The bamboo pole holds up Sahil’s 10×8 ft shanty near Shahmeena Road in the heart of Lucknow, snaking along one of the plastic sheets that make for its walls and holding up its temporary roof. A nail on this pole holds the family’s prized possessions — nine-year-old Sahil’s green-black-orange school bag and a few other bags.
Sahil’s bag stays there — squeezed in between his mother’s partially torn brown bag and his 26-year-old aunt’s handbag that’s stuffed with a steel tiffin box and a bottle — till a shrill voice pierces the room, “Sahil, chalo (Sahil, time to go).”
It’s 8.45 am and Sahil, who is playing with his six-month-old brother Ibrahim, jumps onto the wooden cot that fills up the shanty, and snatches his bag. “Watch out,” his mother Munni Bano, 36, shouts; his aunt Reshma, who is sweeping the floor, stops to look up, worried their bags will be yanked off too.
The school bag now on the cot, Sahil wears his brown school trousers over his shorts and a tattered black jacket over his red school shirt and maroon sweater. “He doesn’t have any other warm clothes so he sleeps in the school sweater,” says Munni Bano.
Sahil opens his bag to ensure his “dibba”, a small tin box the size of a tomato, is right where he had kept it — in the front pocket, with its peeling Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan logo of two children riding a pencil.
Just as he opens the box, his mother says, “Hurry up, Ruby is waiting for you.” Ruby is his cousin and classmate who lives in another shanty, a few metres down the railway track that runs outside his house.
Sahil ignores her as he carefully opens the box. Inside are three shiny coins — a two-rupee coin and two of Re 1 each — money for his post-school snack. Guessing what’s racing through her nephew’s mind, Reshma says, “Kal hee to diya tha (I gave you money only yesterday).” Sahil shuts the box and keeps it back in the front pocket.
The bag is now wildly swung onto Sahil’s back, where it will stay for the next 15 minutes as he makes his way along the railway track to Government Jawahar Nagar Primary School near the District Education Office.
The Centre recently issued a directive asking states to formulate rules on school bags. As per the Union HRD Ministry’s guidelines, children in Classes 1 and 2 should not carry bags that weigh more than 1.5 kg; Classes 3-5 not more than 3 kg; Classes 6, 7 not more than 4 kg; Classes 8, 9, 4.5kg; and Class 10, not more than 5 kg. Following the directive, states such as Delhi issued circulars fixing an upper limit for the weight of school bags.
Sahil is in Class 1. In his bag this morning, besides the tin box, is a pencil box, an empty bottle wrapped in a plastic bag and kept in one of the side mesh pockets, an empty pink plastic tiffin box, six textbooks and two notebooks, including that of mathematics, Hindi and English, and a few workbooks.
Munni Bano says Sahil got his bag from school about three months ago, his uniform and shoes a month and a half ago, and the sweater about 15 days ago. “We get the textbooks and workbooks from school. But I have to buy his notebooks, pencils, erasers and sharpners. He keeps asking for these but hardly studies. I don’t know where his mind wanders all the time,” says Munni Bano.
There are are other problems weighing her down. Munni Bano’s husband, a carpenter, has been living separately and comes home “when he feels like”, leaving her to manage her two children. Her sister-in-law Reshma runs the family, working as a domestic help in colonies on the other side of the track.
It’s now 8.50 am and Sahil, his cousin and another girl are on their way to school. While the girls stick to the side of the tracks, Sahil occasionally strays onto one of the rails, balancing for a few seconds at a time with his arms stretched out. He suddenly stops to pick up some gitti (gravel along the tracks), picking each pebble and turning it around in between his little index finger and thumb.
Ruby turns around and shouts, “Move, it’s getting late.” Sahil hurriedly takes off his bag and keeps around six pebbles in the front pocket, beside his tin box. Ruby nags, “Isiliye tumhara bag itni jaldi fat jata hai (This is why your bag tears so soon).” A thick red woollen thread runs along the lower side of the bag, where Sahil’s mother has darned a big tear.
The bag, now clinking with gitti and the dibba, is again swung onto Sahil’s back, bouncing as he jumps over drains and runs short bursts, only to stop again. This time, at a handpump near the school.
Sahil pulls out from his bag the empty half-litre bottle — which in its better days held a fizzy drink — and fills it with water, saying, “The handpump at school is not working.”
As he closes the bottle and stuffs it in the side pocket, the girls roll their eyes. “Hurry up,” they say, now standing at the school gates. The girls had filled up their bottles earlier, from taps near their slum.
It’s 9.10 am and the morning prayer has begun. Sahil flings his bag on the staircase of the school building and joins the prayer line right at the back, as do the girls. After the prayer and a physical training session, Sahil and Ruby go to their classroom, where they sit on a plastic chatai (mat) with other children.
Sahil makes his way to the front row, placing his bag in front of him. The bag is now his desk. He takes out his pencil box, that is stuffed with tricolured sketch pens, small stencils, some hardened play dough, broken crayons, broken parts of toys, and caps of pens. It’s his universe, of which he is deeply possessive — “Yeh sab mera hai, rakh dijiye (This is mine, leave it alone),” he insists.
Just then, class teacher Nuzhat Begum walks in and the children pull out their notebooks and begin scribbling. “Why didn’t you do the work at home?” she admonishes, complaining, “They never do their homework.”
A couple of hours later, around 12.30 pm, the class breaks for lunch and the children rush out to play. Sahil scoops out the pebbles from his bag and rushes out into the ground.
On the mid-day meal menu today is daal and rice. Sahil comes back into the class for his pink tiffin box and joins the queue for the meal. “Since the handpump in school isn’t working, we can’t wash the plates. We have been telling children to get empty tiffin boxes to eat in,” says Nuzhat Begum.
After lunch, the classes continue till 3 pm. As school gets over, Sahil grabs his bag and rushes to the carts selling snacks — biscuits, rice flakes, chips — outside the gates. Taking his tin box out, he buys a packet of namkeen for Rs 2. He keeps the remaining Re 1 in his bag along with the snack. “I will eat this namkeen at home. Or else, these children will ask me to share it with them,” he says.
Back home, Sahil takes out his snack and the pebbles and rushes out to play, after flinging the bag onto the cot, where it lands with a thud. Munni Bano shakes her head, picks up the bag and hangs it, pushing her handbag to make space for Sahil’s.