During the school year at Little Stars, the crux of the narrow hallway and stairwell is too small to accommodate its small inhabitants. Inside, kids holding books rush against one another: more than 500 students attend classes daily, for free.
Teenage girls giggle, heading downstairs and holding onto one anothers’ arms as they struggle forcefully against the tides of pre-school boys heading the other way. Both groups grip the thick, stained concrete railing, chattering loudly in a mix of Hindi and Bhojpuri. Both wear the LSS school uniform: checkered shirts tailored from a bolt of donated cloth, with boys in shorts and girls in skirts.
Groups of parents (labourers, vegetable sellers, rickshaw wallas) discuss enrollment with teachers and a vice principals who sit behind a desk. Inevitably, a pair of small girls will be oblivious to the traffic that rushes around them. They kneel in the middle of the hallway to repack their tiffin boxes into school bags. Fastening the snaps carefully, one by one, and shrugging the straps over their little shoulders. They then follow the flow of bodies, allowing themselves to be herded like goats to their next class.
During the summer though, the Little Stars School hallways and classrooms are bare and dusty, inhabited only by workmen with sweat-glossed upper bodies and cloth wrapped around their heads.
Another project is the renovation of the podium on the rooftop: it will be made larger and taller. To help accomplish the task, the hostel girls systematically carried 500 bricks from the ground floor to the rooftop: spacing themselves along the stairwell, from the ground floor through to the rooftop (four floors up). The bricks travelled by being passed from one girl’s hand to the next. After completing the task in only an hour, the girls cleaned up all of the red brick dust, sweeping it into piles with short brooms and collecting the piles with their dry, brown hands. They finished by taking showers (littlest girls dumping big buckets of water over their heads, eyelashes bunched together) before passing out in their bedroom.
To my disbelief, the girls exclaimed the next day over how much fun they’d had with the task. Ashaji joked that the girls should become brick labourers every day, that it would build their character.