To say that I have now visited India is only a half-truth. In my few days there, I have learned that India is so large and made up of so many different regions and cultures and lifestyles, that even though I have spent 4 nights in West Bengal, many would say I did not experience the “true India”. I had heard in advance that Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) was one of the dirtiest and least charming cities in India, so I was expecting the worst. I assumed I would ingest nothing but power bars and bottled water for 4 days, would never leave my hotel unaccompanied, and I braced myself to be overwhelmed by the poverty.
Much to my surprise, I found Kolkata to be welcoming. I wandered the streets at night by myself without worry, and by the end of the trip I was eating delicious street food with carefree abandon. (Their egg roll is amazing – it looks sort of like a burrito, and though vegetarian, it tastes like a Big Mac. I will dream about that egg roll.) Perhaps coming from Kathmandu made the transition easier. While Kolkata was clearly crowded and dirty, it was like a Club Med compared to chaotic and rubble-filled Kathmandu.
Calcutta was a city entirely created by the British, and much of the streets and architecture have a distinctly old European feel, with gorgeous (though dilapidated) mansions that hark back to an earlier time. The streets are crowded with traffic and the sidewalks are filled with men bathing. There is a haze that covers the city – a mix of seasonal fog and year-round pollution.
We hired a guide to take us to Murshidabad, a 5 hour drive into northwest Bengal, in my search to find Babar Ali, whose business card says “Youngest Headmaster in the World”. Our guide said that in his 40 years of working in the tourism industry, he has never had anyone, especially Americans, come to Kolkata for the sole purpose of visiting Murshidabad and he found it “quite extraordinary” (i.e., “crazy’). GO’s Director of Operations, Diana Alexander, first read about Babar Ali in a 2008 BBC story and I have been trying to track him down ever since.
When Alex (GO Board Member) and I arrived in Murshidabad, we were greeted with flowers and much excitement. Babar Ali greeted us and gave us our instructions as to how the visit would progress. It was obvious he already has a dozen plus years experience as a headmaster because he has no hesitation giving orders and telling you exactly how things will progress. It is Babar Ali’s world, and anyone around him is just living in it.
My first impression of him is that he is a nerd. And perhaps a bit of a genius. And perhaps socially awkward. Clearly this was going to be an interesting visit.
He had given the children the afternoon off due to a religious holiday – we happened to arrive on the day when hundreds of thousands of people make the pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges river. In fact, along the Ganges in Kolkata, we saw a tented campground filled with naked ash-covered men and other exotic Indians celebrating in what must surely have been an inspiration for Woodstock and Burning Man.
Babar introduced us to 4 of his volunteer teachers, former students of his, all girls, who now teach the younger children at this informal school. It’s an afternoon-only school, for children who work during the day (most at dump sites, going through garbage), who would otherwise not have the chance to go to regular schools that meet in the morning.
He started out with just a handful of kids when he was 9, and now over 10 years later, he has over 300 students and a series of volunteer teachers. Classes take place in his family’s backyard. His parents thought he was kind of nuts for starting the school, and assumed he would grow out of it, but they have been supportive and allowed him to follow his childhood dream, which is now the dream of a young determined man.
Babar showed us a book of “felicitations” – letters from government officials and celebrities (including the actor who plays the psychiatrist in Silver Linings Playbook) – it seems many in India have heard of Babar Ali. But letters are the only support he has received. After a dozen years, he’s still teaching kids on the dirt and still struggling for funds. He won a local CNN hero prize that came with some money, which he spent on a piece of land across the street. He had hoped to build his school on that land, but later realized it did not have road access and was a difficult shape for building a school. When I suggested to him that the land purchase seemed to be a bad decision on his part, he nodded “yes” but quickly said “no, not a bad decision, because we will use it one day for another purpose, so it will be a good decision.” Babar Ali has learned the art of spin.
He asked a group of the children, about 30 or so, to come and meet us. He told me to hand out pens as gifts. I told him I didn’t bring enough for each kid. He said “You have them.” His headmistress then appeared with packages of Bic pens for me to hand out. Babar Ali has thought of everything and I do as I am told.
When she could get in a word in edgewise, Alex drilled into him the importance of him getting his own education. He is going to a local college which he insists is the “Oxford of West Bengal”, but based on his English language skills as compared with other more educated Indians, we wished he would spend as much time investing in his own education as he does in his school. Alas, it is not for us to say what is best for him, and we can only make suggestions. The fact that he has 300 plus kids and a number of grown adults jumping to attention when he calls out commands (including me and Alex) makes it difficult to argue with him about anything. He’s achieved this much on his own, who are we to challenge him?
He now would like to buy another plot of land – a better real estate choice – upon which to build a permanent school. The community is not very supportive of his goal – many are Muslims who originally came from Bangladesh, and they prefer Madrasa schools. They don’t understand why Babar Ali runs a standard Indian school. But this headstrong headmaster will not bend to pressure.
While better than a Madrasa, the quality of education his school offers is not great (his volunteer teachers are okay), it at least opens up the world of proper education to these children who would otherwise be unschooled. A few of the girls from his school have gone on to better government schools, a fact of which Babar is very proud. While all of the boys who graduate from his school go find work, and many of the girls get married, he prefers to focus on the few girls who have gone on to higher education and hold them out as an example of what is possible.
Babar Ali has many fans in the country. The headmistress of a local school who is also a local government official is on his Board and she carries a lot of weight in the community. She has watched Babar grow this dream since he was a child and it is a project dear to her. INK India (the Indian incarnation of TED talks) is committed to raising funds to buy the land and build the school (Babar was a speaker at the first and only TED India conference, that later morphed into INK). A representative from INK flew to Kolkata to meet with me in the hopes GO Campaign will help fund the project.
Whether GO will decide to raise funds and join forces with Babar Ali and INK cannot be decided until further research is done into the sustainability of the school, the cost of the project, and more, there is no doubt that Babar Ali is a remarkable young man capable of great things. He is a true Local Hero serving kids in need. If any volunteers want to go this part of the world and teach English or help in other ways, I would recommend it without hesitation. I’m hopeful we will be able to help this extraordinary young man. Mostly because it’s a great project, but also because I’m afraid he might make me sit in a corner if I don’t.