We do not have a fixed space for our study sessions at the brick kiln. Sometimes, we assemble near the clay pit, sometimes near the haaroli of bricks and sometimes where the children are playing. The children don’t seem to have any problem with this, but I started feeling the need for some stability. Radhi had made space for us outside her bhonga, but recently, a new kiln was built next to her bhonga. Women with head loads of raw bricks started walking through the courtyard to the new kiln. Their ‘traffic’ started disturbing the progress of our sessions. As it is, the children on the brick kilns are not used to sitting in one place to concentrate on something. They started getting distracted by the movement and casual conversations of these women. To find a new space for our ‘class’ – that was the new challenge!
Another problem was that of our students missing classes for babysitting. Kishor told me that Manali who was studying in Grade 2, stopped attending school because her brother was born and she had to stay at home to look after him. This is a common occurrence at the brick kiln – children who are 8-10 years old have to remain at home to look after their younger siblings. Such children are called baalghe. Families that work on the brick kiln have no other option but to take the help of their children for such things. Children help with household chores such as filling up water, washing clothes, cooking etc. They also help with less strenuous work at the brick kiln, such as sieving powdered bricks, setting up a haaroli of bricks etc. But working as baalghe (babysitters) ties them down for the whole day. They have to ignore their own childhood and share the responsibility of their parents’ household. Kishor has permitted these children to come to the school with their little siblings. Some of the enthusiastic students do come to school holding their baby brother or sister in their arms. But everyone doesn’t have this enthusiasm. It is little wonder that this brings an end to their education.
Many such baalghe children come to our class at the brick kiln. They bring their little siblings with them. The other day, eight-year-old Avinash was drawing a picture based on a story which we had shared in the class. Suddenly, his mother appeared with a head load of bricks and a cane in her hand. She shouted at him and hit him hard on the back with the cane. Before we could realize what was happening, Avinash went running to his bhonga. His baby sister Durga was inside, in the cradle, crying. Avinash was supposed to look after her. While she was crying, he was busy drawing. That’s why he had received a beating. Before I could say something to his mother, she was gone.
What could I have told her, anyway? At the most I would have advised her not to beat him. But given their situation, I wonder whether she would have listened to me at all. I sighed and resumed teaching. Avinash returned to the class, carrying little Durga in his arms. He held her in his lap and tried to go back to his drawing.
Kishor and I realized that we had to work on this issue of babysitting, if we wanted to continue our classes. Children missing school for babysitting has been noted as an issue for many years. Educationists Tarabai Modak and Anutai Wagh had devised a very useful strategy to handle this problem. They used to run a crèche, a pre-school centre and a few primary school grades together under one roof. They named it ‘Vikas Wadi’. All the children would get looked after in this system. Parents could leave their children there and go to work without any worries. We decided to use this time-tested strategy for our students. We decided to run a crèche, at least till the time our classes will be on at the brick kiln. Kishor asked a local girl named Ankita if she would do this work, and she agreed readily.
But where would this crèche be? We needed a proper space for it. Kishor appealed to the parents – would they please build a bhonga for us? They proposed to build a bhonga on their next pay day or holiday. Sure enough, on the pay day, Umesh’s father took his tractor to the forest to bring grass and sticks; but no one offered to help. He returned with some kasaad grass. When Kishor asked the parents about it, they said, they were unable to go. Then, Gurya’s father said, he had a bhonga near the road which was lying unused, and he wouldn’t mind letting us use it. Kishor seized the opportunity, and set the ball in motion for repairing the old bhonga.
The children’s enthusiasm for preparing this space was amazing! They brought kasaad grass and covered the bhonga, they levelled the floor of bhonga and prepared the courtyard for our classes by covering the ground with cow dung. Kishor brought some old sarees, which were tied along the fence. Our new ‘classroom’ was taking shape! Inside the bhonga, we tied a saree between two poles, and created a cradle for small babies. We brought a bagful of toys and teaching aids for pre-schoolers. On one wall, we hung a mirror, and kept a comb, face powder and hair oil next to it. Outside, we put a bucket of water to wash hands and feet. All the facilities were in place. We tied a rope outside the bhonga and put storybooks on it – our ‘hanging library’! Our brick kiln children who came to the class started washing their faces, applying hair oil and face powder…. All of them looked like salted peanuts!!
The crèche created a good space for our brick kiln classes. The younger children started playing with Ankita. The babies were put in the cradles. And the older children started sitting with us in the courtyard to study. But…. Just when I was finding a semblance of stability…. The other day some stray dogs tore off the sarees which were tied along the fence. The children made ropes with those tattered sarees and built swings! With the fence gone, the courtyard soon became a dumping ground for garbage.
There we go again. Start from scratch. Tarabai and Anutai had done this pioneering work decades ago. I feel amazed and saddened that their work is not outdated even today.