When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’’
Like Santiago, the shepherd in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Shalini A. of Mariyappanapalya, a Bengaluru slum, too, faced many hurdles.
The 17-year-old who scored 84 per cent in her class 12 examination has been toiling as a domestic help to support her family. Unlike girls her age, she has a humble dream. “I want to take my mom to a five-star hotel for lunch someday,’’ she says.
Her mother, Vijaya, worked hard to make ends meet. “My father squandered all that he earned, drinking and playing cards,” says Shalini, who is originally from Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. “Sometimes, he wouldn’t even come home for months. My mom raised us almost single-handedly. There were days when she would have just one meal.’’
Having appeared on television, Shalini has become a celebrity in her locality. An elderly woman asks her to perform a ritual to ward off the evil eye. Shalini smiles and reminds her not to miss her favourite TV soap. Children flock around her when she steps out of home.
“In our locality, there is not even a single person who has completed plus two. Most of them are school dropouts,” says Shalini. “They earn their living by doing odd jobs in construction companies and workshops.’’
But for her dream, Shalini, too, would have dropped out. There were times when her determination and resilience were put to the test. Having studied in Kannada and Tamil medium schools before, Shalini had a tough time when she joined the English-medium Shri Gururaja Parents and Teachers Association college for plus-two. “Most of my classmates were from CBSE and ICSE schools. They would speak in English only and I used to feel left out,” she says. “It was very depressing and I even thought of discontinuing my studies several times.”
Initially, Shalini found the powerpoint presentations and the instructions of teachers tough to follow. “For me, English was the toughest subject,” she says. “In the first year, I got only 70 per cent marks in English. So, the overall percentage of marks came down, though I did well in other subjects.’’
Shalini skipped classes on days students were allowed to wear outfits of their choice. She was afraid she would feel wretched in her old salwar amid the girls who wore jeans and funky tops. “I still remember how my classmates would look forward to the no-uniform day,’’ says Shalini, with a sigh.
She would avoid the canteen as she thought she might have cravings on seeing ice-cream and chocolates, which she couldn’t afford. During snack breaks, she would just stay in her classroom.
While most of her classmates were oblivious of her hardships, a few among them figured things out instinctively. “I noticed that she was borrowing textbooks from the library,’’ says Rishika H.S., a classmate. “She is very diligent and hardworking. She used to stay back and attend extra classes. Scoring 84 per cent is not an easy job.’’
Shalini’s father, Armugam D., was a painter. Following a fall from the third floor of a building in 2002, he was in a coma for a few years. “He suffered brain injury, which affected his nervous system, leaving his left hand, leg and eye paralysed,’’ says Shalini. He recovered, but does not work owing to recurrent seizures. “He still drinks. At times, he feels suicidal,’’ says Shalini, while Armugam looks on.
As the family struggled to come to terms with the misfortune, Shalini’s brother was diagnosed with blood cancer. When he was hospitalised early this year, Shalini volunteered to stay with him, but the doctors insisted the bystander be an adult. Shalini then replaced her mother at the houses she was working part-time as domestic help.
There were times when her employers treated her badly, but Shalini holds no grudges. “I would rather believe that they might have been in a bad mood then,’’ says Shalini, who is sentimentally attached to them and wouldn't drop those for work in apartments that would pay better. “They used to give food to my mother.... I can never forget that,’’ she says.
Shalini spends Rs4,500 of her monthly wages of Rs5,500 on house rent. What she calls home is a single-bedroom house that she shares with her parents, brother, uncle, aunt and niece. The only other earning member in the family is her uncle, who works as a coolie. “He is the one who buys groceries,’’ says Shalini, who hasn't had the time to celebrate her success. Her day starts at 4.30am. She decks the entrances to a few houses in the neighborhood with rangoli. Along with her studies, she sweeps, mops, does the dishes and laundry in five houses in Prakash Nagar and gets back home by 9pm.
She has funded her education all through. “I started working at age six and would pay my school fees with whatever little money I earned. The cash prizes I won in cultural programmes and science fests were also of great help to me during those difficult years,’’ says Shalini, who has won several prizes for debate, elocution and essay. Once she bought her mother a mobile phone with her Rs4,000 cash prize. She wants to buy a black anarkali salwar for herself, but the needs of the family always take precedence.
Even during the holidays before the exams, Shalini could spend hardly five hours daily on studies. Since she was so hard-pressed for time, she would not watch TV or play games, unlike her classmates and friends. Her childhood was deprived of fun. She has been to the movies only once, that too four years ago.
Shalini had none to guide her. Yet, she scored 86 per cent in class 10 and then chose the physics, chemistry, maths and computer stream as her neighbour had opted for it. She wants to pursue a degree in electronics and communication, and asks our photographer about the job prospects.
And her humble dream keeps her going.