The Kalighat neighborhood’s infamous red light district looked pretty benign in the afternoon as two groups of boys staged a kite battle in the main roadway. Then we turned down a narrow concrete path with small open two room dwellings. One had a person sitting cross legged watching a tv. Another seems to serve as a diner. A goat stood outside another.
At the end of the corridor, the second floor of a former temple serves as office, cafeteria, school, and dwelling for nearly 100 children. New Light was started by Urmi Basu who left the foundation world because the work felt empty (and as I later found out chose to leaver her husband, too, when given an ultimatum to choose him or her work). The organization serves sex workers, trafficked women, and their children providing shelter, food, education, and health services.
Given write ups in the NYT, in Kristof’s Half the Sky, and recognition through various humanitarian awards, I expected more by way of facilities. But that’s a common feeling here. First we watched a dozen older girls do yoga on mats. Afterwards all of the 80-100 children lined up in rows for attendance and then meditation. Seated on the floor in tight formation, they all closed their eyes and assumed a basic lotus position. The smallest ones were terribly cute trying to stay awake nodding perilously before quickly recovering.
Afterwards we tutored them, after a fashion. The first night I started writing letters and words and pictures that they would copy, then we moved to tic-tac-toe. One girl beat me regularly, and not just because she cheated by ‘casually’ covering up her marks with a finger. These sweetpeas just loved the attention, as seems fitting for kids sleeping communally on the floor of a shelter without parents. Their mothers may visit them sometimes, but largely this feels like something between foster care and orphanage. Tonight I worked with older students on their English homework from school today. The levels vary widely, so I circled around working with small groups. One girl showed me her workbook with all the answers completed correctly, but as I was halfway through it, her friend ratted her out pointing out a cheat book with the answers in Bengali. I teased her about being a cheater, a word she understood immediately, and made a joke about it.
While this place is far from the fancy school I visited this morning, the appreciation I felt there tonight seemed much more real. While working with them, it feels like any other teaching moment. Sweet kids struggling with both material and motivation, working in part to please me as teacher. It makes Mitra’s School in the Cloud seem a distant second choice. I certainly sensed they preferred having me there over a computer screen, but maybe I flatter myself. I will be going back a few more nights before I leave.