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Food For Thought

I had no idea what I was getting into, when I agreed to spend time with vagrants, hawkers and shoeshine boys, teaching them the English language. Here I was an eleventh Grader, from a well-to-do family, studying at one of Mumbai's elite colleges. And before I knew it, I was spending two hours, every evening, at a local train station. My classroom was the platform and a makeshift blackboard, my only teaching aid. My students were around twenty bright-eyed, bushy tailed shoeshine boys, ragpickers and hawkers. I was their sunshine in a gloomy world; their only ray of hope, leading to a better life. Over the next two years, I shared with them the wonders of the English language and from students, they soon became friends. I graduated from being a teacher to friend, philosopher and guide. The only person willing to listen to them. In a cold cruel world, I radiated warmth, without even knowing it. What does an eighteen year old know of the impact she has on a less privileged persons' life? But, life has its own way of showing us just how much we matter.

I can still remember that monsoon evening, when my pals at college coaxed and cajoled me into going to see a movie instead of spending two hours with my students at Churchgate Station.

'It's just one evening. What difference will it make? They don't have any exams to pass. In fact they'll probably be delighted they've got the evening off!' On and on they went in chorus. Perfectly orchestrated reasoning. Theatrics that could impress the harshest critic. I couldn't take it any longer and relented, against my better judgement.

I went to the movies that evening. But my mind kept wandering back to my classroom on the platform. And the students. I imagined them waiting for a teacher who had no intentions of showing up that evening. I fought with my conscience subduing it by justifying that a single evening wouldn't matter. 'I deserve a break too', I thought, as I sat back to enjoy the movie.

The next evening, I traipsed down to Churchgate station as usual. The boys were all there, waiting for me. Torn clothes, snotty nosed urchins making an effort to eke out a living in this cruel city. But they were there. Waiting. Waiting for an explanation. Before I knew it, I was deluged with enquiries. "Where were you, yesterday, didi *? We waited until nine 'o clock for you. Why didn't you come?' I had no answer, as tears welled up in my eyes. I had breached their trust, without them even knowing it. Just then, the youngest of the lot, Ramesh, tugged at the sleeve of my kurta and said matter-of-factly, " Didi, I wish you would have told us that you weren't coming yesterday. We could have worked for two more hours and bought some dinner!" I was stunned. My mind reeled as the full meaning of what Ramesh said hit me in the gut

I thought that I was making a big sacrifice by spending two hours of my precious time every evening teaching these children. But those very same urchins, who we consider the dregs of society, had being skipping dinner and going to sleep hungry every night, simply because they wanted to better their lives! And, I was the only person who cared enough to help them do it.

I knelt down and hugged Ramesh, as the tears rolled down my cheeks."I promise, I'll never miss another turn again", was all I could say.

I couldn't stop crying that night and went to sleep on a pillow soaked with my tears. For the first time in my life I realised that it wasn't me who was making a sacrifice by giving my time; it was my students who were making the real sacrifice every evening, choosing food for the mind over food for the body. The revelation suddenly elevated my humble students in my eyes. I never missed another session again.

* Didi, is an affectionate term used for an elder sister.



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