“In Shankar Bhuvan, you can find any type of masti (mischief) you are looking for,” says Vishal’s father. “Liquor, gambling, fighting, foul language – It’s always going on in the streets.”
The environment is hardly suitable for raising a family, but Vishal’s mother and father have no choice. With his father as the sole breadwinner, and five mouths to feed, they cannot afford to move out of the Shankar Bhuvan slum.
Vishal has mixed feelings about his community. He has lived in Shankar Bhuvan all his life. He knows how to navigate the narrow labyrinth of alleys, squeezing past wandering goats and stepping over stray dogs who seek shelter from the blazing Ahmedabad sun. He has built a group of trusty playmates who offer him constant company. With his family and friends in the area, Vishal is never at a loss of people to spend time with.
But upon further thought, Vishal begins to reveal the various difficulties in Shankar Bhuvan that he has faced.
Like most residents of the area, Vishal’s family does not have a toilet in their home. They have no other option than to use the riverbank as a mass toilet, along with the thousands of other people and no privacy.
“It’s just not right,” Vishal says. “If I have to go to the bathroom at night, I’m scared to go to the river.”
His face contorts in disgust and distress as he thinks about the conditions.
Although Vishal is playful and often smiling, his manner changes suddenly to one of anger and frustration when he becomes upset. And living among men who drink often, and children with little guidance of what is right and wrong, Vishal is often angered by neighbors who misbehave and speak rudely.
“When the other boys use foul language, I get so mad,” Vishal says. “I lose my head and feel like hitting them.”
Vishal spreads his hands far apart, illustrating how angry he becomes.
“I don’t feel just a little angry,” he says. “I feel very, very angry.”
His EKATVA mentors have coached him in ways to curb his anger and check his physical reactions to those who anger him. But Vishal admits that it is a work in progress.
Asha is tall, charismatic, and according to her teachers at the Ashramshala, very stubborn. A conversation with her is impressive, but lacks the innocence or candor you’d expect from a 13-year old girl. She has a film star-esque quality to her smile – bright and beautiful, plastered on her face as she searches for the “right” thing to say.
Yet, someone with Asha’s background cannot be expected to have much girlish innocence. Asha’s family lives in Shankar Bhuvan, a slum area in Ahmedabad known for its tough crowd, and rough living conditions. The narrow alleys that weave through the community are dotted with men exchanging cigarettes and liquor, spitting at the feet of passersby as crude language rolls off their tongues.
Two years ago, Asha’s parents eagerly took the chance to put Asha and her younger sister in the children’s hostel at Gandhi Ashram.
“I wanted to get a good education so I can move ahead in life,” Asha says, a response almost too wise for her years. Despite her prodigious claim, the transition to hostel life was not easy for Asha. As she describes the loneliness she felt when other girls did not include her in their games, and as her sister found new friends to join, her smiling and charming veneer shows a crack of candid unease.
Her troubles were not limited to making friends. The contrast between the disciplined environment at the Ashramshala and the abrasive life in the slums became apparent in Asha’s schoolwork. Her teachers hassle her to pay more focus on her studies, but she is not used to being around those who value education.
“My friends at Shankar Bhuvan used to always trouble our teachers,” Asha explains. “With them, I never took my studies seriously. Now everyone says I’m not making an effort in the Ashramshala, but I am trying. It’s just that I’m not used to studying. Even a little effort seems like a big one.”
While effort is relative, Asha’s poor grades and negligent attitude toward her lessons cannot be overlooked. After failing her mid-year Ashramshala exams in February, Asha was warned that her spot in EKATVA was at risk unless she improved her study habits. But she was not left to tackle her schoolwork on her own. Her mentors at Manav Sadhna took out time for extra tutoring, and her friends at the Ashramshala would sit with her late at night after dance rehearsal, to help her practice her lessons.
But when results for the end-of-year exams were tallied, Asha’s performance was disappointing. Her failing marks in every subject left no doubt that her focus in her schoolwork had not been sincere.
Until she demonstrates a sincere effort and improvement in her studies, Asha is no longer a part of EKATVA.
Asha’s mentors explained to her that the purpose of this production is not as simple as taking 16 children from the slums on a tour around the world. EKATVA is an experiment in uplifting children from poverty to self-sustainability, by supporting them holistically and showing them the fruits of hard work. To include Asha in this journey while she continues her bad study habits would be a disservice to her and the person she has the potential to become. She has been given one more chance to apply herself and add value to the message EKATVA seeks to send to the world.
When Sanjay’s father was in second grade, his teacher slapped him on the hand with a ruler one day for misbehaving. He never went back to school. “Because I was afraid of being hit again, I missed out on an education. I want Sanjay to realize I am doing majoori (labor) work because I am uneducated”
Sanjay and his family live in Ram Rahim no Tekro, a slum area in Old Ahmedabadfamous for the communities of Hindus and Muslims that live side-by-side. Both his parents do majoori, and are desperate for their children to find a way out of their difficult and unstable lifestyle.
A few years ago, Sanjay began ragpicking to earn some extra income for his family, who were in danger of losing their home. He would go through mountains of rubbish in the slums around his home and collect enough scraps of paper to earn about 30 rupees per day.
“My neighbor’s son was ragpicking near the river once, and he got swept away,” Sanjay explained. “I was afraid something like that would happen to me, or that I would get kidnapped.”
The conditions were unimaginable and dangerous, especially for a 10-year old boy, but Sanjay continued ragpicking for several months to help his family.
“As a laborer, you can’t always expect the work to be pleasant.”
Sanjay’s parents hope that EKATVA will equip their son with the tools to build a lifestyle that is not based on hard labor. But it was not clear from the beginning whether Sanjay would be a good fit for this journey. Unlike the other children who were selected based on their potential as performers, strong academics and attitude, Sanjay does not particularly excel in any of these criteria.
He does not show natural talent as a dancer, and his schoolwork is poor. His mother describes him as absentminded, “When I send him to the market to buy five things, he will only come back with one,” she explained.
“It’s like things fly out of my mind when I need to remember them,” he says. This forgetfulness, in addition to his tendency toward mischief, made him an unlikely candidate for this demanding journey.
But although Sanjay’s qualifications seemed lacking on paper, he has demonstrated an impressive commitment to EKATVA. Everyday for over three months, he made the 40-minute bus trip across the Sabarmati River that divides Ahmedabad, to reach EKATVA practice after school.
“In the beginning, I was afraid that I would get on the wrong bus and end up in God-knows-where,” Sanjay said.
He has earned the trust of his parents, who do not hesitate to send him unaccompanied, and his teachers at Manav Sadhna, who have witnessed his street smarts and dependability.
Although the responsibility of travelling alone has not always been easy, Sanjay doesn’t mind putting in the extra effort.
“Bad things take no time at all to finish,” Sanjay says. “It’s the good things that take a long time and hard work. For good things, you have to sweat.”
In her EKATVA journey, Krishna has learned about inner happiness and inner strength.
“Helping others is the way to feel santosh (contentment),” the 11-year old says sagely.
Krishna describes a young boy she met near Gandhi Ashram whose leg was handicapped from polio. As he was trying to cross the road, faced by an onslaught of speeding rickshaws and heavy buses, Krishna and her friend noticed his struggle and hurried to help him.
“You should have seen his face when I took his hand and my friend took his bag” Krishna’s face lights up as she tells the story.
“He was so happy. When he said thank you, I felt something good open up inside me.”
The value of seva, or service, that Krishna has developed through EKATVA has pushed her beyond her comfort zone. Her mother explains that before, Krishna used to look out for herself only. But recently, she has noticed her daughter putting the wellbeing of her siblings and parents before her own.
“We are one family,” Krishna says. “We should take care of each other.”
What activities of service and compassion have done for Krishna internally, the rigorous EKATVA dance rehearsals have done for her physically, helping her realize the limits of her physical strength.
Since the beginning of this journey, Krishna has been fragile, both emotionally and in terms of her fitness. Daily dance practice has been grueling, especially in the heat of Ahmedabad summer. The rehearsal schedule and dances demand strength and endurance, something that young Krishna was visibly lacking.
But just as she has displayed a change in her behavior toward others, recently, her strength has improved as well.
During the children’s exercise routine at practice one morning, the children began a contest to see who could do the most jumping jacks. Five minutes passed, and kids started dropping. Then ten minutes. The number continued to fall, as more exhausted little dancers ran out of gas. Finally, nearly 20 minutes into the contest, only two children remained. Delicate Krishna and tiny Chandani surprised everyone with their stamina, and even more so, with their will power and desire to win.
When Devram begins to talk about his grandfather, there is a change in his body language. He sits on top of his hands, as though he is afraid someone will try to take them, and focuses his eyes ahead, on a point far away. He describes how his Dada used to give him a few rupees each day to buy fruit, before he came to live at the children’s hostel at Gandhi Ashram. Devram prefers apple or guava, but during the summer, he would bring home a mango, his Dada’s favorite.
“He taught me only good things,” Devram says. “He taught me to never steal or lie, and to work hard.”
Devram’s Dada also taught him to read and write. These days, surrounded by dozens of playful children at the hostel, he still prefers to study and read his school lessons in his free time, rather than join in the mischief and impromptu cricket matches with other boys.
When his Dada passed away in January, Devram refused to take time off from school to be at home with his family, worried that he would fall behind in his studies. His eyes fill up with tears when he thinks about it.
Despite his sadness over his grandfather’s death, Devram’s studies have not suffered. He continues to place first in his class. Yet, his future remains uncertain. In the past, the Ashramshala hostel has only accommodated children until the seventh standard. Until recently, Devram had planned to return to the Ahmedabad slum in which his family lives, and attend the public municipality school this year as he enters eighth standard. He explained that his parents did not want him to leave home again to study in another hostel, but one can sense that the wish to be home may be mutual.
However, his mentors at Manav Sadhna felt it would be a shame for his bright future and shining potential to be eclipsed by the uncertainty of life in the slum and the neglect of public schoolteachers. Since Devram has proved himself to be a hard-working and conscientious student,Manav Sadhna has arranged for him to live in the Ashramshala while he studies and continues to attend the Gandhi Ashram School No. 1.