Whither the bloom?
What is progress? Well, debatable. But when one grows up without basic education the backbone of development we find something amiss in society. GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN meets a flower girl, unlettered and unhappy...
ROSE sells jasmine on the seashore.
After sunset everyday, Roja walks along the sands of Chennai's Besant Nagar hawking yards of "malligai".
Petit, her oval face arrests you with a pair of magnetic eyes. One evening, she implores me to buy some flowers. "Give it your wife", she tells me. "Or, offer it to the gods", she pulls out another line from her basket of survival.
I am curious. "Have you been selling jasmine for a long time", I ask her.
"No, not for long", she replies hoping to convert the conversation into a few rupees.
"How long"? I persist.
"A couple of years", her eyes appear to be travelling in time.
"Did you not go to school", I cut into her reverie.
"No", my parents never educated me", her smile masks what I perceive as pain.
Roja's father has a small plot of land in a Tamil Nadu village. He grows paddy and groundnuts, and has several children, a reason perhaps he could not afford to send Roja to school.
The man may not have led a precarious existence: he had land, afterall, a possession that would have certainly given him a greater advantage than that of, say, a landless labourer.
Yet, Roja's father could not afford to give her a schooling. And, she is one among India's teeming millions 35 by one account whose unlettered lives enslave them to agonising poverty.
The latest UNICEF report indicts India for not educating its children. What comes as a greater shock is the fact that even Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have done exceptionally well in caring for their boys and girls.
Releasing the document the other day, UNICEF's Country Representative, Maria Calivis, made an impassioned appeal to India. "Encourage young people with solid schooling, and include them, especially the girls, as active agents of change. It is the best way to make generational leaps in development, and to sustain progress in society", she remarked.
For Roja, these words are but empty rhetoric in a land where once-upon-a-time social crusaders strove to link education with women's emancipation.
Buddhadeb Dasgupta's new film in Bengali "A Tale of a Naughty Girl" is also a powerful plea for freeing the girl from the shackles of illiteracy. Here a small-time school master plays Professor Higgins to wean his Eliza Doolittle away from the dark clutches of prostitution.
But Roja has no Higgins to turn her into a Fair Lady. There is nobody to transform her sweet smelling flowers into an endlessly delightful drama of "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains..."
But, will the recent Presidential nod for a Constitutional Amendment which makes free and compulsory education a Fundamental Right for all children make a significant difference to the likes of Roja. One never knows.
In any case, Roja is past that age. She is already married. At barely 20, she has two kids. Will she be able to send them to school?
Today, even the poorest of parents have to buy books and uniforms, and pay the fee for examinations. Clearly these can be insurmountable impediments to Roja's dream of turning her children into well-read modern men or women.
"My husband sells seasonal fruits", she answers yet another question of mine.
I can see her impatience growing into disappointment. The jasmine in her basket seems to have got heavier. She switches it to the other side of her frail waist.
The Amendment also makes it the Fundamental Duty of every father or mother to send his or her sons and daughters to school.
Will Roja be jailed if she fails here? Will she, like thousands of poor in our country, be harassed by a police who are hardly ever bothered by the compulsions of the harried and the have-nots. To the men in uniform, what matters most is the number of cases they book -- in a month, perhaps in a year.
I ask Roja whether she would like to educate her children. "Of course", her eyes sparkle once again. The tedium of my discourse, which clouded her windows to the world all this while, vanishes. "I do not want them to do what I have to", her voice plucks enough courage to sound tenacious.
Roja's attention is back to "maligai". "But are you not buying any", she is almost distraught.
I buy some, and as Rose disappears into Chennai's "margazhi" night, punctuated by the vulgar cacophonous noise of fancy vehicles, I walk away wondering why we have become so uncaring and unfeeling.
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