say ‘Good Morning’ to you. She started school when she was three years old and has been coming ever since. Rita enjoys spending time with her friends at the school while learning and growing as an individual, although she has more responsibilities on her plate than one could imagine. You may be thinking what responsibilities could a six-year old have. Well, she takes care of her two younger siblings who are three and one. You can even find her making roti for them on Chulha in the verandah of her home, while keeping an eye on them.
The need to make ends meet drives parents to leave their homes in search of opportunities to cater to their big families. Children are left to take up the leftover responsibilities. Many of them step into the school only when they have the opportunity. With seasonal migration, infant care of their siblings and other chores, most children from this community face the challenge of attending school. It leads to them staying behind their learning levels.
Narendra Nayak*, a thoughtful and sensitive 5-year-old has already grasped the maternal instincts required to nurture his younger siblings. He has a keen interest in Math and does not let anything stop him. To ensure that he doesn’t miss a single day of school, he brings his 1-year-old sibling to school with him.
The hardships of these families and the community has played a major role in bringing out the importance of education in the area. Uday Samudayik School Fariya was established in 2009 and has been catering to the Raikheda community along with many others. Initially, the outreach of the organization was met with negative responses but with continuous discussions and meetings with community members, the first generation learners were given a chance to venture into a completely new world. One filled with interesting activities, subjects, languages and games. For the first time, the students were not held back by the shackles of their society.
Slowly, the number of students who attended the school from this community, increased. The teachers at the school observed some common aspects in the nature of the students from Raikheda. Many of them were artistic. While some used words in the form of poems, stories and jokes to express themselves, others used the tips of brush paints to paint any canvas with visual stories and experiences. Some ran on the field with conviction in a game of Kho-Kho whereas others joyfully performed theatre during assemblies. With the schools as an agency for them to realize their potential, students progressed. However, the challenge of irregular attendance was a step back with every few steps forward.
Progress is slow but effective and satisfying. Will it become tangible soon? Well, No. By having a school that caters to the community, the children now have the opportunity of venturing out into new avenues. It will take years for education to improve the living standards of a community that has been living under the pressures of cultural and patriarchal biases. But there is hope.
Govind Nayak*, a boy from the community who still studies at the school is a first-generation learner like all others. He takes a keen interest in language. The dialect of their community makes it a challenge for them to learn Hindi, leave alone an alien language like English. This did not stop Govind. He continued to work hard and can now form sentences in English.
Priya* a classmate of Govind, who is also from the same community, has four siblings. Being the oldest is challenging and taxing but that has never stopped her from taking on the responsibilities. While taking care of her siblings, goats and preparing meals for the family, she makes sure to reach the school early every day to practice her favourite subject, Computer.
Arjun*, a 9th grader, an alumnus from the Uday School got selected in the Bikaner Sports Academy for his exceptional talents in Kho-Kho and Kabbadi. He is from a family that can barely put 50 rupees together for a day and struggles to feed their family of six. In spite of their financial situation, the news of his admission to an academy brought his family pure joy. The opportunity of a better avenue for their child, even if it meant an additional expense, was a reason of happiness.
The Raikheda community is witnessing gradual change with each year. With the appropriate exposure to various subjects and activities, some students have moved on to better opportunities after completing their school education. Ashok*, also an alumnus who was famous for his artistic talents is striving hard to get into a fine art degree course.
These are only the stories of a few students who are breaking the boundaries of their community and their own lives. It is just the beginning of a long journey of change. With time, they will become responsible and sensitive adults that will understand the cultural setbacks of their own community. Who knows, maybe one day they and the generation to come will break the cycle of patriarchy, poverty, malnutrition and other social restrictions that negatively affect their growth and development.
*Names changed to protect identity. The photos have been used with permission.