Starting At The Beginning
Manzil runs from my home in Khan Market, where I live with my mother and special needs sister. Khan Market is the most expensive area in all of South Asia, replete with designer boutiques and fine dining establishments. As such, the students and I live surrounded by some of the richest and the most powerful citizens of Delhi.
The children and youth who over the last 10 years we have come to regard as our family – my buddies – grow up in the servant quarters of these upper-class denizens. They are children of housemaids and cooks, electricians and barbers, drivers and servants. At any given time, that’s as many as 120 students and teachers, Along with countless others who have spread their wings and traveled forth from our humble nest. And many return home, where they were nurtured and taught, to impart their newfound knowledge to the bright, curious, and inspired minds of the next generation.
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 ended up volunteering at the school for almost twenty years, before later moving to the Sahan Institute which works with even more severely challenged students. In 1996, at the age of 62, after having spent the last year and a half caring for my father who lost his battle with cancer, 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 that was originally a cluster of villages which Delhi grew around. Manzil was the name she chose.
Breaking The Habit
After my father’s passing, I planned to settle down in a remote hill village and devote my time to organic farming. 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 8th class– and his friend Pramod – a gardener’s son and a 7th class student.. I was trying to reorganize family affairs before making the move to the hills so I had some time, so I agreed. Ten minutes with the children unraveled their concerningly dubious understanding of numbers. After ten minutes working with the children, it became readily apparent that their basic understanding of mathematics was lacking. However, after a few minutes of shifting the lens through which they viewed numbers, from the current decimal system to a binary one, and to my amazement, I saw that the children had an incredibly sharp comprehension of this utterly alien concept. There was something completely contradictory at play. The children were clearly bright and intelligent, but their development in mathematics was being stunted by what they were taught in 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 time and time again. Soon, our study group expanded from two students to twenty. Even though this group spanned a large age range, all the students lacked the same basic understanding of what they had been doing in school for years. From this point we sought, collectively and collaboratively, to change the students’ approaches to math.
With the influx of new students on a near daily basis, more veteran students began to outpace the fresh arrivals. At one point when I was explaining BODMAS for the third time for the benefit of a new-comer, Hemant protested. He already understood it well, and was read to move on. Our curriculum 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 in his own knowledge of the subject, but was apprehensive at the thought of teaching. Years of conditioning in a traditional school environment had taught him that teacher was a “superior” position and that he wasn’t capable of filling that role. I needed to carry everyone along in the class, and I wasn’t ready to start a separate class. After some persuasion and promises of backup support, Hemant reluctantly agreed to try his hand at teaching and, unknown to us then, together we laid the foundations of a crucial aspect of Manzil today.