And then there was the … Word
The Rotary International Presidential Conference on Literacy and Wash in Schools kicked off at the Kolkata Netaji Indoor Stadium last month, with its opening session striking a poignant note pregnant with Bengali connections. The haunting melody of Manna Dey’s immortal song Ae merey pyaare watan tujh pe dil kurbaan, from the classic Hindi film Kabuliwala, written by Rabindranath Tagore, directed by Tapan Sinha and picturised on Balraj Sahni, filled the auditorium. We were in Tagore’s Calcutta, the City of Joy, grey matter, erudition. So what better fit for the Rotary International Presidential Conference on Literacy and WinS? Actually the scope of the RILM was expanded to make it one of K R Ravindran’s Presidential conferences. So powerful and compelling were the projects and programmes of RILM — Asha Kiran and the pledge to the HRD Ministry to send 100,000 children back to school in one year, give thousands of children digital literacy, etc — that a highly impressed Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi turned up, after initially telling the Conference Chair and PRID Shekhar Mehta that he had “only 19,000 invitations pending.” But when the work done on literacy by the Rotarians was explanied to him, he was amazed that “you businessmen and professionals have the time and the passion to go into such great details.” That he used a window to make it proves the impact of the work you do in India.
It was a rare treat to hear the Nobel Laureate’s passionate hour-long-speech, which knocked on the conscience of each of the 2,500-strong audience, taking us along his incredible journey of rescuing over 83,000 children out of child labour. He thundered: “Every child matters, every childhood matters.” As he sought an answer from the audience on whether the Syrian girls … barely 5,6,7, used as sex slaves by the Islamic State; the Pakistani children shot down by the Taliban in the Army school; and the little children who serve us tea at thousands of roadside and other joints, “are not your children and mine?”, there were few dry eyes in the audience. He urged the delegates never to employ child labour, or accept food being served by children, as all these children belong in school, just like yours and mine!
To me the takeaway was what the power of an impassioned speech, when it comes from one who has broken new ground and waged a lifelong battle, can do. After all, he left his career as an electrical engineer to take on the confounding and dangerous nexus between powerful mafia, politicians and other vested interests who enslave children and take away their childhood, in the process getting beaten and bruised several times. If he could do so much, can we not, as he urged all Rotarians at the conference, take a few hours off on a Sunday to visit, along with our children, a neighbourhood slum and spend some time with those children? As politely as he could, Satyarthi told the gathering that RILM’s goal — to send back to school 100,000 children in one year and 300,000 children in three years — was too modest. “You can rid India of illiteracy,” he said, chanting several times “you can do it … you have the power, the passion, the commitment. If you could rid India of polio, why not illiteracy?”
Well, eventually Rotarians might just do it. But as Mehta reminded them in his opening comments, it is not easy to send children back to school; the struggle would be long drawn … as experienced by the bird.
Yuhi nahi milti manzil,
Poocha chidiya se kaisey bana aashiya,
Boli chidiya bharni padti hei udaan baar baar,
Tinka tinka uthana padta hei.
(When the bird was asked how it made its nest, it said each time I have to fly out and bring back the straw, one by one.)