Starting At The Beginning
Manzil runs from my home in Khan Market, where I live with my mother and special sister. We live surrounded by the richest and the most powerful people of Delhi. The children and youth that over the last 10 years we have come to regard as our family – my buddies – grow up in their servant quarters. They are children of housemaids and cooks and electricians and barbers and drivers and servants. That’s about 120 young people at any given point of time, and more that have flown from the nest, and return as they feel, like one returns home.
Journey From Within
My elder sister has multiple handicaps. Because of her special needs, she went to one of the first integrated schools in Delhi – Balvantrai Mehta Vidya Bhawan – and my mother came to volunteer at the school for almost 20 years, followed by working for 10 years in Sahan Institute which works with even more severely challenged children. In 1996, at the age of 62 and just coming out of a year and a half’s battle with cancer that we lost my father to, she wanted to open her own little school to serve young children with learning disabilities in Kotla, a slum-like area lying in the heart of Delhi, originally a cluster of villages that Delhi just grew around. Manzil was the name she chose.
Breaking The Habit
Meanwhile, I had left aside an extended phase of broad exploring in order to take care of my father during this year-and-a-half, and after his passing away, had made a decision to settle down in a remote hill village basing my life on farming organically. But life, as usual, had other plans. Two children looking for help with their school maths approached me. Hemant – a washerman’s son studying in class 8th – and his friend Pramod – a gardener’s and a class younger. I was trying to reorganize family affairs before making the move to the hills so I had some time, and I agreed. Ten minutes with the children unraveled their concerningly dubious understanding of numbers. 2 – 5. Is it 3, -3, or can’t be done. Ten more minutes imagining how numbers would look if the current decimal system of representation were to be replaced by the binary one, and to my amazement, I found an incredibly sharp comprehension of this utterly alien concept. There was something completely contradictory there. The children were clearly bright and intelligent, but somehow they had been dumbed down by how they were taught at school.
Over the weeks and months that followed, two things happened. Hemant and Pramod asked to include another of their friends, then another, then yet another, again and again… and I found myself acquiescing… each time. Soon there were 20 children, from various classes, all together because irrespective of the class they were in, all lacked the same basic understanding of what they had been doing for years. But when I was explaining BODMAS for the third time for the benefit of a new-comer, Hemant protested. He had already understood it well, and was hungry to move on. This was getting repetitive for him. ‘In that case’, I said to Hemant, ‘I invite you instead to explain BODMAS to your friend’. Hemant was confident of his learning, but hesitated to teach. Years of conditioning had taught him. A teacher was a ‘position’ and he wasn’t in that position – went his unarticulated thinking. A teacher was a ‘role-for-the-time-being’, and he was ready for it as far as BODMAS was concerned – went my unarticulated thinking. Besides, unlike him, I needed to carry everyone along in the class, and I wasn’t ready to start a separate class… yet… After some persuasion and promises of back-up support, Hemant reluctantly agreed to try his hand at teaching and, unknowingly to us then, together we laid the foundations of a crucial aspect of life at Manzil today.