Mahalaxmi Ashok Arijat | 15 | Student
Our Lady of Health High School, Mumbai
A cot. A rug on top. Utensils next to a chulha. A rope with clothes hanging on it. These are the possessions that mark the space that Mahalaxmi Ashok Arijat calls home next to a kerbside near the International Airport in Mumbai. Her mother lives mostly in their native village in Tamil Nadu and her father is a driver in an office in Mumbai. The 15-year-old has just passed class eight from Our Lady of Health High School, an English-medium missionary school that she joined when she was three. Her younger sister Manisha, 12, goes to the same school and is in class six. Despite studying in an English medium school, she struggles to put sentences together, even though she understands the language well.
Just last week her nine-year-old cousin Sneha was killed after being crushed by a taxi that had a break failure. At the time of the accident, Sneha was having tea by the roadside. She used to go to a municipality school nearby and was home that morning because of summer vacations. School for these children is a refuge in more ways than one. Mahalaxmi feels Sneha would have been safe had she been in school. Sneha’s picture frame hangs on the wall with a garland. It is the face of a curious and happy child dressed in school uniform.
“Almost everybody in my school is better off than I am. There is a hierarchy that is followed: children living in buildings are on top, followed by the ones living in chawls. As the poorest students, we are their constant target. They all call me ‘Kaali Ma’ and ‘Jhopadpattiwali.’ Nobody is friendly with me except for one girl who lives in the chawl. I get very angry when they make fun of me, and I complain to our class teacher. But she does not say anything to them, she just writes in their diaries.
“The children in my class don’t share their tiffin with me. The school arranges lunch for poor students, and I look forward to the day they serve sandwiches and popcorn. We don’t have to pay monthly fees, only at the end of the year we pay Rs 4000 for books, stationery and other such expenses.
“I love the discipline in school. Despite the teasing by other children, school is a lot better than being here on the road. We get a lot of homework and I come back from school by two o’clock and then spend three hours completing it. But I don’t mind that. I am an above average student, and score around 70 percent. From class nine, I will start taking tuitions in maths and science, and later get a college degree in science. My father has told me that I could become a doctor, and I would like to be one.”
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.