Two boys and two girls. They were to be found at one of the busiest traffic signals in south Delhi. The boys were about five or six years of age. The girls looked older, about eight or nine. As the traffic zipped along on the road, the four of them would play their own games on the divider. As soon as the traffic stopped on one side of the road, obeying the red signal, the children stopped their games. They would then go from car to car with dirty rags. ‘Cleaning’ the windscreens of cars with those dirty rags, they would then ask for some money. Some people would give a coin or two, and many more would tell them to buzz off. As soon as the traffic signal turned green, the children would be off to their little island on the divider, and back to their games.
It was difficult to know what they looked like. Their faces were grimy, they wore clothes blackened with time, and their hair was almost matted. But their eyes stood out like precious jewels, they were so bright.
Ranjana saw them daily from her window seat in the school bus. She was 12 years old and brimming with ideas. She was very bright in studies and a member of her school’s athletics team. But her classmates liked her most because she was very kind at heart. Her mother might chase a cockroach with a broom in the house but Ranjana would insist on picking up the insect with a piece of paper and depositing it outside. If the postman trudged up three floors to deliver a letter, she would make sure to give him water on a hot day. The ironing woman’s baby, secure in her mother’s arms, never left Ranjana’s house without biscuits or sweets.
But every time the 12-year-old tried to tell her parents to give the children on the traffic crossing some money, they would stop her. “By giving them money you are encouraging them to beg. They will never learn to do anything else,” her mother always said. Ranjana felt very helpless. She kept wondering how they could help the children.
One day Ranjana and her brother went for a long walk. They had been so busy licking their icecreams that they had reached the traffic crossing without realising it. The signal was three kilometers from their house. Ranjana decided to talk to the four children at the crossing. She bought them an ice cream each and asked them where their parents were. “Our parents work on a construction site. They have to go to work even if they are ill or they do not get paid,” the tallest girl said. Her name was Kamla.
The four children had come from a village in Bihar. Their parents were very poor and had thought they would be able to get better jobs in the city. The children had been going to school in the village but ever since they came to Delhi their education had stopped. “Our parents think it a big help if we manage to collect some money from people at this crossing, the other girl said. Her name was Sitara. The two boys were her brothers. They all lived in a nearby slum.
Sitara said, “Didi, it has been a while since we left school. If we stay on the street for some more time then we will forget we ever went to school. We get used to doing things our own way here. No one tells us what to do.”
Talking to them Ranjana had not noticed that it had become dark. Her brother told her it was time to head back home. “Bye didi, you are our friend now. No one has talked to us like this before,” Kamla said. Ranjana felt tears prick her eyes. On the way back Ranjana was very silent. Her mind was racing furiously. There must be something they could do to help the children, she thought.
The idea came to Ranjana at the breakfast table next morning. Of course her father had a lot to do with it. He worked in a private firm. That morning he was giving instructions on the phone to his junior staff, “Get rid of those old computers. The new ones will be here by tomorrow. Anyway, these computers are useless for us now.”
Suddenly Ranjana knew what to do. She said, “Daddy, can we take those computers and install them in the community centre run by retired people. You know, the centre to the left of the traffic crossing where those children beg? We can start a sort of a school there. My street children will come because all children are curious about computers. And I have all those kids computer games and the educational software for kids that you got for me long ago. I have outgrown all that and will be happy to donate them to the centre. I will ask my friends to donate kids magazines and children’s educational books. Once we see how interested the children are, we can think of many more things.”
Ranjana’s father looked at her for a long time. Then he went up to her and lifted her off the ground with one bear hug. He said, “I am very proud to have you for my daughter. You may have all of the 12 computers. But you must talk to the people who run the community centre.”
The next day was a second Saturday. No school for Ranjana! She went with her mother to the community centre where Mr Kapur was in charge. Mr Kapur was 65 years old and had a bristling white moustache. He heard what Ranjana had to say. Then he said, “Young lady, I have one condition. If we start learning classes for those children, you must give our centre a couple of computers for our official work.” Mr Kapur also said that many of the retired people in the locality would be glad to teach different subjects to the children. Ranjana’s college-going brother said he would be willing to take computer classes.
The children at the traffic crossing were overjoyed. Ranjana said she wanted to talk to their parents. They all walked to the construction site – the children, Ranjana, her mother and brother, and Mr Kapur. When the children’s parents realised that there were so many people willing to help them they agreed to the plan. One of them said, “We can’t read or write. And we have not learnt any skill. All our lives we will do this work and struggle to make ends meet. We don’t want our children to suffer the same fate.”
You should have seen the bustle at the centre the next day. Mr Kapur’s elderly team was there. Ranjana and her friends staggered to the centre armed with kids magazines and children’s educational books, both in Hindi and English. There was Champak and Chandamama, Balvihar and Twinkle. Colouring books with only some pages coloured, writing books with only some pages written in, and piles of old magazines, from National Geographic and Life to Femina and Outlook. One of Ranjana’s friends had a fat collection of Amar Chitra Katha comics, which she happily sent to the centre. Ranjana’s own collection of Hindi storybooks from National Book Trust and Children’s Book Trust was right on top. She had also brought along her entire set of kids computer games such as her beginner math and reading games CDs which she had long outgrown. Ranjana also gave away the prized kids educational software her aunt had got for her from the US. These were expensive Dorling Kindersley CDs and Ranjana had been wondering what to do with them. Best of all, Ranjana’s brother came with friends who were also willing to teach computers to the children.
The school was inaugurated that day. The youngest of the children pressed the button to switch on the computer and everyone looked at Ranjana and clapped. In all there were 12 children in that ‘batch’.
Do you know what happened to that school, and to the children? They took to the computer like ducks to water. They played all kinds of games on the computer – match the eggs with the right birds; match the vehicles with the right wheels, match the numbers to the objects, put alphabets together to make simple words, add eggs, subtract toffees, and all the games that Ranjana and her friends had gifted to the school. They learnt English very fast because they all wanted to be like Ranjana didi. And before one year was out, a local school was willing to admit them as regular students with scholarships.
Those children have promised Ranjana that if they see any children begging at that traffic signal, they will haul them off to the community centre. And Ranjana is happy that she never took the easy way out by pressing a coin into an outstretched hand.