No, I haven’t been crying in bed because the Guy is away. I have, in fact, been busy. Too busy even through a three-day weekend to write here. (Why three-day weekend? One of the perks at my workplace is that we get a few American holidays, and 1st September is Labour Day in the USA.)
I went with Friends of Children to a town called Narayangaon. We sponsor a bunch of college students there, and there was a fee distribution planned as well as some new ones lined up to interview.
We started bright and early. I live the furthest away, so I was the first to leave home at 7 a.m. (Compared to my regular office timings, that felt like a little past midnight). There were eight of us in all: Vani and her mother, Aparna, Madhu – a new volunteer, Ajay – Vani’s driver, Sagar and Ramesh who were both FoC students and are now volunteers, and me.
I love the drive down. It was my third time in over a year and I looked out for familiar sights: a lovely lake nestling in a valley while we crossed in the road overhead, the hills in the distance, the vast expanse of green. The monsoons have been sparse this year, so it was less green than I remember from the first time.
We stopped for breakfast just before Narayangaon and stuffed ourselves with poha, missal pav, medu vada etc., knowing that lunch was likely to be late and inadequate. We had a long day ahead: about 60 kids to be interviewed, shortlisted from the list of about 150 that the teachers had sent us, and we faced the unenviable task of choosing 40-odd from them.
FoC has a symbiotic relationship with several schools and colleges in and around Narayangaon. Teachers vet the students and introduce them to us; visit their homes and make sure they need help; colleges lend us their facilities to use. We in turn try to provide students scholarships without which they might not be able to study.
We were given a large hall to use: bunches of students came in and sat on the floor, waiting to be called. We divided into teams and got to work, interviewing each student, trying to gauge whether we should sponsor them. A difficult task. Each student needed the money: that we were already sure of, as the teachers vouched for them. But we have limited funds, and want to make sure that we are actually making a difference in our students’ lives. So we asked them questions about their homes, their family incomes and their aims.
Some stories are heartbreaking. One girl’s father is ill and unable to work. Her brother runs a stationery shop to feed the family. The father often turns up drunk; generously paid for by his friends. The family have stopped buying him medicines because his drinking isn’t doing him any good. And this girl scored 90 percent in her 10th boards.
Yet we were extremely strict. I marked green on my spreadsheet only those who showed determination. One girl said she wants to get a job as soon as possible and support her father, who had done so much for her. There are girls – few, thankfully – who say they’re not sure whether their parents would let them study further or marry them off in a year or two. These we decided to reject. For others that we were not sure of, we postponed the decision, hoping to be able to take them if we didn’t overshoot our numbers.
We broke for a late lunch at around two, and sat on the concrete ground within the lawn, munching vada pav and bananas. Then we rushed back to work, to the kids who were still waiting and who had – unlike us – not had lunch.
We miraculously managed to wrap up at around 5.30: miraculously because at one point it looked like we had worked so long and the bunches of young people had not looked any smaller. But we were done, and by the time we had planned. The men went off to Sagar’s house for the night, and we women planned to stay in a hotel.
A teacher showed us the hostels, where FoC plans to have its next camp. (I’d gone to the last one for a day.) Then he guided us to our hotel and made sure we were comfortable before he left.
We were near the famous vineyards of Chateau Indage, and Aparna suggested going to their restaurant for dinner. So we had a bit of rest, accompanied Vani’s mom through her dinner so that she could go to bed at her regular hour, and set off with lots of jokes about what the teachers would say about our social work if they knew we were going to get drunk after hours: especially after the polite insistence of the guy who guided us to the hotel that we use the “family room” for dinner.
Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the evening as much as I had hoped. I began to feel ill. It had been a long tiring week, and vada pav didn’t seem to agree with me. I had very little dinner and longed to go home.
We had started dinner at eight, and by ten we were back in our rooms. I had a lime soda and lay quietly, too tired to talk. I felt much better next morning.
I got up before 7: I always find it difficult to sleep in a new place. The view from the balcony was lovely: green all around. Wary of awakening my roommates, I went down and walked a bit on the lawn, looking at the mist on the hills.
We went to the college raring to go, but had a long wait ahead. There was an intricate function, with lots of speeches in Marathi that I couldn’t get much of, a few smart speeches by the students, and one speech by Aparna – in Hindi, for a change. We all got flowers, by the way, red roses that were almost as large as cabbages. Amma got a shawl. My favourite part of the function was when Aparna related the story of a boy who had come to her asking for help with his studies. FoC helped him, and he did his B.Com. He never spoke up at meetings. Then he got a job and soon afterwards, came and handed over a cheque for a thousand rupees. At the next meeting, he stood up and spoke and encouraged the students to be confident. And that boy was Ramesh, who is now a volunteer and had come with us to Narayangaon. This little story is one reminder of why I love spending time with FoC.
It was nearly one when we started with our work. And there were over 200 students waiting. We broke into different teams, checking documents, dispensing advice, entering details, and – of course – giving away cheques. There were difficult moments when we had to turn away students because they didn’t have the right documents or because we discovered they were getting money from other sources – such as education loans. But by the end of the day, our work was done, and we were glad that we could go home.
Not so soon. Two of the teachers insisted that we visit their homes first. We had to drink sweet tea and down biscuits before we could leave town. And it rained. The kind of rain I’ve rarely seen in Poona. Large drops rushing down hard, so that my shoes got wet instantly where I’d kept them by the verandah. We started on our way: it was slow going at first, with low visibility and high traffic. We could see lightning in the distance. There was intermittent rain throughout our journey, and again when we reached Pune. The monsoon poured with all its fury.
It was past nine when I reached home. I spoke to the Guy for a bit and then went to bed with all the satisfaction of a day well spent.