Through the open window, I could see those kids playing in the ground outside with all vigour with just a screen of dust seperating us. For a split second, I didn't realize that the headmistress had finished her question and was expecting an answer. And so were a group of middle-aged women, who I presumed comprised the executive board of the school. I had barged into their meeting a couple of minutes ago, and much to the surprise of everyone inside, refused a chair and sat with one of my knees resting on the ground asking them with all sincerity how I could help. Realizing that I was totally lost, the headmistress reiterated the question again - "How much time can you spend towards this endeavour Rathish?". "I can be here every saturday morning ma'm. I occasionally go back to chennai during weekends. But most of the time I am here. Even sundays should be fine by me".
"What you see outside", she pointed to the open window, "is our recreational club. Typically, software professionals like you come over on saturdays and play with the kids for sometime. This gives them an excellent opportunity for the kids to breathe some fresh air and learn some social etiquette from you guys." She looked around and added, "They must be here anytime. Would you want to wait for sometime?" I decided to look around and while away time till my fellow software engineers arrive.
The "playground" was the whole area behind the building and the wall and spanned the whole length of the building. I wasn't planning to get introduced to the kids till someone else arrived and told me how things work here. But just I entered the space, a kid, dressed in formal clothes, came and shook hands with me. I introduced myself as Rathish and he smiled and said, "My name is Rathish". "Oh lovely, we have the same name". He gave me the same serene smile and said, "Oh lovely, we have the same name". That's when I realized something about his hands; They were too brittle and were bending as if made out of dough. He held onto my hand and was shaking it vigorously - for a second, I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I tried carrying on a conversation but he kept repeating whatever I said. Finally, a dark kid, called Mohan as I came to know later, came over and patted him on his back "Mani, did you tell him your name". "My name is Rathish" he repeated. "Tell him your name Mani. Not his name". Mani gave him an offended look and reiterated again, "My name is Rathish". Mohan gave him a look as if something just dawned on him, "Oh, I forgot that your pet name is Rathish. I am so stupid" and took me away to the other kids.
In one end of the playground were a bunch of guys and girls playing volleyball. All of them looked extremely normal and were playing the game with great vigour. I wasn't sure if they were indeed patients, with special issues, or had come there to play with the kids just as I have. I played it safe asking them a few innocous questions and played along for a couple of minutes. By now, Mani had seated himself in one of the benches talking to someone who seemed to be lost in his own world. I went and sat next to mani and the silent guy trying to strike up a conversation. The silent guy smiled back but that was all that we could do - his tamil was as bad as my telugu and so we ended up talking in bits and pieces. He was around 15 and told me that his cousin was here and that was why he came here. I wanted to believe him but somehow felt that there was certain pain in his eyes that he didn't want to talk about.
By then the headmistress, Ms.Priya had arrived there - We got talking about the kids and the facilities and after some deliberation, I told her how I find so many of them normal. She smiled and added - "They are indeed normal, Rathish". "Oh, I didn't mean --", I hurried. "No, I understand what you mean. When I say they are normal, I mean they don't suffer any physical or mental problems. As you probably heard, this school was primarily started for people with cerebral palsy - I am sure you know what that means. But soon, the aayas working here started bringing their kids here and we expanded to include people below the average socio-economic bands and students with below average IQs. Most of the kids you find here are those who couldn't cope up with our educational system, were failing repeatedly and were thrown out of school. But there are faculties - like arts or sports - where they are very good at. so, we provide them a tailor-made environ to improve these skills, help them undergo vocational training in our ITI and get them ready for the outside world". "Some here", she pointed to a girl standing in a corner with a badminton bat waiting for some company, "are so emotionally unstable that they can't accept the harsh realities of the outside world. that girl you see there is an exceptional painter but is highly unstable. After coming here she's getting back to normalcy now and is really blossoming. So, you see we have a mixed bag. Having them here has its own challenges especially when you deal with girls and these adoloscent frustrated young men ". Just then, 3-4 kids arrived, some with their mothers, in wheelchairs with a huge smile on their faces. Priya ma'm went over and greeted each one of them and had a word with every kid.
Suddenly, I was filled with an overwhelming responsbility - every word, action of mine is going to have a great impact on these people's lives. For so long, I have lived like solitary drop of dew on a flower's petal, my presence leaving no impact on the fabric of the society that I am a part of. My whole existence has been inconsquential - i have never created life, never taken one or left a conscious indelible mark in the lives of anyone who couldn't distinguish the good from the bad. "Ma'm, is there any other help that you might need - stationery, money, anything!". "In a place like this, there's always a need for things Rathish. But for starters, all we need is your time". She smiled and walked away leaving me with the kids. They had by then formed a group and were starting off with their games. Some of them couldn't talk, some couldn't hold things, none of them could walk normally - but everyone was glad to have some company. They started off with the game of 20 questions. The first one was about an musician, born in india but who lived in UK, dead. Till the end I had no idea who he was - Seems, the answer was prince. That was a revelation - doesn't matter if they were right. But I really didn't expect them to think of such personalities - the list that continued was equally impressive - JK Rowling, Vladimir Putin, Tom cruise, Vijay Amirtiraj. These were people who I doubt get proper schooling, but here they were thinking of names that were not really the headline grabbers (at least the headlines that a 13 year old is interested in!).
The clock stuck 1 and I had to go - till then not a single software engineer turned up. I was alone with all those kids, playing and cheering them for every answer they cracked. Just as I was about to leave, Avinash, one of the most severely affected, touched my hand gently and looked at me. Mohan explained me that he wants me to turn his wheelchair because his neck is aching. For some reason, he didn't want to say it but he had reached a point where he couldn't bear the pain. I went behind and carefully turned his chair and waited there till he told me it was ok. "I can't see you now. Please come forward, I want to see your face", he said in impeccable english. As I sat next to him, he touched my hand and gave me a look with such pristine gratitude. I finally told them I had to leave. All of them wished me good bye and just as I was about to go, Avinash held my hand and asked me if I could pick him up from his house next week because he didn't want to disturb his mom. I didn't even know where his house was but I couldn't have denied his request. I crossed the wall and was heading to the office when someone called out loud, "Rathish bhaiya! do you remember my name". "Of course I do, neel". You should have seen him beaming. "Please come next week. I will show you the whole place".
I promised I will. I will. I definitely will.