Muskan

In a nearly unfindable building in Dharavi slum, you would never expect to find toddlers doing arts and crafts: but they are. Inside a warm room with a whirring fan, children’s feet stand on coloured circles painted on the grey ground. Oiled hair on each head is neatly parted. They have just finished with greeting time, and have now moved on to activity time.

Nursery-aged kids are summoned forward one by one. With help, they dip their feet into watered-down paint before stamping their prints onto big sheets of paper. A teacher who is also a young woman (and a wife, and a homemaker, and an accounts manager for the same NGO she teaches for, and above all a nurturer and uncelebrated heroine) lifts each child and stamps their foot down. She has developed an efficient system. With one arm laced beneath the kid’s armpits and gripping their body, Tanuja teacher reaches her other hand down towards the paint-dipped foot. She deftly pushes each individual tiny toe to the paper, to ensure a mark. Another teacher, Aasma, wears her dupatta wrapped and tied around her shoulder and waist like a dhobi’s. She diligently records each child’s name next to their footprint, as though they were creating a government document.

Ayush doesn’t understand what he’s supposed to do. All of the kids in the Kumbharwada colony, where Muskan Kindergarten is located, are Gujurati: none of their teachers are. So Kasturi Aunty, the cook and maid, is summoned again and again to tell the kids what to do in the language closest to their hearts. Once she explains the activity to Ayush, he still shakes his head, muttering something. Aunty translates to Tanuja teacher, and Tanuja teacher translates to me:

“He says it is dirty water!” she laughs. “So he doesn’t want to put his feet in.”

But Ayush is convinced by the others, who are all laughing and dipping and stamping their feet, and laughing more. Having a grand time. So, with Tanuja teacher’s help, he steps a foot into the basin. And then the other. Everyone claps and congratulates Ayush for his courage. A smile breaks across his precious face, and Ayush is overcome. He brings one foot up and down, hard, and then the other. He pumps his fists and stamps his feet, wow, this is so great! Watery paint starts to fly everywhere and all of the teachers stop clapping and say hsssssssssss and chhhhhhh before Tanuja teacher can lift Ayush out of the basin. Aasma teacher swoops in to wipe his feet off with a rag. Ayush is grinning though. Even back in his place in the circle, he continues to jump up and down, celebrating life.

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