Mattia Silvani

Self portrait by Mattia Salvini
My name is Mattia and I have recently spent time teaching Sanskrit at Buddha’s Smile School. Despite my broken Hindi, the small students actually listened to the lessons with interest. The children memorized Sanskrit verses and made an effort to learn the first steps in the language.

Rajan is providing a rare opportunity for these children, to acquire an education that their background would normally not afford them.

At the time when I was teaching, the facilities were limited. I used to teach Sanskrit to about fourteen children, but in the classes there were at least another ten, since they had no other place to stay during pauses. To my surprise, even some of the children who were sitting there in ‘stand-by’ mode, had been attentive enough to memorize a few verses. They were also quite eager to repeat them aloud.

Sanskrit and Hindi are quite close, and the students had no great difficulty in picking up a very precise pronunciation. Of all the activities, they seemed to enjoy memorization and chanting, and Rajan included some of the salutations to Ganesa (the god that removes obstacles) to their morning prayer.

Knowing some Sanskrit opens up an immense storehouse of traditional knowledge, which is often far from the reach of even many Indians. More immediately, chanting the verses puts the children, and whomsoever can hear their enthusiastic renditions, in touch with a sense of very enjoyable, cheerful sacredness. I often wondered who else will have a chance to hear these Sanskrit verses: probably their parents and relatives will be amused to hear their small kids bring home what usually only trained professional priests can.

I am not sure as to whether any of the children will go much further with the Sanskrit, but who knows? Anyhow, they seem to enjoy it. This rich language has been one of the favoured idioms of culture in India for millennia: they should access and carry some Sanskrit to their lives, if they so wish.

Mattia Salvini
Ph.D.candidate and Part Time Lecturer
Dept. Of Study of Religions
SOAS University of London

Vanessa Turner

Rajan, 35, originally came from Calcutta. As a young child, she had always been very sensitive to the suffering around her, so much so that she used to wake up before her mother did and prepare food and clothes to give to the beggars in her area. Rajan’s gentleness and love is what won the heart of her husband, Sukhdev Singh, but this created a huge rift in her family, as her parents had been planning an arranged marriage for her with a wealthy Indian man living in Australia.

Sukhdev was a pure and honest man, but his family’s religious background differed slightly from Rajan’s, so both sets of parents ardently forbade the relationship. Nonetheless, Rajan chose her true love for Sukhdev over the economic and social pressures inflicted upon her by her family.

After completing her B.A. in Education and English from Calcutta University in 1993, she and Sukhdev married and moved to Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Rajan immediately got a job teaching at a prestigious public school in Varanasi. But after her teaching day ended she would return to their small flat in Ashapur, the poorest and most troubled part of Varanasi. There Rajan would open up her front yard to the nearby beggars’ children, who were not attending school, and teach them reading, writing, and mathematics.

Thanks to donors like Amistad International, Rajan has been able to increase the size of her free school for underprivileged children. Two hundred children are now receiving their education in a warm, loving, and nurturing environment. Rajan is also able to provide snacks and occasional meals for the hungry children. Thanks to Amistad some of the students even have uniforms so that they do not have to attend school in rags and bare feet, giving them pride in themselves and their education.

The students’ parents are rickshaw drivers, sweepers, cow dung collectors, or weavers who are paid well below the minimum daily requirement to live and survive. Many children still beg at the brutal command of their desperate parents, who threaten to beat and even kill them if they do not return with money for dinner.

Many students have come to school with horror stories of dead relatives, brothers, sisters, mothers, who either fell sick from hunger and disease or simply died from cold in the winter or from heat in the sweltering summers. The poorest children have learned to catch rats and snakes and cook them in a fire without even spices or other flavouring, just so that they do not die of starvation.

Vanessa Turner