At 17, there is an air of easy confidence and self-assurance that sits easily on Saraswati’s slim shoulders. Her hair pulled back in a pony tail, her gaze is direct, and when she speaks English there are traces of a slight American twang that lace her words after her year-long sojourn to Waianae High School, Hawaii, as an exchange student. She grew up in the remote village of Gal Jwadi, in the hill state of Uttarakhand, India. The lone rutted roads of the village had never seen a bus, so she and five of her siblings walked to the Government run Hindi medium school. Her father, a daily wage labourer, had too many mouths to feed and too little a wage to provide even the most basic amenities. On fallow government land, the Village Head allowed them to make a small mud house with a tin roof and call it a home.
Gunning towards new horizons
“Life was easy going and happy. We had nothing to compare ourselves with,” recalls Saraswati. She and her sisters would go about reciting their rhymes and chasing each other. When the PYDS team surveying villages for children whose parents were below the poverty line and were incapable of educating them, reached Gal Jwadi, Saraswati became a natural choice. Her parents agreed to send their daughter to study in an English medium school that would not only pick the children up from their homes by bus, but would provide them free food and free education. The bus would pick up everyone from villages that dotted Purkul. “I was nine and in Class IV. It was terribly exciting to travel by bus. We would keep waving our hands like everyone else. Initially, there were 25 girls, then some boys joined in.” says Saraswati.
Keeping the flame of hope alive
Saraswati, who is named after the Hindu Goddess of education, and her bus mates, were all part of the PYDS scheme called “Bus them to Purkul” (BTTP). “There was no road, but I sent the bus anyway, not caring for the damages it incurred,” says Swamy Sir(associated with BTTP) with a twinkle in his eyes. “Every three months I was changing the tyres, the suspension, but it was worth all the money as we had found a bunch of young kids, whom we were determined to provide education to, far beyond their dreams,” he adds.
“We were told we would be taught English and we all laughed, unsure,” says Saraswati
“I can still remember, it was the 21st of January, 2008, our first day at school. We were told we would be taught English and we all laughed, unsure. Our English was pathetic, we would hold out our arm and say Bhenji to our teachers, and ask, Andar aajayen (Teacher, can we come in?) There were kids from different villages and we all stayed in our village groups, shy to mingle with others, but slowly we began to make friends. Every day we learnt something new,” says Saraswati. The next year she was promoted to class six but ended up getting a double promotion instead along with three other children who had been a part of the BTTP programme.
Like many parents in rural India, when her elder sister turned eighteen, her parents found her a match and took Rs 50,000 as loan for her marriage. “In 2009, after my sister married, my father suddenly fell seriously ill. We were forced to take more loans for his treatment. The doctor said there was a bone that was pressing against the neck,” recalls Saraswati. But it incapacitated him completely leaving him bed ridden and unable to earn. Soon the family were neck deep in debt.
Saraswati’s voice drops and her eyes are shadowed in remembrance when she says, “The condition of our house was very bad, each day to see Baba like that was terrible. I could not concentrate in school; I would hide and cry as I couldn’t cry at home. My elder brother began looking for work and became a guard at Max Antara, an old age home. Thank God there were no fees at school. Everyone stopped complaining at what mother put on the table. I had set my heart on leggings and a long frock suit but I didn’t dare say it aloud even to myself.” Instead she learnt yoga exercises and began helping her father imitate them in the best possible way. To supplement the family income, her second brother on finishing his Class XII, also became a guard working in the same company as the elder one. Their monthly income of Rs. 6000/- each brought some semblance of stability in the family, but it was still a struggle as their father would have fainting spells and would have to be rushed to the hospital. The boys would take turns and would always be on the verge of losing their jobs. “Baba would cry all the time and say if I die what will happen to all of you. It was very hard on all of us. There was no environment at home to study. The only way I was able to keep abreast with studies was the schedule we kept at school. We would be at school from seven in the morning till five in the evening, and it helped me finish all my homework and be ready for class the next day,” says Saraswati.
When she was in Class X, she passed the Inter Cultural Exchange Programme run by the US State Department.
In 2013, when she was in Class X, she applied for the Inter Cultural Exchange Programme run by the US State Department. She registered for it and was called to Delhi to answer tests that involved group activities and hearing – listening tests, followed by more documentation about family, school schedule and her class eighth and ninth report cards. Then news came asking her to come to Delhi with her parents. “My father was in no condition to travel long distance and my mother had never left home, so Harwant Sir, my Principal, took me to Delhi. I had an interview and they asked me questions and when I answered them well they complimented me and my school for my English. When the results were out and I had passed, everyone was so excited, my teachers, friends. I never thought I could dream of such a possibility. Swamy Sir was the best; he had made me fill the forms for my passport even before I left for Delhi. He was so sure of me. My parents didn’t do a thing except sign the form, my school did everything. They even shopped everything for my US visit,” says the happy student.
Exploring international horizons
It was 8th of August, the day Saraswati turned 15 that she bid farewell to her family, and sharing some sweets with her class, she said goodbye with tears that would not stop, to embark on what Swamy Sir said was, “The start of her journey of new beginnings.” After a three day orientation at Delhi, she flew to Washington DC. “The funny thing was, my luggage didn’t arrive and I realised I had no idea what my host family looked like, so I just stood and waited, overwhelmed by everything I saw. Then they came for me, my host Aunty, grandmother and niece. They garlanded me with beautiful Plumeria flowers. They asked me if I was hungry and I nodded, so they took me to a Chinese restaurant. I had been so nervous that I had not been able to eat anything. I saw rice there for the first time and was very happy. I ate that and felt better. I thought Americans only ate pizza and burgers. My host family were amazing, my grandmother was Japanese, my Aunty was a Hawaiian and my uncle as a Philipino, and they had taken in an Indian. They could not pronounce my name so they called me Sara,” shares Saraswati.
“On the first day at the Waianae High School, I chose my subjects – English, American and Hawaiian History, Chemistry and joined the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (JRTC). Everyone welcomed me to the class. They would ask very amusing questions; Do you guys ride on elephants? Are you very poor? There was no uniform in school and everyone was very casual. I like Americans; they are very open minded and frank. Their school course was very easy, the maths they taught us in Class XI is what we did in Class VIII in India. I got a straight ‘A’ throughout. Everyone thought I was very intelligent but I think it was my school in India that helped me do well. I loved JRTC and the cadet challenges. I also became the Squad Leader. Everything was like a dream. My host family, teachers all said I should stay on and finish my studies. I really wanted to, but the programme was for only eleven months. I am in touch with my family over Facebook.
My Aunt wrote to me that their dogs wait for me at the gate every day. I miss them very much. My Aunt is planning to visit India, they are my second family and one day I will go back,” says Saraswati confidently.
She completed her bronze level in IAYP (International Award for Young People) and was awarded as the outstanding student in US.
Back to home grounds
Now, back in PYDS in Class XII, she has opted for the Commerce Stream. She is extremely humble and down to earth.
She smiles and her eyes are ablaze with determination. “If I had been studying in the village school my parents would have married me off like my sister. Thank God for my school, it has shown me a world beyond Gal Jwadi. I won’t marry till my goal is achieved. I have to make a pucca house of brick and cement with all the amenities of running water, electricity and toilets for my family, to replace the mud house we now live in. I know I can do it.”
This dream was impossible without support from the ‘Sanganeria Foundation’. She admires the attitude of Mr. Sant Sanganeria and wishes to support others like her when she is well placed in life.