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.
At thirteen, Neela was married off to a husband much older than her. At sixteen, she became a mother, and at nineteen, she was a widow. Despite having no regular income, she was faced with the daunting task of taking care of her in-laws, her own parents and of course, her little daughter. For young Neela, life has never known a trajectory where her voice is heard and her destiny is not blamed. That was until she came under the ambit of Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation and discovered a new identity for herself. The taste of financial independence was indeed delightful for her, but her zeal to work hard for a newer, better life stood at the helm of it all.
No one has ever become poor by giving – Anne Frank
Founded by Kameshwari from Bengaluru, the foundation works with distressed women in three Karnataka villages, helping them to earn their livelihood by handcrafting a wide range of decorative or daily-use household items. Like Neela, nineteen women with struggles similar or worse, have found a new lease of life at Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation. Every piece of item created at Hosa Belaku is recycled from leftover fabrics, paper, dry waste or scrap metals.
Hosa Belaku – a new dawn
“I have been working in the social sector for the past two decades. Since 2013, I got associated with Belaku Trust, who was working with rural women in Karnataka,” shares Kameshwari, a former legal executive.
“Most of these women were victims of alcohol abuse and harassment on the domestic front. Some were widowed, single mothers or differently-abled – making life all the more hard for them in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, circumstances led Belaku Trust to close their operations in 2015. The women were left in a lurch,” she narrates.
Some of these women desperately pleaded with Kameshwari to let them sustain their only source of income and independence. Moved by their plight, Kameshwari resolved to do her best to help as many women as possible. Investing a sizeable proportion of her own savings, she launched the Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation in 2017. At present, the foundation has active workshops in three villages in the suburbs of Bengaluru, namely, Halasuru, Achalu and Kadahalli.
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At the prime of her life, Pavithra’s husband left her for another woman. Heartbroken and devastated, she was clueless about how to earn her living. The story is similar for many other women in these villagers, with careless, abusive or estranged husbands, most being alcohol addicts. The pangs of poverty would sometimes become more unbearable than the constant physical abuse by their husbands. Yet, they had no way to have some respite from the ordeal. Few women did work seasonally as agricultural labourers. The backbreaking toil in the sun would take a toll on their health, while the deplorable situation at their homes would haunt them for the rest of the year.
Kameshwari mortgaged her jewelery for Rs 6 lakh to start Hosa Belaku Artisian's Foundation. Most of the women employed in this foundation face domestic violence in their homes. Kindly donate here : bit.ly/hosabelaku
Society, with its primitive doctrines, only made it worse for these women. For instance, nobody was willing to marry Shivlingi because she had a facial deformity. After a point, her own brothers abandoned her as if she had become a liability.
If one visits these women now, they would be found basking in their newfound success with Hosa Belaku. But, not only the women, Hosa Belaku’s workforce comprises a 19-year-old young man as well. All his life, Yogi, who is affected by Polio, had accompanied his mother everywhere. She used to work with the foundation until she recently passed away in an accident. Yogi’s father is visually-challenged, so the entire family received a major emotional and financial setback after his mother’s sudden demise. A helpless Yogi would painstakingly drag himself from door to door in search of work. “We took him in and trained him in toy-making. Now you would find him in a corner, making beautiful toys for children,” shares a proud Kameshwari.
Sunshine, Lamp and Dawn – Illuminating lives
The women groups at the three villages are designated with three unique names and assigned with a unique task each. Kirana (Sunshine), the group at Kadahalli is involved with paper products, making notepads, bags and jewellery.
The Halsuru group Deepa (Lamp) has adopted the art of block printing. Vibrant, stylish and beautiful handbags, cushion covers, stoles and notebooks are curated with the utmost care and precision by the women.
At Ushe (Dawn), needle and thread rules. Women who were already skilled in sewing and embroidery now earn by making stuffed toys, patchwork products and embroidered fabrics.
True to their names, the groups have indeed brought new light into the lives of their employees.
Suma and Jayamma are both senior workers at Kirana who have succeeded in constructing small concrete houses for themselves, a huge step up from the dilapidated huts they spent their youth in. Another aged lady in the same group has another compelling achievement to be proud of. Bearing the taunts and trauma from her drunkard husband all her life, she has single-handedly raised a son and a daughter with proper education. Her son, who is currently an aspiring engineer, was supported with a laptop from Hosa Belaku. Honamma, a young widow from the group Deepa is treading a similar path, raising her son all on her own.
The only solace
How much gratitude these women have towards Hosa Belaku is perhaps evident from Shri’s unwavering dedication. Diabetes is taking a toll on her eyesight yet she refuses to give up and continues etching her grit on the ornate block-printed fabrics.
The reason for such gratitude is manifold. For the conscious urban consumers, Hosa Belaku is striving to save the environment with their 100%-recycled policy. But, for the workers, it is the lifeline which not only offers them economic security but also allows them a place to voice, share and resolve the problems plaguing their lives.
“They come here and find a peaceful break from their household obligations. Some still face domestic violence regularly, the workshop is an escape for them. They discuss their issues and try to find feasible solutions. It takes the load off their tired minds. The work here is a breath of fresh air for them,” Kameshwari asserts.
“We have been assisted time and again by established non-profits and retail chains across Bengaluru, who have graciously showcased and marketed products made by our artisans. We would like more people to know about Hosa Belaku and its incredible women, and respect their brilliant spirit by purchasing their crafts,” Kameshwari expresses her wish.