As the car approached the entrance to the community, we saw all kinds of farm animals. Cows, buffalos, pigs and goats were scavenging for leftover food in the – what is the correct term for that place? I call it a garbage land. It was a rough 50-meter by 20-meter site where the community empties its garbage. There were dogs, yes. Puppies were struggling to suckle as their mothers trudged around in the cold air. Thousands of flies swarmed over our heads. It was no doubt unsightly. We were getting weird looks and stares from the locals and adorable children playing around that area.
Just as I begin to feel awkward, we were greeted with warm smiles…
The path set
Growing up in a developed country with all my needs catered for (and most wants satisfied), I count myself fortunate to be born here in Singapore. I did not come from a wealthy family background, but I still led a comfortable life. Education was provided for and subsidized by the government. Both working parents made sure I got what was good for me. There was nothing much to complain about. My path was set by the conventional Singapore education system – to study hard, go to good schools, excel academically in both GCE ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels, get into a good course in university, get an honors degree, find a stable high income job and live happily ever after. True enough, I followed this path diligently and I am currently on the ride to claim that honors degree. Then I realized that ‘happily ever after’ only happens in fairy tales. It is a myth used to entice unsuspecting victims of the conventional education system. I decided to change my focus. University is not a place just for me to get a degree; it is the last lap of education for me to grow to become a better person. I applied for a service learning project called RockNOIDA.
First touch of India
Of course you can find descriptions of India online, through books and even word of mouth. It was bad. Crimes, poor hygiene, pollution are common topics and deterrence to entry for people who come from countries with higher living standard. I did not know what to expect. I prepared myself for the worse. True enough, the moment our nose receptors come in contact with Delhi’s air, I smelled the difference. Enveloped by 13 Degree Celsius of cool air, I felt the difference. We took a bus to our guesthouse. Along the roadsides, people were openly relieving themselves. Cows, goats, buffalos were free roaming on the roads. I saw the difference. With the deafening blasts of vehicle horns every few seconds, I heard the difference. For our first meal, we had chicken biryani. I tasted the difference. Nothing was similar to home, not even the biryani. Having been to several other countries, India is indeed very much different on comparison.
On the 16 December 2012, a girl was gang-raped while boarding a ‘public bus’. On the 21 December 2012, public protests on the incident emerged. Our fears were confirmed. India is not safe. We were not very far away from these incidents.
The Great India Place (GIP)
I must say that this shopping mall has security tighter than a military camp. Entry gates to the mall grounds separate this upscale mall from the rest of Noida. Security guards are positioned around the grounds. The second layer of security is during entry to the mall itself. Over here, walk through detectors and a body sweep was conducted in addition to bag search with metal detectors. This is not all to security at GIP. There are security guards stationed in almost every shop, and most of the time, bags are not allowed to be carried while browsing in shop. As I said, the gates separate the mall grounds from the grounds outside, and outside sees people who cannot afford to spend. Poor little children were carrying bundles of roses trying to sell them at Rs. 10 for each stalk, and barely anyone purchase from them. We were told that they are operated by syndicates and we should not buy from them, which we can quite obviously deduce. However, the kids are also victims. I think we could show a bit more love by giving them encouraging smiles or sweets, or even a big warm hug. The sight was saddening, but what could be done? These kids are strong at heart. They fear no strangers. They will grow up to possess astounding perseverance and resilience.
While it is similar to Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), the security level is noticeably very different. I felt like I’m about to enter the gate of an airport terminal, about to board an aircraft whenever I stepped through the walk through detector, received a body sweep check and surrender my bag for an x-ray screening. All these were done before being allowed to tap the coin and enter the electronic gate. Oh, and NO PHOTO-TAKING.
It seemed to me that you do not need to possess a valid driver’s licence to drive any vehicle. Either that or there are no proper driving schools. Side view mirrors and speedometer are not required. Traffic lights are ignored.
Frequent sounding of the horn is required because it seemed as though the overtaking vehicle has the responsibility of telling everyone that, “I’m coming! Cross my path at your own risk!”
Giving way is not part of the traffic rules; it is more of seeing who has the fastest reflex. Lane markings were drawn on the roads for aesthetic sake; the drivers of small TATA cars squeeze in between lanes as though they were riding motorbikes. I was once brought against oncoming traffic (mind that, oncoming traffic, not oncoming car), because my driver wanted to take a shortcut.
Amidst all these road chaos, I must say that Indian drivers make superb race drivers. Their vehicle handling skills are of absolute precision. They know exactly the dimensions of their vehicle and can avoid obstacles to the margin of millimeters. That is to say, you can safely walk in the middle of a busy road feeling the rush of air drawn by passing vehicles but magically surviving the feat. As I got used to the traffic conditions, hey it was fun. On many occasions, I thought a road accident was about to happen, but I have not even seen a minor vehicle breakdown 21 days in India (On the second day back in Singapore, I witnessed an accident at a cross junction). On a side note, I was with a driver who likes to use the hand brake to stop the car, or turn off the engine and let the car freewheel along before pulling the hand brake. I was surprised that the car was still operational after so much abuse.
A whole new world
“As we walk to the left, as we walk to the right, as we walk, as we walk, as we walk all night. With a heel and a toe, and a half-turn around. With a heel and a toe, and a new friend found.” Yes, this is the friendship dance. A stranger is but a friend you have not met. All it takes to acknowledge a friend is a smile.
As we walked through the slum, all we heard was, “Hi di di!”, “Hi Sir!”, “Hello bhaiya!” Children of all ages were coming up to shake our hands. Although their little hands were freezing, the handshakes were warm. Although the air was cold, our hearts were warmed by their smiles. Goats were happily munching on leafy vegetables strewn all over the ground. The atmosphere was filled with love and happiness. It was as if we entered a whole new world. What is your definition of a community and childhood? They showed me what childhood is. They showed me what a community is. I have never and will never experience the same elatedness back at home.
There are 3 classrooms in Prayas Vidyalaya. The biggest classroom is about a square area of 5-meter by 5-meter. There are neither chairs nor tables. Students receive education on the hard ground covered by badly torn carpets. This environment is not conducive for students back in Singapore, but the Prayas students were eager to learn. They are active, responsive and expressive. Language barrier was an issue, but it was easily overcome by their enthusiasm to learn and our enthusiasm to deliver.
The children are very intelligent. They grew mature early. At 12 to 15 years old, I was busy creating havoc for my teachers. I was playful in class and making trouble for myself. At 12 to 15 years old, they are assisting their teachers in maintaining class order, disciplining the younger children and having a positive outlook in life.
Having said that, a 13-year old girl explained how education had transformed her outlook in life. After hearing her thoughts, I realized it was actually the Girl Effect. She narrated to us about how her mother now allows her to choose her own path after she proved to her that she can decide her own future with education, how she can avoid being married off early. Another boy recalled being able to help his mother avoid getting shortchanged by learning mathematical calculations.
To us, education comes naturally and most students take it for granted. We never realized how much education helped us in our lives because it comes so easily.
I was never as mentally strong as these children. There is so much to learn from them.
Words of a father
How do you describe a house? A 3-room apartment? A four-storey bungalow?
What I was introduced to was a room of about 3-meter by 3-meter in area. It had a rather simple layout with a bed opposite the door, a clothes line on one side of the room with several pieces of clothing hung on it, and a shelf beside the door packed neatly with daily necessities. We sat on the bed and talked to the man of the house. His words deeply touched our hearts. Given that kind of living conditions and receiving low income, he said the education of his three children is his utmost priority. He will do his best beyond his limits to get what is needed for their healthy development. However, it is up to his children to decide for themselves. He does not interfere with their life choices. He just does his best to provide for them. You are reading it correctly: 3 children. Which is to say 5 people: 2 adults and 3 children are sleeping in that 3-meter by 3-meter room. That is what is called a home, a home where warmth is found, where coziness is present.
We may be living in much bigger houses, but can we call our houses our homes? Not everyone in Singapore can. Can you find warmth in an 18-room mansion occupied by a family with broken ties? No.
During our finale at the school, a father came forward to speak. He said he did not expect that anyone from Singapore can just walk into the community, pick up a random kid and put the kid into his or her arms, or even shake their little hands for that matter. He was surprised we did not mind the hygiene condition of the kids (with mucus, dirt and other stains). By just a little act of love, we touched his heart.
Appreciate our surroundings
In Singapore, our government may not provide the best solutions, but we have clean water. We have clean air. We do not have funny stench attacking our nose along the streets, or huge pile of rubbish blocking our ways. The housing prices may be ridiculously high, but we have a roof over our heads. Our houses may not be big, but we have a bed and a proper washroom. We do not have to bathe in the open and freeze under 7 Degree Celsius of morning air. Public transport fares may be rising ridiculously fast, but we go home safe at night. The traffic laws may be very strict, but our roads are friendly to drive on. Public toilets may not be clean, but we do not have to relieve ourselves publicly. We may be restricted in our freedom of speech, but we do not have street protests hindering our movements. There may be more foreigners taking up jobs here, but it pushes us to work even harder. We do not have to undergo such stringent security measures in our shopping malls. Our trains may encounter fault sometimes, but we do not have to queue up for a security check every time we want to take the MRT. Some things we learnt in school may not be very applicable in life, but you never know when they will come in handy. My dear friends, please appreciate the Singapore that we have. Be optimistic.
“No crying di di, control your emotions, always smile.” – Subi
Why bother getting frustrated and angry on petty events? Does it really matter if your brother insists on his television channel and you threw a tantrum over that? The Prayas kids do not have everything that we have, and we have everything they do not have! Yet they lived happily. They do not let petty things bother their thoughts. They grow up as a bonded community. We are moving too fast. We think too fast. We are allowing materials to control our emotions. Take a deep breath and slow things down.
21 days with 21 Rockers
They made my first experience in India awesome. Christmas and New Year was made complete with them around. We learnt a lot from one another, shared and efficiently utilized each individual’s abilities. Love you guys, actually more of girls. Thank you.
My dear friends, if you haven’t yet experience something so loving, go for one, for it will be the only episode in your life spending such a long time with these particular unique individuals.
India is developing very fast. At Noida, there are already many huge buildings and residential housing under construction. It is as though you are looking at SimCity playing in real life. I thought I was looking at a reenactment of a developing Singapore in the 1970s to 1990s. These children are the future of India. The country as a whole may not graduate as a developed country anytime soon, but under the future lead of these children progressing through education, I foresee the emergence of well-developed cities soon enough.
Initially, I have thought about experiencing different projects to gain different insights. Now I realized that once I stepped into someone’s life and made a change, I don’t just walk away and pretend nothing has ever happened. To me, this is the beginning of my journey to rock Noida. There is more to be done.
By showing just a little love, you can make a change.
If you have taken your time to read until here, I thank you very much.
The view of sunrise from the air is one of the most beautiful scene in the world.