The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Kids chant Tagore & tables at cremation ground

Rathbarighat (Cooch Behar), Aug. 7: The usual eerie silence of the burning ghat is punctuated with young voices reciting poems of Tagore and Nazrul and multiplication tables under the watchful eyes of five persons who have taken it upon themselves to change the lives of some children.

What used to be a place frequented by pot smokers and hooch drinkers and local toughs now resounds with the laughter of happy children. The initial efforts to make the place what it is today were by Jiban Chanda, the owner of an eatery in Dinhata, 5km away.

“I used to come to this burning ghat every morning and used to see children playing around instead of going to school or studying. I spoke to some of them and found out that although they were students of Classes III to V in local primary schools, they could not even write their names,” said the 50-year-old Chanda.

It was then that Chanda decided to set up an informal school. Classes started underneath a tree one sunny morning last December.

Assisting Chanda in his effort are Satyendranath Sarkar, a homoeopath, Chandan Chakraborty, a high school teacher and Ramendranarayan Dey, a retired headmaster. Local trader Surendra Kumar Rathi teaches the children yoga.

Although there are no provision for meals, the children are treated to sweets and chocolates every now and then. Around 300 boys and girls come to the burning ghat veryday to learn their letters and the numbers.

“Once these children used to roam the area looking for puja paraphernalia left behind by those coming to cremate their dead. Now the same children wake up in the morning, freshen up and come to take lessons,” Chanda said.

Just behind the space where the classes are conducted is a cemented area with four iron poles where cremations take place.

“If there is a cremation, we move some distance away. However, this has happened only twice in the past two months. The people of Dinhata have other burning ghats to take their dead to,” Chanda said.

One of the boys, Kartik Rabidas, said last year he dropped out of school while in Class III. “I used to work for a butcher where I skinned slaughtered goats. But now I can come to school before going to work,” he said.

Kartik, whose father is a cobbler, earns around Rs 350 a week. He gets Rs 15 for every goat he skins. On a market day, which is usually twice a week, 15-20 goats are slaughtered,” said Kartik.

“This is no life for a nine-year-old,” said Chanda.

He said Kartik was the “captain” of his class. “I like this school better than my earlier one,” said Kartik.

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