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Oxford Diary

Sikha on London Eye and (above) with Salim outside Big Ben

Far away from the congestion and the constraints of their Nehru Colony home near Ultadanga, Salim Shekh and Sikha Patra, 14, took the stage at Said Business School, University of Oxford, as speakers at Skoll World Forum, accompanied by their “Dada” Amlan Ganguly, director of the NGO Prayasam. Sikha relives the wonder week for Metro.

Day 1

Why are they staring at us? That was my first thought as Salim and I walked up the aisle in the early morning flight that was taking us to Mumbai for our journey to England. Soon, we knew why. Our pictures were in the paper they were reading! The airhostesses had run out of copies of The Telegraph and it was a smiling co-passenger who offered us his copy along with his congratulations.

It was such a long flight yet it was still day when we landed in Heathrow, at 6pm. Strange! A car was waiting for us to take us to Oxford. “Dada, Mercedes!” whispered Salim. That boy always has his eye on big cars on VIP Road. I was struck by how the driver was dressed like an officer, in a coat.

It took us an hour to reach Oxford. I had thought it was a university. But it appeared to be a big city as well. How clean were the streets! And they have lanes for cyclists! Salim said if he could cycle so freely in Ultadanga he would happily go to school every day.

We were put up at Macdonald Randolph, a five-star hotel. At dinner, we didn’t have time to stand at one place. Somehow everyone wanted to meet us.

All three of us were given separate rooms. I was a bit sick after the flight so Dada said both Salim and I could sleep in his room. But there was no way I would give up the chance to stay in my own room. It was bigger than our one-room home in the colony.

Day 2

Salim outside Bodleian Library and (above) with Sikha and Amlan Ganguly at Trinity College

Our guide John-da showed us around Oxford — Trinity College, Bodleian Library, Christ Church… At the library, he asked if we had read Harry Potter. We said we had seen the films on TV. He said the hospital scenes of two of the films were shot here. Harry Potter stood here!

Salim kept saying that the college was so big one could live here. They don’t have to go out for anything. We were given maps to find our way around.

In the evening, we went to hear the chapel choir sing in the church. Salim had gone to Dhurramtala Church once with the para boys but this was my first visit to one.

We are getting sick of sandwiches. Dada took us to a momo shop, where I kept telling them to add chilli.

Day 3

At the registration desk, they gave Dada a speaker’s badge and meal coupons but nothing to us. When Dada pushed us forward, their eyes popped out on learning we were speakers too. They kept saying sorry as they gave us our folders.

Over lunch we were introduced to the other speakers in our forum, titled Young People — The New Superheroes Leading Social Innovation. There was this Egyptian boy who has opened a software company at 21. I couldn’t make out anything more. There was a boy and a girl from the Philippines. The boy was born in prison and now works for child rights. The girl was trafficked but managed to flee along with three others. So brave! We were the youngest of the lot.

In the evening, we went to New Theatre for the screening of Stories of Change, a documentary film project of the Sundance Institute and Skoll Foundation. One of the films was The Revolutionary Optimists, made on Dada’s work with us. The brochure they gave out carried Salim’s and my photo. We collected a few to show at home.

At dinner in the Networking Tent, we met an NGO director from Pakistan. She had seen in the documentary how we use handheld gadgets for film-making. She asked Dada if we could go to Pakistan and teach the skill to the children she works with. A journalist also spoke to us.

A lady asked if we could cook. We remembered the English of payesh we had learnt at our Prayasam spoken English classes, and quickly said rice pudding. She asked for the recipe. With Dada away, we explained as best we could.

Salim and Sikha at the Trinity College dining table

Day 4: Today was the big day. We took our place on stage at Said Business School. The room was full of people, all waiting to hear us speak. Both of us have spoken before on the mic — Salim in the Parliament Bhavan library and I at Vigyan Bhavan. We were not nervous. We spoke in Bengali about our work as community health minders. Dada translated for us. Though there were three other speakers, most of the questions were for us. One boy asked how they could take part in our work. I said Skoll Foundation could build a website for us where children of all corners can share experiences. Someone else asked how we could make out which adults to trust. We said we studied if they practised what they preached. I also said we wanted a system which made the government listen to us, children.

Many people praised us for speaking confidently. An American lady offered us a scholarship to attend an eight-month programme on life and leadership skills she runs in Texas. Dada has said he won’t send us unless we do well in Madhyamik. That’s a big challenge.

After the session, Salim wanted to see the railway. Back home, rail tracks pass by our colony. At Dada’s request, we were allowed into the station for two minutes. The trains had big glass windows and there was no filth on the tracks. Also, the doors opened at stations, like in Metro.

The dinner that night was at Ashmolean Museum. The Prime Minister of Britain was there. There were so many unknown dishes that we took turns in tasting and guided each other.

Day 5: Today, everyone decided to eat Indian in our honour. There was rice and meat. With Dada’s permission, we used our hands. The founder of Skoll Foundation Jeff Skoll met us. Dada said he asked if we would come back next year! We had to bid goodbye to our guide John da today.

Day 6: We went round London all day. I made everyone climb the London Eye. At fairs, I ride giant wheels standing but Salim was very scared.

Day 7: I was missing home food so much that I made Dada promise there would be alu siddha-bhaat waiting at the Prayasam office when we reached Calcutta. What bliss to eat to our heart’s content after a week!

(As told to Sudeshna Banerjee)