Updated: Mar 12, 2019
My time away from home proved to be an effective catalyst in the process of self-discovery. Simply put, one of the zillion things that I learnt was that I love to explore; which is not just about being outdoors and going on treks or kayaking trips and getting infatuated with Nature. It was also meeting people from unique backgrounds and freeing myself from the constraints I had set on the limits of human potential.
After noticing the first few hints of this not-so-unique trait, I concluded that I hadn’t really explored my home, Mumbai. To be honest, this could possibly be true for many people who’ve lived their entire lives in this vast city too, because life just gets too busy here and there are just too many different cultures, people, etc. It was almost 3 months since I returned home and my curiosity was given life when a friend of mine, who is also a bright and hardworking Teach for India Fellow, approached me with an interesting opportunity. I had made it clear how determined I am to use my skills to help in the fields of education, health and social justice. Malvika, who is an eight grade Math teacher at Guru Nanak National High School, was appreciative of my work in Photography [a 2 month old hobby at that time] and she wanted me to teach 3 of her students the Basics of Photography.
Teach for India is a wonderful initiative where the youth are encouraged to diminish educational inequities through Fellowships. Malvika’s students hailed from Dharavi– well known infamously as the second largest slum in Asia; which is located, quite literally, in the “Heart of Bombay”. The purpose of teaching them the Basics of Photography was part of a bigger project the students had volunteered for, where they would create their own website and promote it to attract customers to take ‘Tours” of Dharavi, which has proven to attract a lot of people from other nations too.
Before our first meeting on Saturday, 7th October, I could tell that the 3 eight-graders were bubbling with enthusiasm to learn a new skill because not many students are willing to wake up that early on a day off from school. Their school was just by the foot of a railway bridge, the other side of which was Dharavi. We started at 7:30 in the morning and the Dinesh, Priyanka and Devendra very extremely attentive as I went over the basics in a detailed manner. Also, I noticed the strength of Malvika’s bond with her students. It’s always soothing to see positive and healthy student-teacher relationships.
Limited by time, their newly-learnt skills needed to be put to practice and this led us to cross the bridge and enter Dharavi, a moment I’d been waiting for.
Our goal was to take photographs of different industries, like pottery and bread, flourishing within the slum. For the uninitiated, it saddens me to admit that Dharavi ‘lives up’ to the first impressions one would develop of the Third Largest Slum in the World. The massive population density was evident as the narrow streets were crowded. People were headed off to work or setting up their stores at around 8:15 a.m. We got a lot of eyes as the students and I were taking turns with the big, bold camera. Naturally, the kids knew their way around and they led us to a bakery which produces, on a daily basis, large quantities of Paav. At this bakery, the students learnt basics of low-light photography by turning up the ISO, decreasing the f-stop, perspective, etc.
Soon, we were done practicing and had to cross the railway bridge again to return to the school only to find more students, some of which were working on Social Media Marketing strategies for the website through the help of a Digital Marketing practitioner and the rest were studying Math. Little did I know that the best was yet to come:
I was instructed to conduct a quick session, called ‘Reflection’, where the kids and I had to answer 4 straightforward questions based on our experience that day.
1) What is the one thing that you learnt about yourself?
Devendra and Dinesh were happy to admit that they ended up taking good photographs and learned a lot during the process.
Priyanka boldly stated that she is a fast-learner and she can understand new things smoothly. In turn, their confidence in themselves made me much more confident in my teaching methods (and Malvika’s of course) which led to me say that, ” I believe that I can teach topics very well to people who want to learn”.
2) What is the one thing you learnt about someone else?
Dinesh – “I’m really glad to see that other students want to learn photography too and are as curious as I am”. Dinesh grasped the concepts of photography strongly right from the beginning, and I was shocked to see that in a 14-year old. This can be related to the fact that kids, all over the world, need to know that their ideas, desires and curiosities need no justification and many people and kids their age do share the same. They don’t need to be influenced out of their thoughts through societal or peer pressure.
Priyanka and Devendra loved the fact that most of the people we interacted with were extremely cooperative and even gave us a few smiles when they approached them with the idea of taking photographs of them. It’s important to know that not everyone likes being photographed and at the same time respecting their decision is very important.
I agreed with Dinesh and said that I was happy to see how enthusiastic the 3 of them were.
3) What is the one thing you liked about the session?
Priyanka displayed her excitement to visit the bakery again and surely, that was one thing she loved about the session.
Devendra – ” Bhaiya’s explanation and tips were very helpful and it was fun to learn”. Perfect morning indeed!
Dinesh loved the fact that all 3 of them got to learn simultaneously and he said, “All of us took an equal number of photographs and there was a degree of equality in the whole practice session too”. I lauded him for his statement. I got strong hints on how aware of equality these 14-year old students were and it was certainly inspiring to some extent.
I mentioned that I was fortunate enough to be guided by the students to different parts of Dharavi.
4) What is the one thing you want to change?
The following answers were unexpectedly breathtaking:
Devendra said that he doesn’t want others to see how dirty Dharavi is. Rather he wants to change the fact that people litter, spit tobacco all over and throw their cigarette buds anywhere and everywhere. He wanted it to be clean and show the people of the world that despite the fact that it was a slum, there are several flourishing industries within and the people DO CARE. Dharavi is dirty, with all kinds of litter and junk in every corner and it sure is disheartening to see that kids are raised in such environments through no fault of their own but no one needs the pity.
Dinesh and Priyanka, quite emphatically, stressed on Educational Equality. They said that they knew that there are several students, just like them, just as old as them, who’d love to learn photography (or any other subject) and that all the interested students SHOULD be given the opportunity to learn where the cameras would be provided for, only for the specific sessions, by the institutions (which could procure them on a rental basis) or other agencies.
Being blown away by their thoughts and proposals, I nodded in agreement and excitement. The fact that these are just 14-year-old kids displaying such high-standards of maturity and wanting change within their community through sustained efforts, is not something you get to witness on a daily basis. To some extent, this does reinforce one’s hope of seeing a better world and should push us to work, hand-in-hand, with such enthusiastic individuals. For ‘outsiders’, it’s pretty much impossible to change and create self-sustaining communities which leads me to state that the locals or the people within the respective communities must take the initiative too and be a driving force to implement the changes they wish to see.
I was glad that the kids discussed these issues as I was surely going to hint at some of them and see if they agreed with me. Dinesh and I had already had a conversation on photographing the litter and dirt all around Dharavi and showing it to the concerned authorities.
It could also make you wonder about your thoughts when you were 14. There’s no right or wrong in this case. After a few hours, I took a stroll down memory lane too and honestly, when I was 14, I was just focused on playing football after school. That’s it. Nothing special. Normal. Now, you can tell why I was inspired by these students.
We should also strongly credit the Teach for India Fellows for not only educating the students but also for instilling self-awareness, social responsibility and a sense of equality among all the students. These qualities are not taught in most of the schools [or homes!] across the world, and this leads me to state that the Fellows at Teach for India and teachers in general are indeed one of the finest of artists in our nation.
I stayed a bit longer as I was interested in the suggestions the Social Media Marketing team was putting across. I overheard a boy saying that they should promote Equal Rights for Women by displaying the ‘Paapad Galli’ where a lot of women put in the hard work every single day and don’t get the same opportunities as men do.
The Digital Marketing practitioner, the rest of the students and I applauded his suggestion and it was noted down in their planner.
So, not everyone is brought up in such an ecosystem, neither do all of us face the same problems. Everyone has their own unique set of problems, some with business, some with their identity, some with relationships, some with their art, etc. But what is the one thing that all of us can do, individually, if not together? We can bring about a change, if not in someone else’s life, at least in our own lives. The Dalai Lama insists that we become a better version of ourselves and even though it’s easier said than done, this can only happen by changing some of our actions that are constantly played on repeat.
No matter how your day went, you should always Reflect on it with 4 straightforward questions:
What is the 1 thing you learnt about yourself today?
What is the 1 thing you learnt about someone else?
What is the 1 thing you liked about your day?
What is the 1 thing you’d want to change?
The last question doesn’t have to be a world-changing idea, it can be as simple as waking up on time, eating the right meals, going for a run or working out for an hour. Reflecting on your day can make your brain happier and in-turn could lead you to change the world somehow, but you must change yourself to change the world, otherwise you aren’t going to give your best if you’re frustrated with tiny bits of yourself.
All the students ran towards me to shake my hand and say goodbye. Inspired by meeting all the future leaders, I must admit that even though I was their teacher for a few hours, I was the one leaving feeling educated and proud of my newly learnt skills. Nowadays, before going to bed, I do reflect on my day by asking myself only 4 straightforward questions.
Since the students had already discussed about the concerning issues in and around Dharavi [out of which cleanliness was something I wanted to stress on], while reflecting on our practice session; my answer to the fourth question was that I needed to clean my shoes again [I had just cleaned them the previous night] as they got dirty after I stepped in a puddle and I’d like to change the fact that I had to clean them. Amused, the four of us couldn’t help but laugh at my stupidity.