A little spark

One of the upsides of being a freelance writer is that I say yes to assignments I might not otherwise get or find, or look for. I just came home from an interview with a young Indian woman, Mala. The actual story will be more of a business story, but she also told me about her other project, an educational project back home in India.

Mala is 28, or so, a daughter of two professors. One a philosopher, the other an engineer, and they had lived in Germany and the US, they’d been in Finland and Sweden, and she was looking to work in cancer research, and getting her Ph.D.

A couple of years ago, she was back home in India, in a town south of Calcutta, thinking about her options, wondering whether she should pursue her doctorate or whether to switch lanes completely. That’s when she became friends with the young girl who used to come to their house to help her mother clean it.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“What’s your name?” she had asked her, and the girl had said, “Kajol.”

“How old are you,” Mala had asked her, and she’d said 12 but her mother said ten, and the next day Kajol said nine.

All she knew was that the girl’s eyes were always laughing, and that even if she was 12, she was too young to be working full-time. She should have been at school, learning things, but she also knew that it wasn’t a choice they realistically could take, and so she worked the best she could to help the family.

“Can you write?” Mala asked her.

“I can write my name,” said the 12-year-old girl because that day she said 12.

Good news: she could write her name. Bad news: She could write her name and sign something she couldn’t read.

Mala was petrified. Something had to be done. She, she was the daughter of two professors, she had studied at good schools, and great universities, and she was smart enough to work on cancer research so she understood the importance of education. So she decided to teach Kajol herself.

“I printed the letters in her name on notes, and we used those to then create new words that she could read,” Mala says. Then she taught her to count, first to ten, then to fifteen, then to fifteen again when Kajol had forgot how to do that, and then up to twenty.

Kajol brought along her cousin, Anita, and now Mala had two pupils. She gave them homework, and they came back, sometimes with homework done, sometimes not. Sometimes they had skip Mala’s lessons to work.

“While it’s important that the children go to school, the parents aren’t sending them to work so that they can sit at home and take it easy. They still can’t make ends meet, it’s such a fragile life,” Mala says.

She had made up her mind about her own career path. She decided she wasn’t a lab person, so she switched to business. She was going to Sweden, but before she left, she did three things.

One, she had a talk with Kajol and told her that she would have to look out for herself.

“Sometimes, the things that are best for us aren’t as fun as the things we like to do, but we’ve got to do them,” she said, and the shy smile in Kajol’s eyes went away for a second, and then returned.

Two, she had her parents, the two professors, to volunteer taking over as Kajol’s teachers, and to help her with her reading and writing lessons.

And three, she decided that one day, she was going to out a solution to everything. If other students, or even people on vacation in India would have a system, and some time, everybody could chip in and teach another girl to read. That’s how she started Little Spark.

“You don’t have to go far to find people to help,” Mala says.

My hero of the day.

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