Our Fellow Search – Joys & Furys – Part I

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Abbas Dadla tells us about the joys and fury’s associated with the search for the motivated & deserving gems for our learning centers in Mumbai

The past months have been intense (and that’s an understatement). We’ve set ourselves the very ambitious goal of finding over 150 deserving students in Std X across Mumbai to be a part of our program. In order to do this, Anitha (our outreach champion in Mumbai) and a group of determined volunteers are busy interviewing students and parents at the frequency of more than 1 interview per day. They will visit over 200 low-income schools to test over 2,000 students to shortlist the 200 to be interviewed! Phew. Hats off to you, team.

This is my third year being involved with this process (I started as a student mentor at IIT Bombay). On most days the students we meet and the stories we hear are truly inspiring. Most of our students are first-generation learners. Their parents work day and night as rickshaw drivers, carpenters, watchmen, and daily wage earners to provide for their students who consistently stand first in school and carry their hopes and aspirations. These children are already winners well before Avanti has even met them. I feel a sense of victory, knowing that the attitude in low-income households where one child extra meant one more rupee earned has changed. Knowing that these families view a quality education as their route out of poverty.

The families we work with spend more than 20% of their annual income educating their students. This often means sacrificing the butter on the bread. And then there are days like today – when in a reflection of what’s worst about India – we feel cheated. I write this to talk about a peculiar interview that caught my attention, and created this urged to write.

I was in our Powai office when a girl from Std X came in for an interview with her elder brother. I interviewed her brother, to verify the income criteria (<2.5 lakh per annum), while Anitha spent time with the girl to understand her aptitude and motivation.

The brother spun quite a story. He convinced me how the family ration shop is only making ends meet, and pretended to show me a list on his phone of the debts he owes his friends for his younger brother’s engineering fees. I realized that a home visit would be necessary, in order to gauge their living standards.

Meanwhile, in Anitha’s interview with the girl student, an entirely different story unfolded. On prodding and asking the right questions, Anitha learnt that the father has recently purchased a shop for over 50 lakh, and spent over 4 lakh on her elder brother’s wedding. But that isn’t the shocking part. On asking her about her career ambition, she said she wants to become a pharmacist. However, she had absolutely no basis for the choice. Sensing that Anitha was not impressed, she confessed that her father very strongly plans to get her married as soon as she becomes 18.

She continually tops her class, and is very keen to study. At this crossroads, the father ‘agreed’ to allow her to study, under the condition that she only study pharmacy. Once she gets her ‘certificate’, he will then use it to start a pharmacy shop, which he will then give out on rent. Thanks for the certificate kid. But you’re married now, and you have kids, so look after them instead.

We deal with a lot of lies in our line of work. Most times it’s a lower-middle-class family that can’t afford expensive coaching classes trying to find an affordable option. The lies alone don’t make me angry. What’s truly infuriating here is that the family lied because they wanted to weasel out of paying to educate their daughter. Worse still they made her lie to acquire the means to a degree she would never be allowed to use. The misogyny embedded in this act is almost unbearable.

We didn’t take the child into our program. She is meritorious but her family has the means to pay for her education. We hope they do.

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