I left Bangalore recently for the great unknown: central India. From Indore, a major city in Madhya Pradesh, my mother and I travelled into the interior, the monolithic tech campuses replaced by fields of soybean and lentils. This is true rural India, the likes of where my grandparents grew up and parents spend summers, and we were here because of family, which is to say—in Hindi—Parivaar.
My relatives, however, live thousands of kilometers south of Madhya Pradesh: this Parivaar is an NGO, primarily based out of Kolkata. There, they have built a family for two thousand children drawn from some of India’s most dangerous, impoverished, and difficult landscapes—red-light districts, tribal area, train station steps. Founded by an alumnus of my parent’s college, Vinayak Lohani, Parivaar commits itself to educating, clothing, housing, feeding, and supporting these children from when they come in to their future careers, like a parent would. The Parivaar Kolkata campus is a regular visit for my family every time we visit the city, as expected as a meal at Nizam’s, and over the years we’ve gotten to know the students and the organization itself. More than a school or a dormitory or a cafeteria with very good food, what makes the campus there is love for what it does, and the conviction and drive of such love.
Recently Parivaar branched out from Kolkata to Madhya Pradesh. Apart from constructing another educational institution, they’ve also initiated a network of centers for rural children known as seva kutirs. Seva kutir roughly translates to “selfless service hut”, and we had come to see these as part of my mother’s field visits for her work with Parivaar and other NGOs.
The seva kutirs have simple functions: they offer breakfast and tuition for local children before they go to school, and give dinner and classes in the evening. But education and meals doesn’t encompass what we saw. Each seva kutir is a community program for and by the community. Over four days and over 30 kutirs, we saw classes being held in verandas, in living rooms, in bedrooms, on terraces: every location is donated and managed by the village itself. The village takes ownership of each kutir: we saw cooks and teachers carefully marking every child’s name off a list as they came; when children didn’t attend for several days, they made home visits to check up on them. Every student’s health and education is meticulously recorded, even though each kutir can host over a hundred children. And the people working there are family of the children, graduates of the village, residents of the houses the kutir takes place in. They are not foreigners descending from afar. These are their kids. And without these kutirs, they would starve.
As a foreigner descending from afar, in the prototypical narrative of “privileged kid encounters the poor”, this was difficult for me to get. I may profess rural heritage, but I’ve grown up in some of the world’s densest cities. This landscape is not one I have the tools to understand; it lies entirely outside my framework of knowledge. Urban impoverishment is easier to comprehend: impoverishment is a matter of seeing, but not having, a lack of resources to obtain what exists around. Here, however, poverty is a matter of the things not existing at all. If the village is cut off from the outside world for a few days, there is no food. If someone falls ill, there is no hospital close by. And there is no money to pay the 10 rupees to get to the one in the next town. There are no vegetables. In the summers, there is no water.
So without the kutirs, breakfast is a glass of tea; dinner is plain rice and lentil soup. 80% of children in areas like these are malnourished. When the seva kutirs first introduced vegetables into meals (sourced from travelling salesmen), many children refused to eat them, having never had them before with any regularity. Fruits were shunned as causes of colds. Now progress has been made and nutritionist-approved balanced meals are devoured.
But this isn’t just a different world from mine—it’s a different universe altogether. When we asked children which village they lived in, they could name that; when we asked them the name of the closest town, they were quick to respond. But when we asked them what state they were in, or even what country, they stared at us blankly. The seva kutir’s classes are vital to supplement their government school education. In one month I have seen more of the world than they might in their lives. My privilege standing there was incredible—the kind of freedom and wealth I had to visit them and leave and sit in a comfortable car and go hundreds of kilometers from town to town, city to city, to stop and buy ice cream from a corner store. We met children as old as my brother but to think of them as his educational peers was unimaginable. India is (nominally, at least) a free, democratic nation, where all people are equal, but the them and us could not have been starker here.
In the most startling of revelations, I saw that poverty exists, and that poverty means deprivation of the most basic things, and that it is frighteningly easy to ignore. These villages are places I’ve driven past before. These children are people I’ve glanced at before. It may feel like it all takes place in a different universe, but everything I saw is part of my world, too.
To read more about seva kutirs and Parivaar’s work, please visit parivaar.org. Their work is entirely funded through donations.