Handshake

Thank you, Arkadeep Kumar, for your story!

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Kamarhati, West Bengal
December 2015

I was going to visit one of the schools in peri-urban Kolkata, about one hour by train, in Kamarhati. The NGO which runs the after-school tuition center for students in the slums had an enthusiastic staff member who wanted to accompany me to the center. He suggested taking the train instead of the bus. And thus, here I was, almost at the end of the day, trying to locate this stranger from a sea of people in a busy railway station. It was almost evening, and I saw the majority of people being commuters, leaving work and starting for their homes, a little far from the main city.

One chance reading of a news article about Dr. Neha Kumar had made me write to her on the email listed in the article. Unlike other times, when I email people and never get a reply, I got a prompt reply this time, and an invitation to attend her class. After a few more classes, unusual turns of events, and after-class ramblings, I decided to take a dive into the ICTD space. I found that a friend had started thinking about online education in low-resource contexts and decided that, for a start, I would get some “in-the-field” experience, visiting schools and after-school locations for underprivileged children. And here I was, on my way to such a field visit.

After making several calls to his mobile number, raising my hand multiple times to unsuspecting strangers, I located the person who would take me to the after-school center I was to visit. We waited for a bit on the station before getting on the train, where he spoke about how the students were now doing better in school, with the after-school coaching they were getting from the NGO. I nodded along, one part of me skeptical if he was highlighting the successes to paint a rosy picture, while the other part of me trusting that indeed there was real impact being made.

I was traveling to a location where I could speak my native language and interact with the children and teachers in conversation. I did have some questions in mind. They were fairly simple, yet there was a strange sort of nervousness creeping in. We alighted from the train a few stations later, and took an auto-rickshaw to reach the site, after which, I was told, we could only walk. I was guided through a dense area with slums on either side of the dirt path. When we reached, the students seemed to have been waiting for me along with their teachers. After the introductions, I went about asking the students which classes they were studying in, what was their favorite subject, etc., to break the ice. Since it was almost time for the new year, the children had created cards, all hand-made, with their newly learned art and craft skills. I came to learn that most students were studying in class 4 or 5 to class 8. Very few continued education after that, with only two students in class 10. This was apparently unusual, because most students were pressurized by their parents to earn money doing various jobs. The nearby factories and jute mills seemed to be the likeliest employers.

One of the tenth graders was introduced to me by the NGO coordinator, who explained how this student, Noor, had been fighting against odds to continue studying. The student came up, smiled, held out his hand, and said, “How are you, Dada?” I put my hand out for the handshake and immediately realized how his hand had hardened, with rough skin. I was taken aback a little, and heard the NGO coordinator speaking that the boy’s parents were forcing him to work, and he had been trying to convince them to let the boy finish class 10 at least. I nodded, with the boy still smiling, while I imagined how he might be working at the factory and balancing his studies. The boy asked me again, “How are you?” and I managed a meek “Okay”. He beamed and let go of my hand. I asked him about his exam preparations. He took out a book of model questions from his bag. He then asked me about what I did, what I studied, and if I had such model exam papers? I shared a little of what I was studying in college, explaining about solar cells, which he exclaimed that he had seen in pictures. I went on to ask him about his family and his life. Even as I moved on to other students and teachers, I wondered if at all my visit, and work, would make a difference to this boy and his rough hands.

Before long, I found myself talking with some other students, this time in a group. I asked if they had used mobile phones, especially smartphones. They talked about Temple Run and car racing, and how they got to play on their parents’ phones only if they did well in class or on their homework. I asked if they had seen tablets, and one student claimed his sister had a tablet as big as a television. I looked at the watch and found that it was time to go. As I prepared to leave, Noor came running to me, and asked cheerfully, “Dada [elder brother], handshake?” This time I smiled more, inspired by his indomitable spirit, before wishing him well for his studies. I went on to the group of students to take pictures, bidding them goodbye. I left with mixed feelings.

Arkadeep is a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech, doing research in Mechanical Engineering and now also in ICTD. 

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