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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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A class apart, on the kerb
- Sons of a Gariahat tea-stall vendor, the diligent duo studies by street light

Gariahat, on any given evening, is a flurry of feet, some busy picking up stuff for home, others in a hurry to get home. But at the entrance to Hindustan Park, near Gallery Kanishka's, oblivious to the frenzied footfall, two boys sit on a plastic sheet on the pavement, schoolbooks on their laps, studying diligently by the light of a lamp post.

Just a few steps away is a tea stall, abustle with cha and adda. Some pause to stare, others don't even spare them a glance, but little Manik and Mukta Haldar carry on learning their lessons of Class VI and IV.

The only one keeping an eye on them all the time is father Sona Halder, even as he serves steaming cups of tea from his small, makeshift stall on the pavement. His wife Uttara helps out with telebhaja in the evenings, as their two sons study on.

'Our home, in Dover Terrace, is very small. Besides, here I can keep an eye on them. If they go home, the boys may be tempted to go and play,' says Sona, who had to drop out of school as a child to earn a living.

He wants a better future for his sons. So, despite earning 'about Rs 1,500 per month', their education is top priority for the proud father. 'It is difficult at times, but'

For the past 15 years, Sona has been working in the Gariahat area, first as a hawker and since 1997, as the man behind the tea and telebhaja stall.

'We are okay,' says Manik softly. The 11-year-old came in the top five in class at Surendranath Chakraborty Institution, but he isn't very happy with his marks in mathematics, his favourite subject.

'I cannot teach them,' says an embarrassed Sona. 'Neither can their mother. She can sign her name, but she didn't get much of an education either,' he admits.

'Dadu sometimes helps us,' smiles 10-year-old Mukta, pointing to the home of M.N. Roy nearby. The elderly resident of Hindustan Park often lets the two brothers sit on his porch and study, and even tutors them when they need it.

When the pavement is their reading room, before or after class, Manik and Mukta are rarely distracted by the din of Gariahat. When the decibel is particularly disturbing, they sit with their backs to the road, facing the wall, reading aloud to keep their concentration. When it's quieter, they can afford the luxury of leaning against the wall while doing their homework.

Help often comes from unexpected quarters. 'A lady who often passes by has promised to pay for the books for my children,' says Sona, relief writ on his crinkled face.

And the Haldar brothers are not the only studious little soldiers at Gariahat. Diagonally opposite, where Manik and Mukta study by the streetlight, one can often spy 13-year-old Pintu and his five-year-old brother Abhishek (who insists on calling himself Abhishek Bachchan).

The two young members of the nine-member Kumar family escape the cramped confines of their makeshift shelter to come to this pavement to study. Their father is a private car driver. Little Abhishek walks barefoot, because his mother says they don't have enough money to buy new shoes. 'But I have school shoes,' he declares proudly.

The two students of Adarsh Hindu Vidyalaya brave the odds with a smile. 'We do quite well in school,' says Pintu.

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