This year, two girls who work as maids in houses in Sector-50, Noida are attempting to complete their matriculation. Reema (name changed) was not the best student I have encountered. When she first expressed an interest in studying, she could not string together a few sentences and I harbored no false hopes of rapid progress. But we decided that her ambition should not be nipped in the bud and with a generous sponsor willing to provide the financial support, she started coming for classes at my home during weekends. The fact that this girl of 18 years who earns a Rs.60,000 per annum package needs a sponsor to forward the Rs.1700 yearly fee for her education is an irony- but that story is for another day. As her sponsor pointed out, even if she failed the examination, she would have a photo ID card, a necessity for travel or opening a bank account. Since she had never been to school, nor registered as a voter, this was the first personal identity document she would possess.
Teaching Reema was often frustrating, not least because of her chronic shyness and unwillingness to speak. I could not make out if she was following my words and if I looked at her she would immediately look away avoiding eye contact and would never give any audible answers. After a few weeks, I started to panic thinking of her eventually taking an oral exam where the examiner would be a stranger to her. I started putting her in the spotlight, refusing to go ahead until she would provide simple answers or look up at me. A few weeks more, and slowly, but steadily, she started looking at me, but still no words! Finally, I decided to bring matters to a head. I said I would not teach her further, until I heard her shout out something. I coaxed and cajoled, to no avail. Finally, with ebbing confidence and a hurt ego, I said she had to shout out her name, just her name, but spoken loud and clear. Cringing inside, because I could see I was making her very uncomfortable, and may indeed drive her away from the classes, I used the empty threat of not teaching her further. I had exhausted all the tricks in my bag of tricks, when she suddenly burst out loud and clear, “मुझे चिल्लाना अच्छा नहीं लगता”. After the split second shock, both of us burst out laughing. The ice-breaker was much needed. Reema has now started speaking in class, and in keeping with her good manners and upbringing, she never shouts!
Dr. Beena Pillai
CSIR-Institute of Genomics and
Sukhdev Vihar, Mathura Road