It was about 2:00 pm on a hot sultry day when we reached a small village in Gopalganj district of Bihar. We had travelled more than five and a half hours to reach there. What was so special about it? Well, to begin with, it was my close friend’s village from where I had enjoyed some gur (jaggery) few months back! But it was not the pull of this jaggery which had brought me here today but something even more interesting which was happening here!
‘Prayog’ , an organization which started about a year back (it would be completing its one year on 15th June,2014) was a humbling place to be; a realization that dreams should not wait till the time’s right or the money’s enough- we need to work on them right now! Surya Prakash Rai did just that. Apart from doing crazy juggling in his professional life nowadays, this rustic village lad is an inspiration to hundreds of children in his village. By the way, he looks after a TB project, does social media work part-time and is running a ‘experiment’ with children, if not anymore currently!
‘Prayog’ which literally means an ‘experiment’ was nothing less than a ‘human laboratory’ for me. I need to clarify myself lest PETA volunteers catch hold of me(if they get free from fighting for animals!) for writing about ‘human experiments’ without clinical trial approvals! Not less than 150 children of all ages sat there. It was a sight which held me; they were of all ages, youngest one being in pre-nursery! I was wondering what had pulled that little angel to come to the village ‘matt’ to meet the ‘visitors’?
Girls and boys were all sitting mixed together- something which is again surprising to see in a village. As the smiling faces greeted us, we forgot the heat and our journey’s tiredness in a jiffy! I can now understand what drives Surya to travel this rough 200 km stretch of road almost twice every month. As the children ‘presented’ us with songs they had prepared, anyone could notice it was a bagful of talent sitting right there! One young chap was playing the ‘dholak’ while a young girl sang in the most melodious voices emphasizing that God is the same-whether you call him ‘Allah’ or ‘Ram’. We were also amazed by their painting skills and poetry!
Surprisingly but true, our exploration of their psyche started from their songs. Slowly digging deep, I realized that ‘Gender stereotypes’ are ingrained in children from the very start in the most subtle manner. Stories from our grandparent’s time are based on some stereotypes which are considered as ‘facts’ now. Stereotypes like ‘wives are not to be trusted’ and ‘one should not allow girls to meet too many people’ have somehow found their way into our religious songs and I was flabbergasted as how confidently children explained their relevance in our lives! Although the stereotypes, reinforced by their parents, are accepted without any question, but these curious group of children at the end of the day wanted to know my view on these! Atleast I was successful in raising their curiosity-moving ahead with questioning their norms would take some time, but that day too shall definitely see the dawn.
For today, I was happy to see children discourse about social evils including female foeticide, child marriage, child labour, consumer rights and caste system. Such varied responses-wonderful isn’t it? It became very interesting when we did a ‘round-robin’ expression of thoughts on female foeticide. In the end, children concluded that ‘India would become a nation of boys’ if this trend continues and we will have to change the expression from ‘Bharat Mata to Bharat Pita’ ultimately! I was happy to notice that the ‘lot of girls’ was better than the ‘lot of boys’- their bright shining and thoughtful faces gave me a hope that ‘girls won’t be left behind’ now!
With few songs from my colleague, Dadasaheb who ingrained a sense of ‘Fight for Right’ in children was another welcome change in their thinking process. It was heartening for me to see the children wide-eyed when Dadasaheb explained to them about ‘how workers unemployed in the village get together and fight for their right to live!’ I also made them visit ‘Nalanda Vishwavidhyala ’ with closed eyes sitting right there, imagining their way through the archeological remains-an exercise I had tried after a long time too! One thing which we wanted to perhaps engage children in, was building their curiosity to question. The most important attitude in life is to ask ‘Why’? Unless we challenge the existing norms and constructed ideals in the society, we can never grow- to be better. The children we engaged with, are in such a phase today (6-14 years) where they learn everything; absorbing reactions, behaviours and actions of adults. They can be a source of change for our generations to come if given the correct guidance and exposure. I remember Surya mentioning to me that one of the kids in the village wanted to ‘become a pilot’ because he saw airplanes crossing over his village. We should perhaps pass a rocket from over the village, isn’t it? Their dreams need to expand to be able to achieve the unreached- they are currently a fertile ‘human laboratory’ where we can harness the best of thoughts and processes through continuous engagement! Thanks for the wonderful exposure to us, Surya and Prayog!