Because stories lead to self-discovery

Stepping over puddles, dodging street dogs and walking carefully past hawkers who are frying piping hot bhajjias and other snacks, we make our way to the Vishal Mitra Mandal, a slum colony that houses about 100 families. Overhead, the monorail line snakes and curves, connecting GTB Nagar to Antop Hill, making its way to Bhakti Park. The instructions are clear. Follow the monorail line, walk beneath it until you see the Mandal on your left.

Within the colony, behind a small Madrassa is a little room managed by the Sparsha Chartiable Trust. How do we recognise this room from the hundreds of other similar rooms? It’s simple: by the sheer quantity of footwear of school-going children that are removed and placed outside the door. We walk until we find this mound of shoes and when we add our own shoes to this pile and enter the room, we’re greeted with the smiling, sing-song, “Good Afternoon Teachers”

(Picture: The route to the study room)

The room is sparsely furnished; a thin mat is spread on the floor for the children to sit on, two plastic chairs are placed by the door for visitors (usually volunteers from various NGOs), a blackboard, the size of an open chart paper hangs on one of the walls and on the other walls you’ll find various instructional material – Good Habits, Respect for Elders, Love your country, etcetra – replete with pictures

Every afternoon, children gather here in small, intimate groups to study. For some it’s about getting help with their homework, others come to learn things that they have not entirely understood in school, while still others gather for ‘combined-study.’

Every Wednesday an excited group of fourteen children assemble to do something more than study. They gather to tell their stories, to write, to draw, to colour, to laugh. It’s a simple idea. As American poet and political activist, Muriel Rukeyeser says, “The Universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” Apni Shala partners with the Sparsha Charitable Trust to deliver the Apni Shala Hands-On project. Through a series of power-packed, fun, interactive and learning-by-doing sessions, children are taught to ideate, conceptualize and create an exciting comic-book style compilation of stories that they have designed and written themselves, with a little help from their didis, Apni Shala facilitators, as we are called.

(Left – children looking at comic books, Right – children watching a story-video intently)
(Left – children looking at comic books, Right – children watching a story-video intently)

Initially, the children had many questions. What should we write about? Whose story will we write? Who will draw them? How do we draw them? How many pages? What topic? We told them only this: there are no rules. We watched as this seemingly simple ‘no-rule’ rule abetted some confusion, for these were children who were always told what to do and how to do it. We let them be. We let them think, question and ideate, all on their own. So what then did the facilitators do? We showed them videos of stories. We distributed comic books. We asked them only one question. We asked them to identify the elements of a story. Title. Character. Setting. Plot. Ending. Beginning. Dialogue. We made a word map. Every one of them contributed. Every answer was correct.

When they observed the pictures in the comic books, we introduced one more rule – no copying, draw your own pictures – and this they did with all the excitement of a ten year old who’s set to achieve an exciting goal.

The children asked us more questions: Will you make a book? Will our names be there? Will we get a copy? Yes, we said and were rewarded with more smiles.

Over the next few sessions, children wrote, rewrote, carefully making rough drafts, diligently creating fair drafts with vigilance and love, the kind of love that shows. They decorated their art books. They christened themselves The Dramebaaz Group and they told us their stories.

(Picture: The art books that children decorated)
(Picture: The art books that children decorated)

So what did they write about? There’s a little backstory here. While planning the project we debated as to whether we should veer the children towards certain themes (like the ill-effects of alcoholism), themes that would enable them to understand the issues within their communities and look at them with a problem-solving eye. However, we agreed not to interfere with their creative process and decided on the ‘no-rule’ rule. But, what followed was both extraordinary and heartening. One group of children wrote about an alcoholic father and the havoc his lifestyle creates on his family and the plot twist comes when the erring father is forced to drink bottle after bottle, jug after jug of alcohol without a break, without rest, until he can’t stand it, until he says, “Enough, I will never drink again.” A policeman is introduced. A dhoka is given and the man changes for the good!

As the sessions progressed we marveled at the themes children wanted to explore – illegal water pipes, women’s safety, education for girl children, the widening gap between the rich and the poor. These were themes that we ourselves wanted them to explore yet did not force on them.

In this manner children are working together in groups and are experiencing for themselves, first-hand, what it means to be a team-player and what it means to work towards a common goal and vision. The experience is enabling them to take initiative and leverage each other’s strengths while jointly overcoming their weaknesses. We call this life-skills education, the process in which they problem solve and think both critically and creatively while working in teams.

(Picture: Comic strip attempts by the children. The rough work!)
(Picture: Comic strip attempts by the children. The rough work!)

We have three more weeks to go and in the weeks to follow we look forward to some more hours of fun, learning and gratification.

Look out for The Dramebaaz Group. You will be happily surprised or simply happy.

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