The teacher had just explained to Class IV that Christmas was the birthday of Jesus Christ when a boy’s question left him stunned.
“What’s a birthday?” little Sajal Mardunnya asked.
This was how, late last year, the teachers at the Dubrakone primary school in Onda, 26km from district headquarters Bankura, learnt a key lesson about their 110 pupils. That hardly any of them had ever had a birthday celebrated or tasted a birthday cake.
“We therefore decided to make sure that every one of our pupils had a chance to celebrate their birthdays,” headmaster Dipak Kumar Sar said.
So, from January this year, the school has been organising month-end “birthday parties” for all the students born that month, with all 110 children invited along with the parents of the birthday boys and girls.
On Saturday, November 30, the parents of 18 students were invited to the monthly birthday party, held after the morning classes. They joined their children in cutting two large cakes, brought from Bankura town.
The schoolhouse had been decorated with colourful balloons, toys and paper festoons, and all the children wore party hats. The teachers sang Happy Birthday and the children joined in, before everybody was treated to a lunch of rice, aloo chokha, chicken curry, egg curry, kheer and sweets. The teachers bore the entire cost.
“We are very poor and have never even thought of celebrating our child’s birthday. So I was surprised when a teacher asked me to come to school to cut a cake with my son,” said Shibani Bid, mother of Class III student Jiban.
“We had never even dreamed of buying a cake from the market. I was overjoyed today.”
Young Jiban was thrilled to have had his first birthday party. “The whole school looked colourful and the cake was delicious,” he said.
Headmaster Sar said that most of the parents were farm labourers.
He recalled that when Sajal had raised his hand and asked what a birthday was, the entire class had fallen silent, awaiting a response from the teacher.
“It made us want to make sure that every child could celebrate their birthday. It’s a basic right for any child to know, and to be acknowledged on, their birthday.”
So the teachers prepared a list of all the students’ birthdays from the school records and informed their families, travelling door to door in their pocket of rural Bankura.
Jagabandhu Banerjee, district inspector of schools (primary), Bankura, said: “I know that the children in that school are from very poor families. I welcome the teachers’ initiative and hope it will inspire others.”
There’s a poignant twist to the story, though. Although primary schools are supposed to teach children from Classes I to V, the one at Dubrakone teaches only till Class IV.
So Sajal, whose question had started it all, never got to attend any of the school’s birthday parties. Nor did his classmates, none of whom knew what a birthday was.
They had all left to join high school by the time the primary school held its first birthday party last January 31.