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he leaves on the coconut trees rustle softly, the wind blows gently and there is a mysterious feeling of excitement in the air. Ten-year-old Sharad does a spontaneous one-handed cartwheel, barefooted, across the ground. Forty children have just finished sweeping, cleaning, washing clothes by hand, and taking cold, refreshing baths. At Ananya Shikshana Kendra, a stunning school set in a coconut grove, the day has just begun.

The structure of the school is sparse, both due to financial constraints and by design. With just a few simple buildings, the campus feels open and free. Often, on pleasant evenings, some of the boys sleep outside. Classes at Ananya—which means unique—are held in small tarp tents that comfortably seat one teacher and five to six children. Dr. Shashi Rao, the school’s curriculum developer, says the setting is deliberate.

“At Ananya, we believe learning should take place in an open environment. Learning for us is not restricted within the four walls of a classroom. It takes place by observing nature, by oneself or in groups—the choice is the child’s. The children we work with live in cramped houses located in crowded areas; they have no access to playgrounds or open fields. We wanted Ananya to be a place where they are not restricted and can live and learn in vast open spaces,” she explains.

Underprivileged, of course, is an understatement. In reality, the children selected for Ananya rarely have anything to look forward to besides a life of poverty and degradation.

Founded in 1998, Ananya’s mission is to provide a free and unique learning space for underprivileged children in Bangalore. Underprivileged, of course, is an understatement: In reality, the children selected for Ananya rarely have anything to look forward to besides a life of poverty and degradation. Many of the children who attend Ananya were not able to study well in Bangalore’s government run schools, which tend to blindly promote children without adequately testing their knowledge. Some come from families who could not afford the fees of a mainstream school, and so it is not uncommon that these children, at the ages of 13 and 14, have never set foot in a school before. Instead, many of them have toiled all their young lives, working worked as laborers, housemaids, painters and waiters.

ananya-3.jpg
Sharad and his three sisters.

Yet the serene surroundings of Ananya provide the children a small glimmer of hope—that they, too, can make something of themselves. The children stay at Ananya during the week and return home to spend weekends with their parents. “Ananya” is an appropriate name for this school for more reasons than one. The space is unconventional, but so are its students and teaching methods. But no one is complaining—because Ananya has given these children an opportunity to learn, but perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to be children.

The students finish their chores and baths at the crack of dawn, and as the sun finishes rising they are already drinking a glass of soothing chai and enjoying a simple but tasty breakfast—usually upma or poha, made by the school cook. After washing their dishes and putting their own plates away, the children gather for circle time—when they do stretches, sing songs and listen to school announcements.

At Ananya, the children are in charge.

At Ananya, the children are in charge. They vote on what days should be holidays, they decide their day’s schedule, and they choose which projects to work on. Remarkably, this empowering approach has paid off, and all the children are excited to participate in the school’s activities and events.

When class time begins, the children gather their bags and break into groups. There are no “grades,” or rather, “standards,” as they are called in India. Instead of being broken up by age, the children are divided into groups based on their abilities. This year’s groups have music-themed names, and so the clusters with names such as Sangeeta, Taala and Raaga gather to study English, Hindi, Kannada, science, math and social studies.

Computer class at Ananya
Computer class at Ananya

And it’s certainly not all work and no play. After class, the children have lunch, relax and play for a bit before study time and dinner. Pratap, affectionately referred to as the “school veterinarian,” has discovered an injured baby owl, which he has taken to nursing. Sharad and a few other boys help Pratap dig up a variety of creatures to feed the new school pet.

Some of these dreams will be realized, while others may never be attained—but what’s most important is that in this open, safe space, the children have the freedom and liberty to dream.

On Saturday, Sharad and 10 other Ananya children attend a computer program that is organized by a partner NGO called Dream a Dream. Sharad is the youngest in the group, but he grasps concepts quickly with excitement and fervor. Today the kids are taking a “final exam.” They are tested on basic knowledge of Microsoft Word, Paint and Excel. As part of their test, they also have to name basic computer parts. When Sharad walks into the testing room to take his exam, he is all smiles. He is neither nervous nor worried. He takes his seat and the instructor asks him to name and point out the parts of the computer. “Mouse, CPU, keyboard and monitor,” he says, correctly and effortlessly.

Through the Eyes of a Volunteer

Shashank Gupta is a software engineer and an IIT graduate who has been a dedicated volunteer with Ananya, and Dream a Dream, an NGO that does programs with the Ananya children, since 2002. He helps facilitate the hockey and computer programs and also teaches a math class to the children once a week in the evenings after work. Read what he had to say about his experiences.

What does Ananya mean to you?
You enter Ananya and you will be surrounded with at least 20 kids saying hello to you and waiting to shake hands with you. All the staff members will greet you in an extremely affectionate way. The way food is served here is the most touching scene. It makes me realize a very bare fact of life—it is not the food served that tastes good, but it is the way it is served makes it tasty. The affection from the kids is the purest form of love I have ever encountered. For me, living without being a part of Ananya is a scary thought.

What sort of results do you see in the children that you’ve been working with?
I have seen them becoming stronger with time. I have seen them improving their confidence levels. I observe them transforming into more responsible and sincere human beings. A very peculiar thing that someone pointed out was that these kids, although underprivileged, are smiling all the time. These kids have started accepting the challenges of life, whether it is in the sport that they are playing or in the subject that they are learning.

What will the future be like for Ananya children? How will they be more prepared because of Ananya?
Ananya children will always carry the values imparted by the school. They will respect human beings (a quality many of us still lack) and will be have the capability to decide what is right and wrong for themselves. Ananya never makes decisions for the children and the children of Ananya will be empowered with the gift of decision making skills.

After computer class, Sharad and his two sisters walk to the bus stop and board one of Bangalore’s crowded city buses to go home for the weekend. Exhausted, Sharad falls asleep, his head against the window railing. He is jolted awake by the jerky stop of the bus and his sister’s gentle shake of his shoulder when they must get down.

Shashank Gupta (center) hangs out with some students at Ananya.
Shashank Gupta hangs out with some students at Ananya.

At home, they are received by their mother, Lakshmi, who is joyous, for she has not seen her children all week. Their small, simple 10 foot by 10 foot home is now full of children and full of joy.

Petite and pretty, Lakshmi is only 28, and her sparkling eyes are determined and bright. She works as a cook for a family, which earns her about 1,300 rupees a month (a little more than $20). With this money, she pays the rent and takes care of her children. She, in fact, earns more than many of the other mothers of Ananya children who do less skilled work like selling flowers or fruit and cleaning houses.

Sharad’s father was an alcoholic who died under mysterious circumstances. He had a habit of coming home drunk nearly every night—until one night when he did not return. When Lakshmi investigated the matter the next morning, she found her husband sprawled across the railway tracks behind their home. He was no longer alive.

Did he commit suicide or did he fall in his drunken stupor? Lakshmi does not know, but in a strange sort of way, she feels that it was for the better. “Life without him means that now, our money is put to good use and not alcohol.”

Little Jayanthi.
Little Jayanthi

Sharad’s two older sisters also study at Ananya, as does Sharad’s younger sister, Jayanthi, a pixie-like little girl who is one of the school “pets.” Lakshmi is thrilled with what Ananya is doing for her children. She herself was forced to drop out of school when she was 10; and has been working as a maid ever since. “At Ananya,” she says confidently, “I know they are happy and doing well, though I do not see them so often. I firmly believe that this is what is best for them. I want them to grow up and have choices—choices to become who they want to and what they want to.”

Though the staff at Ananya have high hopes for its children, they know many of their pupils will not go on to pursue higher studies. The sad truth is that they have joined the education system too late, and the learning curve is too high. The task is not unachievable, but unlikely. What Ananya hopes is that by empowering the children to learn, think and act for themselves, they will develop into confident, intelligent adults, regardless of their station in life. Sharad is still young and bright—two qualities that make higher education, including college and beyond, feasible possibilities for him. But for others, like 16-year-old Subashini, school is a first-time experience, and it comes at a late age. But regardless of how far the children progress academically, Ananya is a place for these children to learn to live with dignity and respect.

Meals at Ananya, served by the faculty.
Meals at Ananya, served by the faculty.

Of course, Ananya staff recognize the importance of involving parents in the learning process. Parent-teacher meetings are held three times a year, and they serve as a critical way to involve parents and convey to them that Ananya is much more than a means to simply provide their children three meals a day. The meetings serve as a way to inform parents about the work the children have done and update them with changes and developments at the school. Parents are given the chance to express their concerns and ask questions. It is a forum in which the children are able to share what they have learnt with their parents, often, they display their artwork, poetry and stories and demonstrate science experiments. “Exposing parents help narrow the gap that is created between the educated children and illiterate parents,” says Rao.

We want the sky to be the limit for their dreams, their ambitions.

And after all their hard work, students at Ananya are rewarded an annual day celebration every year. On this exciting day, donors, friends, supporters, partners, and well-wishers of Ananya get together on the campus for a day of fun. The children put on a song and dance extravaganza, share their work, play games and enjoy the company of friends. These celebrations serve as open houses in which the public can come appreciate the work of the children—and act that is invaluable to building self-confidence and pride. It is in this environment that the children of Ananya can dare to dream—and even hope that they may come true.

Sharad’s older sister Sarasa wants to be a film actress. Manjunath, an 11-year-old academic at Ananya, has aspirations of following in the footsteps of a third of all of Bangalore—to become a software engineer. Fifteen-year-old Hamsakumar wants to play hockey for Indi, and become an “Ananya helper.” Some of these dreams will be realized, while others may never be attained—but what’s most important is that in this open, safe space, the children have the freedom and liberty to dream.

“We want the sky to be the limit for their dreams, their ambitions,” says Rao. With coconut trees to sit beneath and clear skies to look up above at, learning, dreaming and fulfilling ambitions blend into one fabulous connected line, moving directly upwards and away. n

Sindya Narayanswamy is spending this year doing a public service fellowship with Indicorps in Bangalore, India. Amidst learning Kannada, washing her own clothes, battling inevitable stomach problems and attempting to do some social service, she hopes to write something coherent here and there.
Published on June 6, 2005.
Photography: Courtesy of Ananya.

More Information

Ananya Trust Web Site

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