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California girl on mission Piyali

The director at a village school 90 minutes from south Calcutta adjusts her sari, attends to morning assembly in Bengali, returns to pending paperwork and looks up to touch the forehead of a student who has walked in complaining “Bhalo lagchhey na (I am not feeling well)”.

Just another morning in the day of Filipino-Danish-American Kristine Pedersen from Santa Barbara, California. Where? In Piyali, South 24-Parganas.

What’s a human development graduate from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) with a masters from Heller School for Social Policy and Management (Brandeis University) doing in the back of Bengal’s beyond? “Discovering a new world,” smiles Kristine.

Kristine heads the 205-student Piyali Learning Centre where water is still drawn from a tubewell sunk a thousand feet to beat the arsenic, where parents would rather send girls into the flesh trade than to school and where women slog while men drink.

“Challenging?” squints Kristine at my question. “On the contrary, this is a dream location for any development professional. I decided to come half the world across so that I could make a big tangible difference. The unexpected bonus is that what was intended to be a purely academic engagement has now extended to creating a dormitory for students who are in danger of being sexually trafficked, vocational training for mothers to become economically independent, creating a global market for the handicrafts made by Piyali women.... The more challenging it becomes, the more impact we have the chance to make!”

Kristine had completed a bachelor’s degree in international development (emphasis on poverty reduction) at UCLA when she heard from her Rotarian parents how another Rotarian (Deepa Willingham, retired ex-Calcutta microbiologist) had started a village school in faraway India. Curious, she sought an introduction. Deepa explained how the school had grown from scratch, how she had raised funds from American Rotarians and how she eventually connected with committed Calcutta Rotarians to address ground realities better. Kristine was engrossed enough to ask, “Can I visit?”

And so Kristine flew out to foggy Calcutta in February 2007. With a laptop and educational CDs. Her brief: enhance rural IT familiarity. So Kristine checked in at ITC Sonar, drove 90 minutes each morning to Piyali, “dabbled around with the computers for about four hours” and drove back by mid-afternoon.

She would do the usual stuff — start a few games, create a wow, ask kids to press some buttons.... And she would have been back to California on a “polite fortnight spent and thank you very much” had it not been for something curious: the recurring image of a four-year-old peering over to see what she was showing the other older children on the black box.

“Her eyes spoke to me in a Morse of their own, saying ‘I wish I were big enough to be able to work on that machine too’,” says Kristine, “and somewhere inside me there was this lurking apprehension that despite all what one had heard about India’s progress, in a few years the best that little girl would be doing would be staying put in a kitchen and trying her damned best to stay out of a brothel.”

The game-changer

So even as her parents were speculating whether it would next be Stanford or some East Coast university for their only child, the 22-year-old Kristine indicated she would like to return to Calcutta. This time for 90 days. Standing in as substitute teacher. Evaluating other teachers. And living in Champahati, a train stop away from her school.

For someone raised on an acre’s residential property in California, she was now empress across all of 150sq ft, unattached bathroom, cot, almirah, desk, erratic power, geyser-less bathroom, water from a well and no broadband — for Rs 800 a month. If she needed to go out and shop, she communicated through mime-cum-English; she repeated every Bengali word to culturalise an alien tongue.

And then the three months ended. But even before she could literally unpack in California, she was back in Piyali, this time to stay for another 12 months. And while here, the mechanics of a larger scheme of things began to emerge: Piyali needed serious life interventions, the relevant solutions would come from training, this training would need to be holistic and the result was that she applied to go back to grad school, enrolled in Brandeis University for a masters in sustainable international development, knew precisely what she needed to extract from the course so that it would be relevant in this place nobody had heard of, finished in May 2011 and was back in Piyali four months later. This time for the long haul.

“The moment I said I would be going back,” says Kristine, “my parents knew that I had carved out my place in the world — not in California but in Piyali.”

So why is she back? “Because after centuries of inequity, we finally see a window of opportunity that could enable the girl child here to seek an education, learn English, become economically independent, escape exploitation and earn something she has always deserved — social equality. Maybe someone from here will go abroad to pursue studies on a scholarship, maybe there will be more schools in Piyali, maybe wives won’t be beaten at home, maybe people will be happier, the implications are endless. So my job — our job — is to make that happen.”

These are not words. In two months from now, the bits-and-pieces Piyali Learning Centre started by Deepa Willingham in 2003, moves into a new facility. A class that now conducts morning assembly in a 80sq ft corner just five feet from the village road, will sprawl out across 2.7 acres comprising 12 classrooms, 4,000sq ft gym, 3.600sq ft dining area, 4,000sq ft dormitory, computer laboratory, special learners’ class, library, science laboratory, administrative director’s office, vice-principal’s office, administration office and a teachers’ room.

“It is this reality that is going to be a game-changer in the destinies of hundreds of girls,” says Kristine.

What is your message for Kristine? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com