Piali – the name of this remote Bengal village, which denotes a tree, undeniably has a sweet ring to it. However, the real scenario is far from sweet and pleasant in this South Bengali hamlet. The place is notorious for being a crime hub. Ranging from illegal arms trade to trafficking of young girls, Piali features in the prime time headlines quite often for all the wrong reasons. Though not very far from Kolkata, primitive, patriarchal traditions like child marriage are frequently reported from Piali.
However, for the last ten years, a couple has been determined to change the face of Bengal’s crime village and turn it into a safe haven for all young girls. Anup Gayen, a native of neighbouring village Champahati, and his wife Mojca Gayen from Slovenia have built the Piali Ashar Alo School, which currently houses over 160 girl students from nursery to 8th standard. Some of them belong to broken families with alcoholic fathers or estranged mothers.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
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Ashar Alo, which translates in Bengali as ‘the light of hope’, has a curriculum which is worlds apart from any regular school. The wholesome development of a child is given utmost priority here, over and above textbook knowledge, examinations and grades.
Struggle was Anup’s companion in his growing years
“I have endured a lot of hardships as a child to get a proper education. I strongly believe that nothing other than education can liberate these lesser privileged kids from the shackles of poverty. Else the brutal world would continue to mistreat and marginalise them,” expresses founder Anup Gayen, whose own growing years were riddled with struggles.
“When I was 3rd standard, my father contracted tuberculosis. After he was admitted to the hospital for an indefinite time, my education was also on the verge of ending. I would be forever grateful to one of my teachers, who went out of her way to arrange for my admission to a missionary school, far from home. Later I completed my higher education from Chennai and Kanyakumari,” shares Anup.
There was a period of uncertainty in Anup’s life also, right after he graduated in automobile engineering. Lack of jobs landed him in working for a courier service, for a meagre Rs 700 per month. For two years, he supported his younger siblings’ education as well as sustained his own living costs with that earning. With time, Anup secured better jobs and gradually started inclining towards social work.
The seed that sprouted into Ashar Alo school
“I used to visit a church in Kolkata. As part of their social activities, they were looking for a place with the children who are in dire need of education and financial support. One of my friends suggested Piali, where even two square meals a day was a luxury at that time,” he narrates.
“I realised this is where I grew up grazing cows or carrying stacks of paddy. So, without a second thought, we started our project at Piali. Our initial survey revealed that more than 80% of the girls have never set foot inside a school,” shares Anup.
Bringing these girls to school was a daunting task. Their parents were either toiling too hard or gambling and drinking too much; the kids were accustomed to living in an unhygienic and unhealthy atmosphere. “I remember applying hair oil and shampoo on their dirty, unkempt hairs and giving them clean clothes and a hygiene kit. Classroom and books came later, we had to ensure their well-being first,” he recalls.
Anup and Mojca’s heartwarming journey together
There is a deeply heartwarming story behind Anup meeting Mojca, who later went on to become his life partner. Slovenian psychologist Mojca Pajk arrived in Bengal as a volunteer with an international non-profit organisation, where she met Anup. Despite their differences, both of them shared a deep empathy towards the underprivileged community and trusted each other by heart. Gradually, a beautiful bond blossomed between the two and they got married soon afterwards.
Their marriage indeed drew frowns from their families and society. But, nothing lasted before their iron determination to design a dream future for these helpless little souls of Piali. Today, Mojca and Anup Gayen are proud parents of a son and a daughter, along being the guardian angels for 160 girls of Piali.
Anup falls short of words to express his gratitude towards Mojca, whom he calls the biggest inspiration behind the school. “We can start a school with even five children. If it does not work out, we will close, but we have to try,” Mojca had proposed the idea to Anup ten years ago.
When Slovenia stood beside Piali
In 2008, the couple started the Ashar Alo school in Piali with twelve girls and one rented room. They always dreamt of expanding the school, one classroom every year. But, funds had always been a constraint. This is where Slovenia, a quaint European nation, came together to stand beside a nondescript village in West Bengal, India.
Mojca contacted non-profit foundations in her motherland and appealed to the citizens to pour in their gracious contribution. The story of her selfless efforts motivated the young and old of Slovenia to raise around INR 4.5 lakhs. Even youngsters and schoolgoers chipped in their hard-earned pocket money, by selling magazines, handicrafts or artworks.
Mojca and Anup brought a plot with the money and started the construction of the present school building. The couple went door to door, pleading the parents to send their girls to the school and not ruin their lives in a loveless early marriage.
Responding to Mojca’s mail, in 2011, Žiga Rošer, an architecture student from Slovenia, expressed his interest to spearhead the construction project for Ashar Alo School. “He opted for three-walled open classrooms with intermittent corridors and lawns. He reasoned that the kids here were growing up amidst nature, so open classrooms would be best for their learning experience,” shares Anup. Later, German organisation CED financed in completing the construction.
At present, the two-storeyed school building has 12 full-time teachers and 160 girls. Alongside the regular studies, music, dance, drama, art and sports features in Ashar Alo’s curriculum.
A typical day at the school starts with the morning assembly. Classes are intercepted by mid-day meals and free tuition is also provided after school hours.
Besides, Ashar Alo also offers tailoring and beautician courses for the students’ mothers and local women. Computer and spoken English classes are also organised for them from time to time.
“Recently, I have introduced football coaching for our girls where local boys also train together. These boys used to lead a shady life, dropping out of school early and consumed by drugs and gambling. Now, the girls and boys are together representing their village team in different tournaments,” Anup declares.
Teaching empathy to the girls is fundamental
The school is free for the students, barring the cost of books and notebooks. Publishers throng the school premises at the beginning of every annual session, and students are offered sizeable discounts on textbooks and stationery. Other than that, the girls’ families have to invest nothing more for their education.
Anup feels that the students should realise how empathy and compassion from people around the world are helping them to study today. To inculcate the same values in these young minds, Anup keeps a contribution box in the school, while each student, teacher and staff are asked to donate something every day, be it as small an amount as one rupee. Every three months, the older students visit the homeless, elderly and differently-abled people in nearby railway stations, donating clothes, bedsheets or food to them- all bought from the funds collected in the contribution box.
“We have tried our best to help the girls have a better future. We are still trying our best,” Anup signs off, as the light of hope continues to illuminate Piali.
A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.
My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.
About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss.
My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.
However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.
Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.
As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.
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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed.
This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.
What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation.
Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.
Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds.
Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma?
First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.
Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB?
The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment.
Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.
A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.