I first met Rajan Saini and her husband Sukhdev in 1999 when they were living in Ashapoor and I was visiting the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath. At that time, that which is now the Buddha’s Smile School was a bare patch of brown land, on the far side of which were a few plastic chairs and tables where one could sit and drink Sukhdev’s chai. At that time, Rajan ran a small kindergarten from the bottom floor of a room in Ashapoor that the Saini family rented, but she spoke constantly of her dream to eventually create a voluntary school for the poor children in the Sarnath/Ashapoor, the children of the beggars and the rickshaw drivers; children who, unless something happened to show them other possibilities and to equip them to make use of those possibilities, would themselves grow into beggars and rickshaw drivers.
Today, that bare patch of land is a two level school-building (co-built by Sukhdev) with 200 small students. One just has to see the children, see their faces, to know just how important this school is for their lives. Here, they learn to count; to read; to write; mathematics; spelling, and basic life skills such as how to care for their clothing, how to respect their friends and class mates, how to give to others and what it is to be members of a community rather than outcasts. In the morning they say their prayers (in Sanskrit, English and Hindi). On Saturdays, music is played over speakers and they dance and play. Amsitad International provides enough funding so that, once a week, all of the students are fed.
But more personally, one just have to see the children pulling at Rajan Saini’s salwa kameez to show their injuries so that she can clean them, nurture them, care for them to see the impact Raj is making on the lives of these children. Their parents quite often laugh that they treat Raj like their mother. And, in many crucial sense, she is. As Raj likes to say, “They are my children, my responsibility, I must do this.”
But the situation of the school is still quite difficult. The teachers find it an uphill battle trying to convince the children and their families of the value and importance of coming to school. Once a week, on Saturdays, they visit the families of the children to check on their welfare, their health, and to try to convince the parents who have withdrawn their children of the importance of their education. Moreover, a sad story: while my husband and I were there, we were told of a small girl whose mother told Raj that the father was planning on selling her for prostitution. In response, the school teachers were extra vigilant of this small one, making sure that if the father came to take her home that they held onto her. But there is only so much they can do, they don’t have the funds to take her in and protect her permanently, and given it is heresay it’s not quite on the level to get the police involved. But these things happen. Sarnath is in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorer states in India, the most populated state, and one where the caste system is still deeply entrenched, where dowry murder still occurs, where corruption still prolific at all levels.
But, even in such a difficult space, there is room for much inspiration. Before the sponsorship of Amistad International, Raj had to meet costs for transporting the children to the school. To meet this cost, she sold one of her most precious possessions, her gold wedding necklace (the Hindu version of a wedding ring). When we visited this time, my husband and I happened to bring her a gold-plated locket from New Zealand as a gift. Initially, she thought it was artificial gold, and accepted it graciously. However, when her teachers suggested that it glittered as though it was real, she took it off and placed it on her altar. Later that evening she approached me and asked whether it was real gold. I told her it was gold plated, and I could see the emotion building in her face. When I hugged her, she broke into tears, and spoke of the pain she had felt in having to sell her necklace. Summoning her inner resolve, she held the locket and committed to putting a photo of Mother Theresa inside and to wear it always. This one she will never sell. And I believe it to be true. Such is the inner strength and resolve of this amazing woman.
How do such things emerge in the world, from absolutely nothing but an idea, to bloom into such entities as the Buddha’s Smile School that impact on hundreds of people’s lives? They emerge from the imagination, courage and sense of inner purpose of such amazing people as Rajani Saini; of such humble, courageous, fallible people who never lose faith that this is their responsibility in life, to love and care for those around them in the ways in which they can.