In the new book, Grey Sunshine: Stories From Teach For India, author Sandeep Rai tells the stories of real children, families, and communities whose lives are deeply impacted by the inequity in India’s education system—and of some of the more than 4000 Teach For India fellows and alumni who are working, alongside their students and other advocates, to change that system. As Teach For India’s Chief of City Operations, Sandeep has witnessed first-hand the challenges facing children in low-income communities across India, and has helped shaped the progress Teach For India has made in addressing them in the decade since the organization launched. We recently caught up with Sandeep, who shared the following excerpt from Grey Sunshine, and answered our questions below.
Nishi wants to one day become a doctor. She hopes to fulfil a dream her father, now a local tile labourer who emigrated from Bihar, never could. More than two decades after dropping out of school, his house still holds all of his old science textbooks and class notes, as well as his half-broken lab equipment.
Nishi is acutely aware that an almost identical set of barriers and limitations will soon confront her as well. Her father earns less than 6,000 rupees a month, which allows them just enough to cover their expenses. Faced with exorbitant tuition costs, Nishi will have to perform extraordinarily well to ensure she gets the scholarship needed to attend medical school. Like many of the children in her neighbourhood, her dreams are directly at odds with the statistical reality of Vadgaon Budruk.
“Children from my community simply can’t afford a high-quality education. They just pay for whatever they can find—and that’s often really poor.” Nishi’s voice grows louder with emotion as she continues, “Ironically, because we’re all poor, it means we have to do really, really well to follow our dreams—because we have to get scholarships.”
“What do you hope to do once you become a doctor?” I ask.
“Every day, I see people in my community who need care. But they just can’t afford it. And so they suffer, even if they’re in pain,” she says. “I know it’s not that simple. I know that medicines and healthcare are expensive. And I don’t know, right now, what my solution will be. “But if I become a doctor, I will make it my mission to serve these people.”
I’m a bit puzzled by the conviction and passion with which this child describes her ambition. When I was thirteen, I too had dreamt of becoming a doctor. It was also a pursuit fuelled by my father. I envisioned a future filled with high-risk surgeries, life-saving operations and late nights with patients in the emergency room. Aside from my whimsical daydreams, though, I never held or displayed a fraction of the energy or commitment I’m witnessing this afternoon.
“Everyone looks down on low-income people. They think we’re lazy,” Nishi says. “But that’s not true. The world doesn’t even see us as people. They stay away from us. And that perception, whether we like it or not, limits our potential.”
Her comments, while startling, force me to confront a much larger problem. It’s a theme of forced resignation that’s shared, in ways both big and small, by the stories of children across our communities.