A 'break-out' child in Bombay

Shraddha Patil wakes up at 5:30 a.m. She rolls up her floor-pad bed, eats fruit or porridge, puts on a spotless uniform, ties ribbons in her hair, and starts to study.

For decades the Patil family, now eight members, has lived in one room in this Bombay "chowl structure," a moldy three-story built in the 1940s as a male dormitory for mill workers from the village. By Indian standards, the Patils are solidly lower-middle class: Shraddha's father respools yarn in a textile mill. Her mother tapes labels on boxes in a factory. Neither parent went past seventh grade.

But already their promising daughter, who likes Chinese food and dancing to Hindi film songs, is poised to pass the crucial 10th-grade exam in March. That exam holds both the key to higher study in the Indian school system, and what is increasingly difficult for the average Indian to find: a better job.

For the Patils, Shraddha may be a "break-out" child. She attends the best of a dozen schools in this working-class neighborhood known as Lal Bagh. She speaks of being a naval officer. Such a career normally would be far beyond the expectation of Lal Bagh's sons, and especially its daughters.

What's changed in India in the 1990s is that such a career is no longer impossible for a 15-year-old female who applies herself. For the first time, on a large scale and for many reasons, Indian society is breaking tradition and sanctioning the upward movement of its working-class females. They, in turn, are proving to be the top-scoring students.

The India best known today in the West is the India of Bombay neon and dotcom startups. It is largely an upper-middle-class India, whose offspring circulate successfully in Silicon Valley and Ivy League schools; who in India read smart English-language magazines like "Outlook" and jet comfortably between Delhi and New York.

But this India represents barely 5 percent of the world's second-most-populous country.

Shraddha Patil comes from a vast and often invisible working-class segment of India that is still struggling to enjoy the fruits of modern India. In social terms, this large class, hundreds of millions strong, is poised to make the largest strides in coming years - or to be the most disappointed.

Whether or not this working class makes progress in coming years will be a real test of the government, which has abandoned the socialist ideals of Indian founder Jahawarlal Nehru for a "globalizing" future. Metaphors like "India Rising" and "India Unbound" pepper the phrases of Indian officials today who see India as an untapped resource for Western investment and human capital.

For Shraddha, the drama is whether she can tap her own potential, while facing the ruggedly competitive conditions in a country whose population has risen from 300 million in 1960 to 1 billion today.

In her immediate world, that means scoring high on the 10th-grade exam in two months.

"I have to score well," says Shraddha. "How else can I get out of this?" she says, stretching her arms out to the walls of the small flat.

"In the whole spectrum of India, it is the working-class urban kids who are going to bring the broadest changes," says Sudipta Dhruva, a leading Bombay educational consultant who works with adolescent girls and street children. "Girls like Shraddha will make the biggest impact. They have the potential and the possibility of making something of themselves."

Certainly the Patil family is putting its entire support and hopes behind the daughter. They have gone into debt to give Shraddha after-school coaching classes. They allow her to forgo her chores at home in order to study. They will let her wait as late as age 25 to marry (her mother was married at 16). She is fortunate to have four strong women - mom, two unmarried aunts, and maternal grandmother - urging her on.

Its OK now to marry at age 25

Shraddha also benefits from the development of new attitudes about females in India. Partly, this shift is due to a calculation that an educated girl is a better match for a more financially secure groom. Partly it is due to trying to survive in an economy in which both husband and wife must work to make ends meet.

But the change in India is also due to a still-permeating awareness that old attitudes of male "ownership" of women, or a sanctioning of the neglect of girls, is no longer quite right or acceptable, experts say. In the 1990s, world forums like the UN Population Summit in Cairo, the UN Copenhagen Declaration of 1995, which used a vocabulary of "empowerment" for women, and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 laid down public rhetorical markers for female equality. Small women's advocacy groups in India, often pooh-poohed by local and even national politicians, have proven tough beyond their numbers in using such international declarations to prick the conscience of the majority.

"Things are not as they were," says Shraddha's grandmother, who grew up in British-ruled Karnataka state, and who never went to school, since it required a two-hour walk over a mountain. "Girls are now fearless; they are able to go out alone. About 15 years ago, most girls would only go out with a chaperone. Shraddha's mother was always accompanied," she says, nodding at her daughter.

Still, those familiar with Shraddha's situation say it is quite touch and go as to whether she can escape the gravitational pull of her world.

English, the official language of government, is still a foreign tongue in this neighborhood. Few in Lal Bagh can afford cable TV. Their children have little access to the new cultural idioms, ideas, and styles that have been so quickly adopted by upper-middle-class Indian students. Few of the popular new Indian TV sitcoms, dramas, and soap operas, for that matter, are set in one-room apartments. Shraddha knows who Ricky Martin is, and she can identify various continents on a map. But there is little "picture" in her mind of the India beyond Bombay. She has no disposable income; she cannot swap or buy pirated CDs, or even dream of saving for a laptop computer. Her parents have no connections, and little idea how to direct her studies or what questions to ask about pushing a naval career.

Moreover, Shraddha's grades average about 68 percent, and she needs to score well above 70 to enter a class that will prepare her for a future in civil service. If her studies slump, if she is distracted even for a month, or if she does not find good guidance - she could easily settle down into a marriage and a life that is more familiar to previous generations of Indian women. She could become, like many in Lal Bagh, someone who has been exposed to physics and trigonometry, but who today drives a bus or sells fabric.

Still, India is a "land of extremes," to quote an old cliche. And Shraddha's case dramatizes its truth. The Patils live in a single room, but their standard of living is better than probably 70 percent of the Indian populace. The Patil family could "sell" their room for 150,000 rupees (about $3,400). They are not scraping by, like millions of other Bombayites, in a tent, or on illegal land.

Their Lal Bagh neighborhood has a history of strong unionism and family loyalty. The kids from the five chowl structures in this area all play cricket in a lighted field out front. There are four sources of income for the Patils pulling in about 8,000 rupees a month. With a grandmother in the house - who is invariably frying fish, chopping garlic, or grating coconut on the floor - they eat well.

Educationally, Shraddha (who on a recent afternoon was studying how to identify phosphorus gas) is also far beyond more than half of India's children who, according to World Bank studies, never make it to first grade. Nor is Shraddha enrolled in a "municipal school" as her father was. Such schools are largely dysfunctional - lacking books, teachers, discipline, attendance, and often electricity.

Yet if India is a land of extremes, it is also famously a land of contradictions. The hard truth in Indian working-class life today is that just as the chains are coming off for females, the jobs seem more difficult to find. "Working-class girls struggle harder because they are more realistic about their prospects," says Dr. Anil Sadgopal, dean of Delhi University School of Education.

"In the 1980s when we were in college, no one ever worried about getting a job," says Shraddha's math teacher. "Today when we advertise for a teacher, we get hundreds of applicants."

Where's the high tech?

Given India's enthusiastic embrace of high tech, and the expectations about jobs for students in the computer industry, it is notable that no serious computer training is offered at Sridokhar School, where Shraddha studies. She is not sure how to make an Internet connection. A computer room holds about a dozen machines, which one teacher confides were donated as a political favor after several low-scoring kids with connections were admitted to the school.

More tellingly, perhaps, are the number of Sridokhar students who go on to study at Indian IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) - the much-touted seedbed schools for India's high-tech future. When asked how many students have gone from Sridokhar to an IIT, Principal S.S. Pathak seemed a little stunned by the question, as if he were being asked about the geography of Neptune. "No," he finally said. "We've never had a graduate like that."

At the end of a long day of school and coaching class, Shraddha returns to the Patils' apartment. The lights on the cricket field glow warmly outside. Shraddha's grandmother, and her mother - just back from the factory job she took to support her daughter - welcome her. They all smile. Her aunt gazes with pride as Shraddha describes how to calculate the volume of various shapes. Goldfish in a tiny window aquarium circle languidly. Later, Shraddha might catch a little TV; a Hindi film is showing.

Tomorrow will be soon enough to think about the obstacles between her and a life as an Indian naval officer.

Shraddha's schedule

5:30 a.m. Rise and shine

7 to 1 p.m. School, and then home for the afternoon

1 to 4 p.m. Review the day's classwork

4 to 5 p.m. An hour for relaxing

5 to 6:30 Head to coaching classes for math study

6:30 to 9:00 p.m. Go to study hall

9 p.m. Head home

Cramming for the big exam

The latest educational phenomenon at all levels of society, coaching classes are seen as indispensable for passing the 10th-grade exam. The test is so important that during the past four years Shraddha's family has borrowed some 25,000 rupees, or three months' salary, to pay for it.

The Patils are well aware of an open secret: About 20 percent of the math and science questions on the test will not be answerable without outside study. Technically, the material is part of the national curriculum. But many students, parents, and teachers confide that higher-level questions are either not in the books, or not covered in the course of the normal school day.

After coaching class, Shraddha walks to a study hall provided by the city that costs 75 rupees ($1.60) a month. Here she can work without the distractions of home. In some parts of Bombay, before exam time, the city sets up tables where barefoot students study under streetlights. Shraddha is more fortunate. By 9 p.m. the study hall closes and Shraddha walks home.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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