Empowering underprivileged children through education
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
Vimla Kaul was born in Shimla on 7th July 1934 in a family of bureaucrats. The youngest of three siblings, she went on to complete her schooling from the Convent of Jesus and Mary, New Delhi, and graduation in History from Miranda House, University of Delhi in 1956. Between July 1956 and January 1961, she worked as office secretary in Delhi Social Welfare Board and All India Women’s Conference.
In February 1961, got married to HM Kaul, an engineer working in the Geological Survey of India. The couple moved from place to place, and she took up teaching assignments wherever possible. The last teaching opportunity she got was in Carmel School, Dhanbad, Jharkhand, where her husband was working as Professor of Drilling Engineering at the Indian School of Mines. After retirement, the couple moved to Sarita Vihar, Delhi.
In April 1994, the couple started visiting the neighbouring village of Madanpur Khadar near Sarita Vihar to see if they could be of any utility. Daily visits to the village Chaupal and sitting there for hours conversing with the elders of the village gave a picture of what life was like and how they could do our bit in making their lives better. These daily visits made it clear that it would not be a cakewalk for them to interfere in the lives of those villagers.
The village elders did not trust their intentions and one day, the headman dared to ask them what their plans were in visiting the village daily. It seemed the village elders were sure the couple had some ulterior motives in their daily visits. However, Kauls did not succumb to their daily rebukes.
"We bore it all with a grin. After a while, we made a dent in the attitude of the elders and the villagers, and in April 1995, exactly after a year of persuasion, we finally got a nod to open the school Guldasta at the Chaupal under the watchful eyes of village elders. Since then, there has been no looking back even though the journey has been full of pitfalls, disappointments and tough times. However, our tenacity made us hold on to the little project with ferocious vigour," she recounts.
The first batch had five children and one teacher. The biggest problem then, was money. The teacher had to be paid, children had to get stationery and durries to sit, and some toys to keep children happy and engaged. "All this was done, and the school took off and soon we had 20 children. As work expanded, expenditure increased, and our pockets took a blow. To get people’s help with finance, and to get ladies to teach once a week without remuneration was a Herculean task of no avail," she recounts. No one, yes, no one from the upmarket Sarita Vihar was ready to help. "Since we had started, we had to continue, no matter what. When children grew in numbers, and one teacher could not handle, I took it upon myself and started going to school daily. It went on reasonably well till our first teacher got married and we opened a new branch in Sarita Vihar," says the octogenarian. The new branch came with a fresh set of problems. The school-cum-learning centre shifted to Sarita Vihar in 2000 and Guldasta became a ping-pong ball, thrown here and there, from one side of Sarita Vihar to another till Kauls got one of the parks to hold classes. Here the number of children increased to 150, and they had to employ three more teachers. It was the best time, but it did not last long. One fine day, a woman from one the flats near the park sat on a dharna and declared that the school be shut forthwith or she will start a fast unto death. "It came as a rude shock to us, and it seemed that Guldasta’s end had come. No matter how much we tried to convince the last, she blew hot and red. It was a huge problem. We had to either shut shop or look for a new space. Next day onwards, we got on the job to find a suitable place. Luck was on our side. We found an MCD park where we shifted school. Here the classes were held from 1997 to 2012," she reminisces.
All these years, she spent her days wondering what if she gets into trouble for running a school in an MCD park. However, luckily there was no complaint. "We had a school for hundred-odd children with cow dung spread all over, buffalos giving us company and a folding blackboard to complete our lessons. The enrolment numbers kept growing. It was an overwhelming feeling. But we were nervous too. What if we are asked to shut the school?" she says. But Lady Luck smiled again, and the show at the school was on with full vigour – hundred-odd children and four teachers, including me. No vacation was ever given as the school had to be closed when the rain God smiled.
She lost her soul mate in 2010 and was left to fend for herself. The school functioned out of the park till 2011. "It was the year when God decided to lend us a helping hand in the name of Madan Mohan Malaviya Trust. One fine day, a team of two members of the Trust came to visit the school and showed interest in the school. The Trust offered us in offering us financial support only on one condition – that we would open a trust/society as they were reluctant to give financial aid to an individual. It was then that Vasundhari Society for Social Action was formed in January 2012, following which Malviya Trust started financing the rent of our school premises and salaries of our teachers. And that’s how it has been till date," she says.
For 18 years, the couple steered the project all alone. They faced a lot of trouble. The project was vulnerable. People came, supported the cause that the two had espoused of empowerment through education, and after a while left with the project’s fate hanging in the lurch. These experiences hurt them a lot, but God gave them the strength to withstand all insult and abuses and made us resolute to carry the project to greater heights. Our efforts didn’t go unnoticed, and our project was heaped with praises by the media, who covered it extensively in the newspapers, radio and television.
Today, the school-cum-learning centre has some 100 odd children who come to attend classes, and take some vocational training to better their job prospects. But as Guldasta has not been a regular mainstream school, children come here, learn the basics and then move out to join other established ones. "For this reason, we have had a steady flow of children but none to classify as students who started and completed their schooling here with us at Guldasta. We have had children from KG till Class 4 who joined other schools afterwards while we have also had older children from other schools coming to us for guidance. So there are children of different age groups who come to us from all over Sarita Vihar," says the 85-year-old teacher.
The school-cum-learning centre has hundred-odd children and five teachers - Naz Parveen, Kajal Jaiswal, Meenakshi Khandelwal, Kumkum and Mehak Rani - working in the school at the moment are a product of Guldasta. "Of these, two - Naz and Mehak - are a product of Guldasta. It's a matter of pride for them and me," she says.
At 85, after running the show for 25 years, she's looking forward to hand over the school to a more mature, experienced and efficient caretaker. "The Madan Mohan Malaviya Trust is keenly awaiting to take this 25-year-old adult under its wings. I hope that one day it becomes a premier institution of education and training for the underprivileged," she says with a lot of optimism.
Her zest and vigour are infectious because she feels that age is simply a count of numericals, not a signal to stop the activity. Her motivation is her indomitable spirit and desire to keep going in the sphere of her interest as long as health permits. "In this work, hurdles came at every step, many times making me feel frustrated that I even thought this much and no more. To name the most pertinent hurdles were lack of space, lack of helping hands and last but not the least lack of finances. Facing them was a challenge, but with determination and focus, we managed to overcome all. Hurdles still raise their heads, but now I face them and do not lose hope, saying to myself, God is watching my intent. HE will help, and sure enough HE does," she says with a grin.
And age has never posed a problem. It is only hazards of health that she dreads the most. "No, I do not think age has anything to do with an individual’s passion, on the contrary, the desire to achieve increases as one can see that very little time is in hand to achieve one's target. So, the passion becomes more acute," she says.
Her school-cum-learning centre opens at 9 am and continues till 1:30 pm. However, she goes there daily from 10.30 am and return home at 1 pm.
She has been felicitated with many awards, but her most treasured ones are the achievements of her schoolchildren, doing well in life. "I find several of them graduating and quite a number fitted into jobs. A certain improvement in the lives of their parents. Above all, several milestones in the journey when this little project started and followed up by insignificant people, got a lot of recognition on several platforms – God’s grace," she says.
But to a great extent, it has been a lonely walk for her, single-handedly running the show. "However, it would be fair to mention that my husband was a pillar of strength. He was always beside me, and there has been a tremendous contribution from my other family members, my sister's children, my brother's children and a few like-minded friends. They have through the journey, given financial support and encouragement. It has been lonely as there has never been anyone to share the responsibilities or traumas faced," she says.
But was it difficult for her as a woman? She quickly refutes the statement, and says, "I do not think achieving goals is more difficult for a woman. On the contrary, I feel, a woman with passion can handle odd situations better than a man as she is a reservoir of patience, humility and acceptance. I can say with some degree of surety as I have had personal experience on this front. Whenever we faced any problem big or small, my husband always suggested the closure of the school, while I held on." Here a big salute to her indefatigable spirit. May her tribe increase.
Author – Shillpi Singh