The government hopes to keep more and more kids in class. And, a resilient tribal woman is fulfilling that hope in her tiny village in H D Kote district, Karnataka.
The kids hide in the newly built toilet, under the hay in the cowshed, on the roof, amidst goats– but, Lalitha wins. She beats the kids at their own game. She pursues a giggle to the giggler with joy, but follows a sob with heavy feet when it beckons her to a corner.
Some mornings, Lalitha begins her day, to her disappointment, by fighting with a parent. “Screams! Shouts! I employ them all to put it in their mind that their child must go up to higher classes,” she said.
Earlier, the parents would take their children to Coorg and enrol them as helping hands on a coffee plantation. Now, the owners fear the loss of reputation and the parents fear the police. Kids stay back in the village, and Lalitha is glad to fetch them every morning to school and accompany them back and forth whenever they want to use the toilet. She stands waiting, like a guard, to stop the kids from running away.
Rising aspirations in the village have reduced her tiffs with parents. Lalitha explained that the failure of the monsoon and non-availability of work convinced the parents that education is necessary.
Lalitha’s parents worked as coolies and farm labourers all their life and as soon as she was strong enough, they pushed her into coolie work. She spent her childhood in coffee plantations far away from her tribal settlement in Nagarahole.
Her pride in the kids she brought to school surges forth, especially when she sees girls going to college. She identifies them by name, and her questions to them, are mostly about their travel to town.
“A young mother standing at the door and wilfully sending her child to school is both heart-breaking and encouraging,” she said. “There are no jobs here, and you see boys loitering on the streets after failing their class 10 exams.”
Teachers from the school visit the village in search of the boys, trying to take them back to school. But, the boys run away. A boy, who doesn’t go to school or college, roams the streets for a few years until his parents decide to marry him off, saying, ‘that a wife and a child will set him right, instil responsibility, and send him in search of a job.’
Lalitha was herself a child-bride – married at 15, and soon a mother of three – two girls, one boy – about whom, she said, “Life here is much better for the kids than it was in the forests. They are seeing the world.”
In the afternoon, as soon as she finishes her rounds of dropping kids back at their home, she runs home, releases her flock of goat and lets them graze in the periphery of the forest while she takes a long, relaxing walk.