If you have had a long and tiring day and find yourself at the Free Study Centre at Buri Bazar, chances are that you will be greatly energised. The chorus of over-enthusiastic kids, each trying to outshout the other to greet “Good Morning” or “Good Evening”, works like a charm, especially now, after more than two years of the eerie silence that haunted classrooms. The kids here are the perfect hosts, showing you around their one room world of wonder, talking about their teachers, classes and, of course, their bag full of toys. But, they are most happy to meet new people and needless to say were overjoyed when team Ptenopus arrived with fresh papers for a colourful evening on Ramzaan. They quickly rolled out the mats and took their places. They are evidently proud of how well they maintain this world of theirs. What is surprising, however, is that two years ago all of them had nearly lost their homes in a fire that spread through the Buri Bazar settlement.
It was sparked by a cylinder blast, but, thankfully no lives were lost. It was afternoon and the elders were all away at work and the children were drifting around the neighbourhood as they usually did. The shanties, stacked one against another, were razed to the ground within hours.
That’s when Nausheen Baba Khan and her husband Shadab Khan stepped in. The local couple were seen everyday at the table that was set up to coordinate relief work. A political science professor at a government college in Kolkata, Nausheen also runs an NGO called Just Yellow Foundation that works for community building and social awareness among underprivileged sections. Shadab owns a business and is equally devoted to the Foundation. Together they built a robust team of volunteers to help Buri Bazar get back to its feet.
In 2021, almost a year after the fire tragedy, a community cleanup initiative led by Nausheen and aided by Goonj ended in a surprise. What started as temporary, open-air classes for the kids, eventually transformed into a permanent study centre. Anyone can volunteer to teach and, rest assured, they’ll get back more than they give. The kids here are a super cheerful lot and that might be the first great lesson one can learn. Most of them have personal horror stories, some of which you can see in their eyes (in moments beyond laughter and mirth) and some in the scars they carry, but can’t hide. Most of them are learning to value self respect, so they will tell you that they got the bruise while tripping over the stool at home. If it is a burn, they must have touched something hot. What is apparent is that home is a contested place for them but it is also a reality they are trying to get by. It explains why they flock to the Study Centre, where they can spend hours at an end.
This is also true for the those who came forward to help at the Centre in any way they could. Ruksar, Ruby, Prity, Kajal and Rinky are devoted to the kids. They are local young women who could not afford college and had to drop out after or while in high school. They humbly offered their labour and time for the daily chores, but Nausheen couldn’t let them do that. She suggested they teach the kids instead and be their caretakers at the Centre. Of course it wasn’t, and still isn’t, without hiccups. Kajal, Rinki and Ruksar are married and their involvement at the Centre isn’t always appreciated back home and, in fact, continues to be resented. But, they battle it out each day, however way they can.
And so does Nausheen when faced with families that don’t approve of the dreams that the Centre tries to inspire. For many a slum life full of drudgery is the only normal they live by. Nausheen’s vision for the Centre is exactly against this idea. She wants to make them believe that there are possibilities and choices that they are eligible to. She can’t tell you what she wants for the Centre. But, she she certainly knows what she doesn’t want for the kids. She doesn’t want them to loiter and fall prey to drugs, alcohol or gambling. She doesn’t want young girls to be married off or for them to consider marriage as an escape. She wants the kids to value love and discipline. She ensures that lies and misdemeanours are not tolerated, whatever be the context. She wants them to believe that their normal is not an absolute given.
She has some plans though. She wants to encourage well performing kids by giving them better educational opportunities. For those not academically oriented she has in mind certain skill development programmes that she wants them to be introduced to. So far, a number of individuals and organizations have come forward with their contributions and assistance and Nausheen hopes the numbers would only grow.
When we asked the kids to paint their desires, we expected a host of different things. On the contrary, we were looking at houses of different colours, shapes and sizes. Home is certainly where the heart is.
Those who painted their desires for us – Rohan Das, Nagerder Das, Adras Das, Aslam Mulla, Farid SK, Shakira Khatoon, Monirul, Tajmira Khatoon, SK Arman, Pihu Das, Muskaan Khatoon, Rithu Jaiswara, Afsana Khatoon, Muskan Khatoon, Payal Paswan, Yeasmina Khatoon, Agnishwar Das, Survi Paswan, Mithu Jaiswara, Sunali Rabi Das, Jolly Khatoon, Suraiya Khatoon, Sohana Khatoon, SK Firoz, Ashika Khatoon, Ratna Paswan, Jasmina Khatoon