Solving poverty, with education and a stiff back

This past weekend I visited Shanti Bhavan, an English language boarding school for poor and disadvantaged children ages three to seventeen located in rural Tamil Nadu. It was my second visit in as many weeks, and just like the first, I was again taken by the various individual and collaborative projects on display: a twelfth grade girl reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace; another twelfth grade girl practicing Mozart’s “Turkish March” on the piano; a group bangra dancing in sync to a Bollywood classic; a choir singing a Tamil tune; a spirited debate on the merits and potential limits to free speech; among many, many other things. All of it amazing, of course. 

More than anything, though, what struck me about the children were their interactions with others, whether teachers, administrators, volunteers, or visitors, like me. Remarkably, and thankfully, the whole time I was there I was never addressed as sir. Mr. Patrick was as formal as it got. Most of the children transitioned to using only my first name when asked. It was the same for other adults, I noticed. In the classrooms I observed, there was a steady stream of questions clarifying, and even challenging, what the teacher had said. Such engagement carried over into the hallways and dining hall, where students huddled together reviewing materials and preparing for the next class. 

This critical discourse seemed guided by a deep and abiding concern for fairness, evident in one exchange, in particular. Saturday the school was visited by a corporate social responsibility group attached to a big name firm based in Bangalore. At the end of a talk advising students how to start a business, one student asked if it was ethical for a company to market and sell a product at ten or twenty times the cost of production. The speaker paused for a second before launching into neoclassical economics speak about the inevitability that new entrants into the market would bring competition and, eventually, a fall in prices. What else. The point is that this student had the good sense to ask the question. Judging by the mood in the room, and the encouragement this student received after the fact, he wasn’t the only one. 

What a contrast to the poor and lower-caste golf caddies I study, men and boys who carry the bags of wealthy members at Bangalore’s exclusive golf clubs. It’s not just these caddies, either. Indeed, most poor and working class Indians I’ve encountered regularly display extreme acts of deference and servility in the company of social and economic betters. It's there in the rounded backs and shoulders, for instance, the quiet speech, the “Yes, sir” that begins and ends every conversation, the incessant nod of the head, forever aiming to please, and so on. None of it, in my estimation, owing to some holdover of caste or tradition. Rather, it’s for want of basic sustenance. The poor--these caddies among them--need to eat, after all, find shelter and protection, and educate their children, and if that means genuflecting at the alter of middle and upper class men and women who present themselves as mortal gods, then so be it. 

It’s hard to think these dynamics between rich and poor in India will change without narrowing the enormous gap between them--not an easy thing, by any stretch, given the forces allied against this move. At present, opportunity in India--real, genuine opportunity, not the kind that appears as so much charity--is limited to a small minority who retain a stranglehold on quality education, health care, and jobs. Time will tell, of course, if Shanti Bhavan--and many more Shanti Bhavans--can help turn the tide, whether it can play a part in extending equality of opportunity to India’s untouched masses. For now, perhaps, it’s enough that these children have the time and space to cultivate the critical minds it will take to one day make good on that promise, and the confidence necessary to question and stand up to the naysayers along the way.