One of the fastest developing cities in India is Surat. From the countryside of Adajan, a five minute walk can lead you to high rise buildings and the heavy foot traffic of a vibrant community. From here, it is not easy to look at the stark reality of the slums. A cluster of five slums including Bhagwatinagar is home to our teenage hero. She abandoned her studies because she did not like the school. She soon took up the oldest profession available in her locality: domestic help.
She entered my world as the first student to show up at my first class. She was never late, and always remembered the new words in English and Gujarati. But her sudden absence for days made us worry and one day she broke the silence: she told us she was a servant.
Once day in a class we asked the students if they had ever felt discrimination because they were women. Everyone sat in silence, stunned. First they said "no". But then our teen jumped in and said, "I earn money for my hard work, but everything goes directly to my mother's hand. But she never gives me a single penny to spend. On the other hand, my father gives ten rupees to my brother a day for pocket money. And the money they both spend comes from mine and my mother's work! " She was surprised that she had not thought about it before, and began questioning gender roles in her home. Her relations with her father worsened; the teen warned her father one day, if he ever tried to beat her mother again, he would face the consequences. She told us that her mother then slapped her.
The days passed and so did the students. There was a time when our teenage hero was the only student that did not drop out. Eventually she began taking initiative, assisting the primary grade students with their work. She soon became quite fluent in English. The teen began to feel comfortable opening herself up to share her problems with us.
As the days passed, her aspirations to be somebody led her to an everyday struggle for dignified life. The girl transformed into a fighter, railing against injustice for women. She raised her voice again and again when her father tried to beat her mother or when her sister was abused by her husband. Eventually her mother began to believe in her; her brother and sister soon followed.
This new fighting spirit was new to those around her. She was someone who lived amongst them but not of them. "What will she do after learning?" observers asked her mother. They feared her "bad behavior" would influence their daughters.
"From the day she started learning, she became a changed woman," gossiped the locals. The wealthy woman she was working for was also upset about our teen's "obnoxious notion" of study. The lady of the house told her, "Forget study. Start working. After all, you are just a woman." But the teen was determined to study.
We asked our prized pupil to come to the office if she needed a safe place to study. She soon gave up her house work and, as exam time drew near, she gave up work for an entire month. After exams were over, she just vanished from the scene.
After some time she called us to say that she knew the results of her exams: she failed. But she was not a failure. After two years of leaving school, and with all of the hardships of learning, she had passed all her subjects but one: social science.
What an irony! It seemed as though the society she was born into had taught her to fail. When she came to visit us in class, she held her back straight and tried not to cry.
Now our teen is a role model for the new girls in class. She can speak confidently, has gained perspective about the world around her, and raises her voice against the abuse of women.
The girls in her neighborhood were impressed by the teen's zeal and courage, and so she introduced them to our teaching program. The once-guided became a guiding force. Once more, she immersed herself in study.
Time flew by and it was exam time once more. One day, while I was in Ahmedabad during a meeting, my phone rang. "I passed," she said. For a second I froze. Everything around me stopped. We knew that she had already overcome many obstacles, but these two words sent us soaring. By passing her exams actually she eased our minds.
There is still a long way to go. She is waiting for her day to come, when she can escape the slums and become a successful professional. She is still waiting. Her name means waiting: "Pratiksha." That is our teenage hero, the changing face of women.