“RO-MI-TA. Got it? Come on, read my lips again. RO…” the tiny classroom separated from other rooms by a plywood wall on two sides carries the echo of 24-year-old Poonam. I stand beside her to face a 6-year-old sitting across a round blue table looking intently at Poonam’s emotive lips as they swish and sway to make some movements known, some sounds unknown. “She is one of our brightest students,” Poonam says proudly as she can’t stop enlisting Divya’s achievements at various competitions. Her strength: She can read lips. Others can’t. “Oomeetaa,” Divya says finally, giving me a moment so overwhelming that I take minutes to recover. How does she say her own name, I ask Poonam after recollecting myself. “EEvyaa,” the little one utters.
It’s Saturday. Divya shares the blue, round table with around 10 other kids. One sits on a separate desk in a corner, a bit far from the table and next to Poonam. He has got “rage issues”; needs special attention, Poonam tells me. “A lot of parents don’t send their kids to school on Saturdays. On other days, you can expect a lot more crowded classroom. Including this group, we have some 70 students in the school,” she says. “Saturdays are usually devoted to art and music. But they have their exams starting this Monday. So, we are studying,” she continues as she makes her way to Varun’s desk who is trying to memorise numbers using wooden blocks.
We are standing inside the premises of Kanshi Giri Temple in the north Indian city of Panipat, a few miles away from the national capital New Delhi. The first floor of this temple has been witnessing the shrieks and silence, laughter and melodies of hundreds of such students since the last 10 years. Some move on after receiving their training, some stay; they are bound to stay.
The first time I visited the school, I got perturbed to see a 49-year-old man bellowing in a classroom, screaming at the wall. “He doesn’t like any noise in the classroom. This is how he reacts sometimes. Otherwise, he is a nice kid,” Ashu’s mentor had told me later. What is his mental age, I ask this time as I see him sitting quietly, looking intently at his teacher in the room. “He is five. He has been here since the genesis of this school. He has a very supportive family. Every morning, they send him to school, pick him up in the afternoon when our driver is not available, pay for his expenses… ”
There are two million mentally-retarded children in the country, a report presented at the Third Asian Conference on Mental Retardation three years ago said. And only 0.02% of them have access to schools. What worries me is the condition of those who don’t have supportive parents like Ashu’s or those who don’t have parents at all. I ask several mentors at the school if they have such a kid at their school but most of them seem to be at a loss of words. “There is one girl though that comes from an orphanage,” says one at last. Who pays for her training then, I ask. “There are many kids here whose families cannot pay the fee. But we have some patrons. Together with their help and some little donations, we somehow make ends meet,” she replies.
“The total number of special schools increases each year, but their quality remains the same,” a psychiatrist says. “Lack of space is one of the major problems faced by the institutions,” the report adds. And, perhaps epics can be written on the social stigma and lack of acceptance these kids face. Some are discarded by family, some by fate.
“Lack of funds, space, support…every enterprise would have these problems. Here, every kid’s requirement is different from others. Some can’t hear you, some can’t speak to you. Some need blocks, some need books. At best, we can hire 4-5 teachers with the support we receive from patrons and temple authorities. Then, the support staff is also needed,” school principal Kamlesh Dua says.
“It may take decades to dispel myths and stigma, and create opportunities for them. It really is a difficult job” a patron at the school says. “But you know the times when kids choose you over their parents to ‘chat’ about their annoying neighbour… you can’t tell me about a better reward or better form of gratitude in the world. That’s the best possible way they could motivate you and more importantly, thank you…”
I let his words permeate the air for the next few minutes. Saying them goodbye, I lift the huge packet of chips and cookies that I brought along and make my way to the classrooms again. Perhaps, the little ones can never get tired of hugging you and excitedly waving at you. I am busy distributing the little yellow and pink packets while occasionally stealing a glance at the fierce carom match between the 7-year-olds Akash and Karan. Nobody really knows who is winning but Akash cannot stop laughing at every stroke that hits the board.
Suddenly, I feel a gentle pat on my arm. I turn around to see Junaid, Priya, and two others standing behind holding the brightly-coloured cookies and chips packets. They put their right hand on their stomach, the left on the head, and bow down a little. I ask Poonam what it means. She says, “That’s the other way they say thank you…”