The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The three R’s and an eyeful of sky

Just after dawn, when joggers start trooping into the verdant Dhakuria Lakes, a bunch of barefoot kids in light-and-dark-blue uniforms plonk under a canopy of trees. From 7.30 am to 10.30 am, it’s study time in true Santiniketan style. The roll call was respectable even on the day the mercury dropped to a 14-year low. Only the monsoon plays spoilsport every year. Because that’s when, with about 100 children, the teachers of Udbhas run helter-skelter for a shelter they can call a classroom. For about 13 years, the non-profit organisation has been on a literacy drive under the open skies. And there’s no support in sight.

“We had requested the CIT to let us construct a shed on the plot adjacent to Calcutta Sports. We had also promised to beautify the spot with manicured patches of greenery. They did not heed us and, instead, let the Calcutta Cricket Coaching Club construct a building. Now, we conduct our drills and physical training sessions in the car park of Aykar Bhavan, in Dhakuria. But the authorities there are threatening to drive us out, too. We really don’t know where we will go this monsoon,” says the unassuming Jayashri Kundu, who founded Udbhas for slum children in the late 1980s.

With her were a few parents of Carmel School, “who wanted to do something more than housework and chatting while waiting for the classes to get over”, Kundu explains. The Lakes were an ideal, but inconvenient, spot for the group to assemble, as drug-peddlers would hold sway over the area. But soon, Udbhas created its own space and it’s been that way ever since.

The aim was not just to acquaint the children with the world of books, but also open windows to a world of culture. Hence, equal emphasis is put on extra-curricular activities. Sundays are reserved for singing, recitation, story-telling and needlework classes.

A two-day function held recently drew some 800 kids from the slums along the Lake Gardens rail tracks, Panchanantala and Jodhpur Park, with a cluster of contests, including sit-and-draw, clay-modelling, recitation and handwriting. “We distribute entry forms to primary schools and in the slums. That’s how the kids come to know of the contests,” says Purabi Majumder, a retired teacher of Loreto, Bowbazar, and a member of Udbhas.

A close association with the organisation for years has injected a sense of “self-esteem and confidence” in several teenagers. “Some of the girls don’t want to work as domestic helps like their mothers and are willing to go in for professions such as midwifery,” Majumder adds.

From a handful, the headcount — of both teachers and students — has grown steadily over the years. Several Udbhas members, mostly retired employees and housewives, find the fresh air of the Lakes and the young minds rejuvenating.

On an evening around three years ago, Barun Ghosh, the retired managing director of a multinational company, spotted a gathering beneath a tree while taking a stroll in the Lakes with his wife. “Some sort of an exhibition was going on where kids from the nearby slums had put up their wares. We dropped by, saw the show, met the organisers and got hooked on. Now, both of us teach the children at Udbhas,” he says. Many like the Ghoshs make a dash for the kids early in the morning, abandoning household chores. “The enthusiasm to educate these kids gives us a sense of life lived worthily,” admits Ghosh.

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