Working as an intern for CRY, I recently went for a project visit to the Ambedkar Nagar community in Sion Koliwada, Mumbai. Ambedkar Nagar is one of the many slum areas that CRY’s partner NGO Sparsh works in. Sparsh is made up of a group of volunteer teachers who conduct classes and teaching sessions to help the community children keep up with their education and aspire for a better future. At first, I was unsure of what to expect as I was told that the community members may be hesitant to open up to an outsider. My local guide, Santosh, introduced me to some Sparsh teachers, and through them I was introduced to the Vishwakarma family. To my surprise, they warmly welcomed me into their home and even offered me a packet of biscuits they keep for special visitors. After we were more comfortable with each other, they agreed to talk to me about their lives, an experience which really made me reflect on my socio-economic ‘privilege of guarantees’. The next few paragraphs will explain what I mean by this.
Shalini Vishwakarma lives in Ambedkar Nagar along with her four children, Sunny, Ravi, Seema, and Kishor. After a turbulent time with her drunk and abusive husband, she finally had the courage to kick him out and become a single mother. However, this is especially difficult when poverty comes into play. Shalini used to work as a fish-seller at a local market, but now sells flowers to visitors outside the local temple. Both these jobs are unstable and only provide nominal wages, so maintaining her household is a constant challenge. Nevertheless, she was always determined to ensure her children had a better future. She urged her children to go to the municipal school and attend the teaching sessions with Sparsh teachers. She told me, “Our family is very grateful to Sparsh because they gave my children a chance to believe they could strive for better lives.” I could see this in her children, who inspired me with their drive.
Shalini’s oldest son, Sunny, passed his 10th grade last year and now attends a junior college nearby. Growing up around Sparsh teachers and being inspired by their work, he too plans on becoming a teacher and giving back to his community. His younger brother, Ravi, is equally motivated. He passed his 10th grade this year and dreams of studying commerce and becoming an accountant at “one of those fancy banks”. Kishor is still in school, but he also hopes he can study further and get a good job. Seema, on the other hand, is conflicted. She will be finishing her 10th grade next year, and would like to study further, but wonders if she should stay home to look after her mother.
The children are hyperaware that their further studies come at a cost. Shalini wants her children to have better lives, but she knows her wages cannot keep up with the cost of their education. Although the Sparsh teachers are helping the children find appropriate scholarships for college, there are only a few available each year. They urge adolescents to enroll in college and start their studies anyway, but one of the main reasons for junior college drop outs in this community is the inability to keep paying the fees. This is a painful reality for the Vishwakarma family and their fellow community members.
As I sat in Shalini’s home and listened to her talk about this, I could see that she didn’t want to give up hope. When I asked her what could be done, she smiled and remarked, “We can only be optimistic and hope that a scholarship works out. Meanwhile, I’m looking for a more stable job, perhaps as a maid or janitor. I don’t want to be the reason my children remain stuck in this life.” I saw Seema look at her mother with gratitude as she said this, and in that instant, I felt ashamed of myself. There I was, a liberal arts student studying in America, sitting in the Vishwakarma’s small single-room home, a representative of the socio-economic privilege of guarantees that this family couldn’t even imagine.
Now, I’m not saying that we should or that we even can just get rid of our privilege. I am, however, asking us to be cognizant of it and be thankful. Socio-economic privilege means not having to worry about paying Rs.1000 ($20) on a meal. That’s half the fees for a year at one of the smaller local junior colleges. Socio-economic privilege means taking an education up to the 12th grade, and even further, for granted. Socio-economic privilege means having the guarantee that your future is in your hands, that money and circumstances will always work out. Shalini’s kids have an awe-inspiring drive, but they cannot guarantee their future. Yet, they are hopeful. It took me a while to fully understand the feeling of shame I felt at the Vishwakarma’s, and now I know it was because I didn’t even realize how much I took for granted. Thus, writing this piece feels like a confessional on behalf of my peers, because I finally understand our ‘privilege of guarantees’, and I am eternally indebted to my circumstances for it.
Ishani Agarwal, CRY Intern, Mumbai