Meena, 24, doesn’t sit. Dressed in a crimson sari, she perches on the cement floor of an Anganwadi in the dusty rural village of Kalol, her torso angled forward, her head tilted slightly upwards as if she might catch a glimpse of the bright blue sky despite the fact that we are inside.
Meena [name changed] is a schoolteacher at this Anganwadi, or pre-school, which was annexed and reformed by Setco Foundation several years ago. The site has become something of a community center, the social worker from the company tells me.
It took me three tries to ask Meena her name with my rudimentary Gujarati. I can’t carry a conversation beyond “How are you?” so I rely on Soha’s translation.
Meena seems at first an unlikely teacher. She married her husband at 18. She has two children herself. She is Hindu, and though she says she’s friendly with her Muslim neighbors, she tells us about how Muslim families are incestuous and “backwards,” often refusing to send their kids to school. She has never left her state and doesn’t speak English. She shakes her head when we ask her if she would ever want to go to the city.
The anganwadi we sit in holds night classes for women on childrearing, family planning and abuse. I find myself wondering who would entrust Meena with 100 pre-school-aged children when she seems to need those classes herself.
I met Samina [name changed] last night. She is a Teach for India fellow at a public school in Dharavi. She went to college in the United States and plans on attending graduate school in the Netherlands after this year to study policy-making. She is fluent in English, articulate, progressive and excited in comparison to Meena’s seeming apathy and ignorance.
Both of these women are teachers. Both are responsible for the youngest members of the fastest growing country in the world. Both hold in their hands the power to shape the future of India.
I wonder initially how there can be such a disparity between these two women. Framed by the two of them, the future of Indian education seems dismal. Only the privileged few can join TFI and make a difference, most students are domed teachers are like Meena, I panicked.
But people are surprising.
Meena has never left the state, but has a college degree and has traveled around Gujarat extensively. She married at 18, but it was a “love marriage,” which means that it wasn’t arranged, though most Indian marriages are. When we ask her if he’s handsome, she laughs, mouth covered and says with her head tilted, “I guess you’ll have to visit and see for yourself.” Meena’s daughters will likely go to college as well, and may never be subject to an arranged marriage.
Meena is a teacher. She cares for over 100 children between the ages of 1-6 every day. She weighs them, feeds them, sings to them and dances with them. In the afternoons, she attends art classes so that she might turn a modest profit selling the pieces she makes.
Meena is resourceful and strong-willed and compassionate, just as Samina is. She makes the most of her circumstances. She is resilient. Jim Yardley writes of one of the largest slums in Asia: “Education is hope in Dharavi.” Meena is hope.