We’ve just finished the first half of our needs assessment survey in a government school in Gurgaon. As batches of children, both boys and girls, sat in the Edusat room in this village school, I could soon identify the children who were having the maximum difficulty in reading the questionnaire, and writing their answers. Even when these answers were just a tick mark, or a simple yes or no. Sheer habit made them check with the student next to them – what had they written? Was their answer right or wrong? No matter how many times I assured them that there was no right or wrong answer, that it was okay to hate a subject, or all the subjects, that it didn’t matter if they read the newspaper or not — the children still looked around with anxiety. It was as if six years of schooling (these were children in class 6 and older) had robbed any capacity for making their own decisions, their own choices.

As the sessions were drawing to a close, one boy caught my eye. He was thin, small built, yet in class 8. His name was Sunny. Sunny’s large eyes were a luminous brown, and slightly long hair curled over his forehead. His shirt had a few tears, but was clean. So were his trousers, and his nicely laced up shoes. Everything spoke of need and want, but a lot of love and care. Yet, here was this little boy struggling to answer the questions long after the rest of the children had finished the questionnaire. Boys next to him laughed at him, and walked off. I sat down next to him, and started reading out each question, and explained what was being asked. Even when he knew the answer, he seemed scared to write it down. Did he have a learinng disorder? But no, when he did write, he wrote fine. Finally, after the questionnaire was over, he told me very softly, in a whisper, “Main achcha ga leta hoon.” (I sing well). As I started smiling, he added, a tiny crease of worry on his forehead, “Par mujhe adha hi gana yaad rehta hai.” (But I only remember half the song.” I told him not worry. Who cares if he does not remember. On the radio, everyone will only hear him. He can read the song from the sheets.

The fear in his eyes receded, replaced by a slightly lost, hopeful look.

As we go into programming, and training, and workshops, and thoughts of health programs and educational programs and English-speaking programs, I’m driven by that look in Sunny’s eyes, and those few words whispered in my ears, “Main achcha ga leta hoon.

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