I was working part time in the evenings at this Centre in the small town of Dehradun in the hill state of Uttarakhand in India. This was a Centre where children between the ages of 2 to 14 from diverse backgrounds came for two hours in the evenings to socialize and spend time creatively – ‘The Centre for Creativity and Fun’ which was its tag line described it perfectly. It was my first encounter with inclusion in its most spontaneous avatar. Here there were about 40 kids everyday from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. The blessed and the marginalized, normal and those with special needs, mingled together for these two hours without any prejudice whatsoever, though I’m not sure if it was the same beyond the gates of this almost magical place. Here the air was full of acceptance, love, friendship and trust. Parents came here to enroll their children after hearing about it from a friend and would fall in love with the place and tell others – the power of ‘Word of Mouth’ at its best! It was essentially a neighborhood club for children.
One evening, like many others, a mother walked in with a 7 year old boy with her. She was holding his hand and he was staring down. After coming to know that she came after a recommendation from his school, I could sense her desperation. The boy, Fahim, was very shy. He hardly spoke to anyone, had no friends or siblings, stayed in a nuclear family and did not make an eye contact with the person when spoken to. She wanted him to ‘open up’ and be like all other kids his age are – very natural for a mother to feel that way. I asked Fahim his name and he, looking down, muttered something very softly. The mother, desperate again, started coaxing him to speak loudly. “Just let him be”, I told the exasperated mother. Her next question was, “What will you teach him here?” I replied, “To be himself” with a big smile. Still not very convinced, she completed the registration formalities and enquired if she needed to stay with Fahim for the evening. “It will make him feel better”, I said and she agreed to it. My ‘bye’ to Fahim at the end of the day was also reciprocated with only the gesture, eyes still glued to the floor.
Next day Fahim was the first person to reach the Centre after me. A shy ‘Hi’ to me with a smile and he propped himself in the ‘Toy Room’. I was thrilled with the way he conducted himself – no tantrums! Slowly other kids started pouring in. He shifted to a corner in the room with his favorite cars and trucks. For the next few days this was his routine but I could see him smiling more often. When the mother came to pick him up, she never forgot to ask “What did he learn today?” I had no answer to this question of hers as it was difficult for me to put into words what Fahim was learning here – quantifying life’s lesson was not easy for me.
Once I saw Fahim standing outside the Dance/Music room. I asked him if he wanted to join the session, to which he nodded to say ‘no’. I wanted him to, but reminded myself of ‘let him be’. He seemed happy and that was enough for me, he never missed a day was proof enough that he loved the place. He loved it here because he was not being judged and not being pressurized to perform. I could see him quietly (that was his style!) becoming a part of the place.
The Annual Cultural Program of the Centre was approaching and the entire place was buzzing with excitement. Songs, dances and skits were being practiced everyday. Children were enthusiastically signing up to participate in their favorite events. The day was barely a fortnight away and everyone wanted to give their best – the staff, kids and their parents alike! A date for a full dress rehearsal three days before the Big day was agreed upon to make the show just perfect. On that day the performances were presented before the rest of the staff and those children who were not participating. We clapped and cheered together to motivate everyone. The participants were ecstatic at the response. Final rehearsals over, after the kids left, the staff got together to sort out the shortcomings.
As it had been happening for the past six months, Fahim arrived as soon as I reached the Centre. He came up to me and looking directly at me said, “Aunty I want to sing a song on the stage”. I could not believe what my ears had just heard! The boy who hardly spoke, never made eye contact with anyone wants to sing a song on the stage!! He was standing in front of me smiling confidently and there was no way I could not accommodate him in the final program. “But the program brochure is already printed”, remarked a colleague. “Never mind, we will announce a special item on the spot”, I said controlling my nervous excitement. I wanted Fahim on the stage.
The evening was perfect – a 100 plus audience, well set stage, music, decorations and brightly dressed and excited children, staff and parents. The program began and after the first three items the compeer announced the song by Fahim. A smart, confident 7 year old climbed up the steps of the stage and looking straight ahead at the audience began his song. He could sing so well, no one knew! The song over, I could hear the loud applause and see Fahim running to hug his mother. After this, all became hazy because of the teary veil in my eyes and I wanted to ‘let it be’!