On Januray 7, 2011, we visited the Kankadkhedi and Raipuri centers of IIMPACT.
Walking into the first center was like walking into a temple. There were throngs of people there to greet us – children, their parents, village elders – all with smiles and the same glint of hope in their eyes. They garlanded us to welcome us. I was moved to tears. We entered a very old room, painted in red, with cracked walls and a faint natural light diffusing in from outside, where the little girls sat in line, their backs against the walls, their heads covered in shawls to bear the fierce cold, their eyes peering into us with a heartwarming mix of curiosity and shyness. Upon instruction from two young and very able teachers, the girls then performed songs, recited poems, solved arithmetic problems on a small blackboard in the corner – all with an uplifting confidence, rarely faltering – offering a glimpse of a future, secular India, and reaffirming the notion that no country can truly progress until its women are educated and empowered.
The second center was a few miles further south, in another small village with no paved roads and no proper sewage system. This center was painted a lush blue; recently so, I found out, thanks to one of the oldest women of the village, who now lives all by herself with no one to look after her. Again the same overwhelming welcome, the positive energy and the humanity, the air so full of hope and posing the question again and again in my mind – how is it that utter deprivation preserves the innocence of the human spirit? In addition to the children’s routine of poems, reading and math, blankets were distributed at this center, in the hopes that the girls would be able to fend off the looming cold from the surrounding mustard fields.
If there is such a thing as a religious experience, this was it.