The Telegraph
Wednesday , March 14 , 2012
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She lights up their dark world

Rihanna and Backstreet Boys on her iPod, Levi’s and Reebok in her wardrobe, Tom Cruise and Ranbir Kapoor on her heartthrob list. Now how’s this for contrast? Ishika Seal, sweet and 16, spends weekends in Sonagachhi teaching children of sex workers.

“I was a pampered child. I would want and get the most expensive dress and the latest upgraded versions of video games, yet I would keep wanting more,” says Ishika of her once Barbie-like existence.

Until, one fine afternoon in 2009, the Class X student of La Martiniere for Girls accompanied her mother Madhumita to the dingy lanes of a north Calcutta neighbourhood where childhood dies a silent death every day.

Ishika was then in Class VIII, and she remembers being “scared” by what she saw. “I realised how society had deprived them, and that someone needed to spend time with them and give them a healthy upbringing,” recounts the teenager.

Since November 2010, Ishika’s done exactly that, travelling to Sonagachhi from her home at Kalitala on the EM Bypass almost every Saturday and Sunday to teach the children there English, science, math and Bharatanatyam. Her grandparents would often protest, and friends and relatives were less than encouraging. But Ishika knew she had to do it; this was her redemption from taking life (and luxuries) for granted.

“I study in one of the better schools of Calcutta not on merit alone. I am lucky to be born in a family that can afford to send me there. These kids are not. But I have seen them being happy with a piece of chocolate,” she says.

The evening school where Ishika volunteers as a teacher has classes I to X. It was started by sex workers’ children who had beaten the odds to reach college, but funding has always been scarce and infrastructure almost non-existent.

“They do not have enough classrooms and, on occasions, the children study in the corridors of the dilapidated building, making use of whatever little space they have. It feels so strange sometimes — they study while their mothers roam the alley in front of them, soliciting clients,” says the teenager.

A few of the children go to day schools, but for the majority of them this is their only source of literacy. For Ishika, getting them to accept her was as big a challenge as convincing her grandparents that they should be encouraging rather than preventing her from doing community service.

“It was intimidating for me as well. But once I interacted with the other teachers (former students of the school), I realised their mental state and it helped me reach out to them. I have since won their love and trust. A Class IV student once confided in me that he aspires to become a lawyer. One has to spend time with them to understand them,” she says.

Ishika, who has taken a short break from teaching to write her ICSE exams, was recently shortlisted for a national community service award along with a group of five teenaged girls from Loreto Day School, Sealdah.

The Loreto girls had built two classrooms at a remote village in the Sunderbans in partnership with 30 students of John Scottus Secondary School in Dublin, Ireland. The five girls — Razia Khatoon, Mehrose Hafiz, Mary Hazra, Rose Mary Dipika Gomes and Alisha Seddon — had spent 10 days from their Puja vacation in the Sunderbans to help add two classrooms to Khagendranath Smriti Madhyamik Siksha Kendra in Jharkhali, a school for children of tribal fishermen.

“Sister Cyril (the former principal of Loreto, Sealdah) had put us on the project. There were masons to help us, but we did the bulk of the work,” recalls Alisha.

Ishika, too, is grateful for the journey from cocooned comfort to a world so different from hers. Along the way, she has learnt that giving gives her the greatest joy.

“I never asked her to accompany me or teach those children, the decision was entirely hers. This has helped her to stay grounded,” says mother Madhumita, the vice-principal of Shri Shikshayatan School.

Do you know of any other school student committed to a cause?